A Dry White Season Essay, Research Paper
“Brink reaches for that unexpected potent strand of Afrikaner thought: an almost religious repugnance toward governmental corruption. And by using a ‘very ordinary’ Afrikaner as victim, Brink proclaims that no one is South Africa is any longer safe (Redman 5).” Andre Brink’s powerful novel, A Dry White Season, was made into a film directed by Euzhan Palcy about ten years after it was written. Euzhan Palcy did an excellent job directing her film, which was intended to open the world’s eyes to the injustices being committed in South Africa as a result of the apartheid, and it is successful in doing so. However, it fails to reach out to the reader, as does Andre Brink’s novel on which it was based. The movie omits many characters and actions that take place in the book in its attempt to expose the political struggle in South Africa. But what it lacks is the personal struggle that is the main focus of the novel. The novel uses this strategy of personalizing the main character’s situation to involve the reader further than the film does- to the point that it leaves the horrible situation in the reader’s hands- both literally and figuratively. The reader must decide what to do with what has fallen into his or her lap.
The plot of A Dry White Season follows the life of Ben Du Toit for about a year and a half. Ben is a white history teacher living in South Africa during its apartheid, whose eyes are opened through the struggle of his gardener’s family. His gardener, a black man named Gordon Ngubene, comes to him after his son is beaten and Ben half-heartedly tries to help as Gordon’s son Jonathan is taken into custody by the Special Police, tortured, killed and buried. Ben’s concern and genuine want to help increase as more crimes are committed: Gordon is also taken into police custody, tortured, and killed. When Gordon’s wife, Emily, comes to Ben wanting to have justice be done for what happened to her husband and son, Ben sends her to a lawyer, and helps her in her quest to uncover the truth. More and more is revealed as Ben continues his search with the help of Stanley, an energetic black rebel, and Melanie, a reporter for a British newspaper. However, as Ben probes deeper the Secret Police turn on him and his personal life fall apart before his eyes. Although the ending is very different in the novel than in the film, in both Ben is killed by the Secret Police. Fortunately he has kept record of the information he has uncovered and his story gets told after all as the reports are passed on and published.
The basic story line was preserved in the making of the film, as are the main ideas. It is the way the film presents the issues to its audience that makes the difference. Euzhan Palcy left a lot out of the movie- partially because some things are impossible to carry over into a film, such as Ben’s internal monologue and the descriptive imagery present in the novel- and partially because she had a different focus and motive in making the film. As a result of this, she not only omits those things which are unique to a novel, but also omits some very important characters, important character development, character’s actions, and even goes as far as to insert some actions that were not present in the novel. The result is a forceful look at the conditions of South Africans- blacks in particular. It causes its audience to think, no doubt, but fails to cause them to relate to the main character as the novel does.
It is a shame that one cannot truly show Benjamin Du Toit’s poetic, well-worded, thought provoking internal monologues in the film. The only insight into his mind comes when we hear his thoughts as he finishes writing his record of what he has uncovered. He writes, “If by writing this I can change the opinion of one man who is as blind to the world as I have been, then I will have given some meaning to my life.” This is the closest the movie ever comes to getting at the true meaning of the novel. Unfortunately it is too easy for the film’s audience to overlook this one, vitally important line. It is through the novel’s internal monologues that we get a feeling for Ben’s struggle with himself. It is this struggle that keeps Ben ordinary, as opposed to the heroic figure he plays in the movie. Ben has had to sacrifice his own life, and (questionably) the lives of many others in his fight for truth and justice. He often wonders whether or not he has made the right decision, as would the reader. The novel much more effectively shows this side of Ben through his own journal entries, his own thoughts. If the reader is to follow in Ben’s footsteps (as the novel suggests) then the reader needs to be able to relate to Ben’s character. Ben needs to be seen as an ordinary guy who doubts his own purpose and decisions- a man who is only revealed through that one line in the film.
Another aspect of the novel that usually fails to carry over into a film is that of descriptive imagery and symbolism. Brink wonderfully used images such as light and dark (among other images such as blindness, liquid and game-playing to name a few) to give the reader further insight into the situation, and in doing so more effectively allows the reader to put his or herself in the main character’s situation.
Light and darkness is probably the most prominent symbol in the book, resulting in a well-developed motif. The image works on a number of levels. In one aspect, the reader repeatedly is shown images of “blinding light”, and other images about the harsh glare as Ben learns to “see the light” (so to speak) of what is going on around him. He has been in the dark for so long that although he is able to shed light on the political corruption around him, the light is harsh, and often he hurts his eyes. However, the light seems to be a much better alternative than the dark, for the dark is representative of the government. At one point in the novel, while Ben is alone in Stanley’s car in Soweto, he describes the night as having “a more ominous, malevolent aspect, and amorphous menacing presence (Brink 170).” Much later in the story, he uses similar adjectives to describe the government and society: “What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, a something, a vague amorphous something, and invisible ubiquitous power (Brink 237).” These images are used to make Ben seem much less significant than he is portrayed as being in the film, which is important, of course, for the reader to be able to see himself in Ben’s character. Ben is scared of the dark, as anyone would be. He wants to see the light, but it is not easy. What the light uncovers is harsh- “The simple secrets of the night exposed, intricate and indecent in the light (Brink 248).” Ben says, when asked if he knew what he was doing getting involved in everything, “I once thought I knew. I was convinced I was going into it with my eyes wide open. But I don’t think I expected it to be quite so dark around me (Brink 221).” Light and dark images help us to see that Ben is frail, he is scared, he is human- and not necessarily the one-sided hero that we are presented with in the film version.
Along with images and internal monologue, Palcy omitted many of the minor characters in the novel. Although some of them possibly would not have had a huge impact on the film, others were quite significant. These characters added to the questions that Brink set up as to what our purpose here on earth really is. The characters involved the reader, causing one to ask the same sort of questions that Ben was asking himself. This is a noteworthy aspect of a work that encourages the reader to follow the main character’s footsteps, to carry out his legacy. Although Palcy had her reasons for omitting these characters (and she was effective in getting her message across), her version is less compelling.
The most significant character that is not present in the movie is the narrator. The narrator is the root of Brink’s entire theme. It is the narrator who Ben has come to in his desperation. Ben knows that he is not going to be around much longer, and needs the story to be told. Since the narrator is a writer he seems the perfect choice. But the narrator seems not to want Ben’s burden at first. He says in the fourth paragraph of the novel, “And here I’m stuck with the litter of another man’s life spread over my desk. The diaries, the notes, the disconnected scribblings… (Brink 9).” The narrator is faced with the same situation that Ben was faced with when Gordon and Emily came to him in the beginning of his story- is this man’s burden his own as well? And by telling his story, the narrator presents the same question to the reader.
Although the book is unable to predict how the reader will deal with the situation, one can see how the evidence that is laid before him effects the narrator. Right away the narrator seems to have a type of common ground with Ben. Both Ben and the narrator have experienced a “dry white season” of sorts- Ben had to face the drought with his father and the sheep, and the narrator is facing a creative drought in his writing. He describes it as “part of a vast apathy which has been paralyzing me for months. I’ve known dry patches in the past, and I have always been able to write myself out of them again. But nothing comparable to this arid present landscape (Brink 11).” It is important that the narrator finds himself in a dry white season now, as did Ben.
The narrator proceeds to relate to Ben more and more as the novel continues. In the beginning of the novel the narrator tells Ben’s story in third person. As the story goes on, however, the story shifts to being told in first person as Ben’s own journals are used more and more to tell his story. It seems as though the narrator can no longer be objective and, as Theodore Sheckels puts it, “must merge his voice with Ben’s voice (Sheckels 190).” Also, we get a sense that just as Ben’s writing becomes less and less elaborate as his situation progresses, the narrator also becomes so wrapped up that he is less concerned with the technicalities of his writing.
When the narrator’s voice returns at the end of the novel, he is changed. He now feels much of what Ben felt through his ordeal: that he is being drawn in to the “vicious circle”, but he realizes, as did Ben towards the end of his life, that there is only so much that he can do. In the end the narrator could only do what Ben was able to do- pass along the information that was uncovered in hopes that people will no longer be left in the dark as they had once been. And since the narrator passes along the information, the reader now is left in the position of the narrator himself at the beginning of the story. The narrator is able to literally put the information in the reader’s hands, and hence the reader is compelled to act. This key ingredient to Brink’s formula is absent in Palcy’s film.
The Bruwers, both Phil and Melanie, were not omitted in the film, but they might as well have been. The novel uses them both as counterparts of Ben- it is through contrasts, similarities, and comparisons with these characters that we get a broader understanding of Ben’s character. But the film completely diminishes the purpose of her character by omitting much of Melanie’s thoughts, past, and her love affair with Ben. Professor Bruwer, an extremely important character in the novel, one who has much influence over Ben with his words, has only one significant line in the entire film.
In the film version of A Dry White Season, the professor is portrayed simply as a man who plays the piano a lot. His one significant line refers to the battle Ben is fighting. He describes it all as a dance, in which you can go backwards or forwards, “but you must keep dancing”. It might not have been in Palcy’s interest to develop his character any more than that since she was simply trying to shock the world with the social climate of South Africa. However, she neglects the personal in focusing on the social. The book portrays Ben as a person who is much easier to relate to than the movie Ben. In the novel, Ben is presented with more problems than he seems to face in the film. He has many more personal issues, he places the weight of many of the others who have been harmed on his own shoulders, and there is much more despair upon realizing that he cannot accomplish as much as he originally thought he could. Yet he continues to fight. This is much due to the influence that Professor Bruwer and Melanie have on him. It forces the reader to think, “If this man, with all his obstacles, could continue then so can I.” And the way to do it is by following the guidelines set up by these two characters.
Phil Bruwer’s first appearance in the novel makes one think of nature, which is just what he represents- that which is real. He is working in his garden, he is dirty, his hair uncombed- nothing like the clean, suited men working for the law. He is man is his most basic form. The professor does not get caught up in politics. He sees politics as the “abstract”, and according to him, it only leaves “a whole nation running after the Idea (Brink 187).” He says that it becomes “all System and no God”, and that the only way to escape that is to stick with what is real, with what is “flesh and bone and earth.” The only time that Palcy seems to touch upon this is with the lawyer, Mr. McKenzie. When Ben first meets him in the film, Mr. McKenzie makes a reference to his plants- similar to that which begins Ben’s conversation with the professor in the novel.
Phil Bruwer keeps Ben grounded, so to speak. He warns Ben against the trap that Ben comes dangerously close to falling into. Ben’s ego plays a major role in his motivations in the novel. To the point, in fact, that even the reader must agree with his wife when she tells him, “all that matters to you is Ben Du Toit. For a long time now it’s had nothing to do with Gordon or with Jonathan or anybody else (Brink 261).” Ben began his project trying to change the world. It is through characters such as the professor that he realizes that this is impossible. And the reader, too, must realize that it is impossible. It is the professor who warns Ben that “there are only two kinds of madness one should guard against. One is the belief that we can do everything. The other is the belief that we can do nothing (Brink 244).” This contrast to Ben shows the reader, once again, that Ben is human. That he is ordinary. He has ordinary desires and fantasies, an ego just like the rest of us. But in Phil’s reasoning, both Ben and the reader are given some direction, something to aim for.
Melanie does this as well, in a very different way. Melanie is a definite counterpart of Ben in Brink’s book. Notice even the spelling of her name: “Melanie”- reflective of Stanley’s nickname for Ben. She has reached what Ben is trying to achieve. She has been able to separate the physical from the metaphysical. She has come to terms with her “flesh and blood and earth” existence, most likely in part because of her father’s upbringing.
The novel goes far beyond the film in its description of Melanie, of her past, and of course it completely omits the affair between Ben and Melanie- a crucial key to understanding Ben’s character. Melanie was raped in her past, and since then she says she has learned that things such as being raped or going to prison didn’t really happen to the person, but to his or her body. This is important in Ben’s moral struggle. He has lost nearly all of his worldly possessions- his family and friends, his job, even his church. But it is because he was not willing to compromise his soul.
This same idea carries through with his affair with Melanie. The affair is her gift to Ben- her version of showing him “flesh and blood and earth”. Ultimately, these two characters show Ben Du Toit (not to mention the reader) that which is important in life: not to chase after some idealistic dream, but what is real and tangible. And it is worth the struggle, because what it really comes down to is not changing the world or worrying about the trivialities, but saving one’s own soul, and following one’s heart in doing what one knows is right.
The affair was not the only action that Palcy changed. She tends to emphasize the physically dramatic aspects of A Dry White Season more than the morally dramatic issues that the book addresses. Ben and Stanley have a different relationship in the movie, and are both appointed drastic rebellious actions that they did not have in the book- Ben slaps his boss in the face after he is fired and insulted. Stanley seeks revenge by shooting Stolz at the very end of the movie. Ben’s relationship with his son is very different in the film than their relationship in the novel, which carries through into the end.
Ben and Stanley, in the book, are very similar. Ben relates to Stanley right away when they talk about their similar pasts. And he continues to relate to him throughout the story. The fact that they are so similar makes it all the more jolting when Ben finally comes to terms with the fact that he can never really relate to Stanley’s condition. He (Ben) is white, and as hard as his life is, it is privileged in comparison with Stanley’s life. In a way, Stanley is the black version of Ben. By distancing the men in the movie, Palcy is trying to show the enormous gap between blacks and whites in South Africa- her film is much more racially oriented than Brink’s novel is. To Brink, the main concern here is to explore humanity, not particularly race. This realization is one that Brink must have had to come to terms with in his life, and it is certainly one that Ben struggles with.
Similarly, Brink would not have included Ben slapping Cloete when he was forced to resign. Brink wants his audience to see Ben as the ordinary man- as one of them. Palcy, however (most likely because of Hollywood drama) portrayed Ben as the hero. He fought back much more forcefully in the movie than in the book.
The same holds true for Stanley. When Stanley shoots Stolz at the end of the film, it is too easy. It is most likely another way to please Hollywood and an audience that wants to see the movie end with a sense of finality. But that is the exact opposite of what Brink was trying to do! Brink ended the novel leaving the reader with many questions. The reader does not get a sense of finality, because in reality, there was none. He doesn’t get a sense of finality because it is up to the reader to continue the struggle. In an interview, Palcy said of Stolz’s murder, “It’s a message of warning that this decent man can be pushed to violence (Simon 58).” But, as John Simon puts it, “By making it look so easy, the director cheapens the small, hard-won advances some few have actually been able to gain (Simon 59).”
Palcy does a similar thing in the end with Jonathan. In the novel, Ben sees himself in Johan. It is essential- in the beginning, he says, “I feel I cannot really come to grips with all my former selves until I relive it through a son (Brink 29).” He says that he needs a son to understand everything that he did in his life, and why he did it. Throughout the novel, Brink makes it clear to his reader that Johan is following in his footsteps. He is glad to have his son’s support, but is slightly embarrassed by his son’s enthusiasm. This is very important when it comes to reading Ben’s character. Because Ben’s life has been completely taken over by his own enthusiasm for fighting society, he is worried about Johan. And more importantly, he can see through Johan (and also Viviers, a young teacher at his school) where he went wrong. Johan thinks that he can change the world- the very thing that Phil Bruwer warned him against. Ben does not want his son to make the same mistakes that he made. He even says to himself at one point in the novel, “There was something both terrifying and reassuring in the knowledge of the closeness of his son (Brink 75).” This single quote sums up his relationship with his son (and at the same time, with himself) very well.
The end of the movie certainly takes away from many of the things that Brink worked so hard to set up in his novel. In the movie, Johan helps his father to get the information that was collected published in the newspaper. This it leaves the typical audience member with not only a sense of finality, but also a sense that everything is going to turn out okay in the end. The book purposefully does neither of these things. In the book, the narrator informs us that Ben was killed when he was on his way to mail the narrator the documents. The narrator then poses the question: “How could the reporter have known it, unless Ben still had the letter with him when it happened? And if he had, then who had posted it afterwards (Brink 315)?” He then tells the reader that the documents reached him a week after they were mailed. The reader is left questioning whether or not the Security Police know about his possession of the documents. This is yet another method that Brink uses to leave it up to the reader, who is now in the same situation that the narrator was in at the beginning of the story. Because we’re unsure about what is to happen with the narrator, it is our job to carry it on- the narrator has delivered us our information, and it is in our hands.
Many other differences are present between the novel and the movie version of A Dry White Season, and one could go on about them all day. But they all come down to the same facts: both Brink and Palcy had reasons for their choices, and each successfully portrayed the messages that they wanted to get across. Palcy wanted to shock the viewer by visually showing him the social injustices being committed in South Africa. Brink, on the other hand, sought to have these issues resolved. Brink’s story was in many ways autobiographical, and almost surely many of his explorations into the moral aspects of what Ben was attempting to do were ways of addressing his own questions and insecurities about his personal choices. It is clear that the film does not reach out to the reader in the same way as the book. The movie fails to explore the simple human morality that is much of a part of the book, and the efforts made to address this subject barely scratch the surface. It leaves the reader with a moral obligation to follow the narrator’s footsteps, and poses the ultimate question:
Do we continue resisting injustice and moral corruption even when resistance seems futile, or do we capitulate and become silent accomplices? Mr. Brink argues persuasively that the answer is ineluctable. One acts, one protests, or one simply forfeits humanity (Watkins 21).