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By Njari Gitonga
THE POWER OF ONE
The Book “Power of One” by Bryce Courtenary is based in South Africa. It is about a young English boy who is trying to battle his way to the top in a world that seems to have no place for him. His quench to be the welterweight champion of the world in boxing propels him to great deeds. It portrays the power that slowly blooms from inside of a lonely but ambitious heart seeking recognition. He ends up beginning a string of superstition amongst different African tribes, which consider him a god. The movie is scripted by Robert Mark Kamen (Rocky, Karate Kid) and directed by John G. Avildsen. It features Steven Dorff as PK, Morgan Freeman as Geel Peit and John Gielgud amongst others.
Here is a critical view comparing the book and the movie’s strong and weak points.
Peekay: In the book, we never get to know his real name. It’s interesting how he sails through his high school using just this one name. In the beginning of the story he acts as the narrator and never gets to tell us his name. He talks of all the different names that his hateful schoolmates called him. Most of these names, like pisskop and Roineck, were brought about by the fact that he was an English boy who had imposed great pain to the Afrikaners. Afrikaners were of German descent and had run to South Africa trying to hide from the wrath of the British and allies in the Second World War. It is during a brief episode with a man that implanted his great urge to box that the name Peekay pops up.
The movie tells us from the beginning of the name PK as initials to the name his mother gave him after his father; Peter Phillip Kenneth Keith.
Doc: In the book, Bryce Courtenary brings him out as a intelligent and wise German scientist who spends his time planting and classifying different cactus plants. He is portrayed, as a humble man who has just enough to get him through his day to day wants. His khaki pants seem not to leave his body since that’s all he has. In one boxing match, Peekay felt very honored that Doc had used some coins, that he had sacrificed and won in a bet, to buy some candy as a gift. A moment that he greatly cherishes. They walk to most places since they do not have a better mode of transportation. In the movie, Doc is portrayed as a well to do scientist/biologist. He owns a donkey called Beethoven, which he comes to pick up Peekay with, and even a camera. He seems to dress very decent and even change clothes.
Geel Peit: He is an old lag from the Zulu tribe. In a system where the black man has no say, Geel Peit acts as the punching bag of the white man. The movie hardly shows him as intelligent as was intended to be. His work towards laying a foundation on Peekay’s boxing career is not put to emphasis as in the book. The character of Giel Peit is put to represent the African community and the oppression under white power. It’s noticeable that his part in the movie is briefly posted.
Granpa Chook: This is one of the minor characters used to spice up the story. This is a black chicken that he is given by the medicine man as a sign that his bed wetting disease had been cured. He is also given to him as a protector and friend. The movie names him as “Masibindi” which means mother courage in Zulu.
Anna: She is a character found in the movie only. She is Peekays girlfriend. The director uses her to blend in hatred and apartheid in the nation of South Africa. Her father tries hard to keep her from Peekay who loves “Kaffirs” (Black Africans.) She sneaks out severally to meet Peekay and even goes against the word of her father in the name of love. She is the equivalent of “Juliet” of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the set piece.
Police Force: The main interaction with the police force in the book is in the prison holdings. The majority is arrogant, and racist. They are very inhumane and treat the prisoners like mere punching bags and entertainment dummies. In the movie, they are major constituents of the story line. Botha and the propagators of apartheid use the police force as a yielding go between to achieve their goals.
(b) Story Line
Contrasts in the subjects seem to appear early in the setting. In the book, the relationship between Peekay and Doc sets pace to the great masterpiece. Doc is a man full of wisdom and teachings. Every instance in his life is a teaching. Every uttered thought is an emblem of hope for this emotionally tormented child. They end up being inseparable. Peekay is said to have an extra ordinary talent and link to the African which is attributed to the fact that he was nursed by a Zulu woman who breast fed him from her rich African bosoms. The irony is that when he has to box to solve a myth, he fights nanny’s son who was born and raised at the same time. When he wins the fight, he decides to start a school for the black children, which is later demolished by Afrikaner police. His school recognizes his initiative as a leader and boxer and is offered a scholarship to go to Oxford University. This is a great honor. However, Peekay who feels that he would rather earn his way to the school, decides to work in the copper mines for a year where he can earn enough and build his body at the same time to become a stronger boxer. After a year of hard earned money, he starts packing to leave. However, right before he leaves, he meets Pik Botha also known as the judge. The judge had put the greatest scar in Peekay’s life when he went to the boarding school. He had harassed him for being English and even killed his one and only friend then, Granpa Chook. Peekay’s revenge for the past symbolizes triumph over his inferiority complex. This is when he attains the power of one.
Another interesting fact is that the writer never talks of Peekay’s love life. It is only when Peekay is exploring his sexuality as a teenager that his urge for a girlfriend is mentioned. However, this is just a fantasy. His whole being is set on his goal of being the welterweight champion of the world.
The movie shows of Doc as a minor character. His importance in the setting is lost. The greatest role he plays is while in prison. The part of Peekay choosing to earn his own money to University by working in the mines is left out. Pik Botha comes out as an Afrikaner policeman who tries to use the system to pay back to Peekay for getting him expelled from school. Peekays triumph comes when Botha organizes a police raid to arrest the Africans who have violated the curfew. The raid goes sore when the Africans, who can’t stand the oppression any more, decide to fight back causing a bloody incident. The police fight with guns, while the Africans fight with spears and knives. Peekay is cornered by Botha and after fighting off a gun from his hands, they fist fight until Botha falls down helpless. Peekay slowly sinks down in exhaustion. After a while Botha regains consciousness and pulls out a gun he had strapped on his foot. A gun goes off. In this quiet moment, we learn that Peekays “African brother” comes to his rescue shooting Botha dead.
In an ironical turn from the setting of the book, Peekay is shown as having a girlfriend whose father is very racist and a propagator of apartheid. The director blends a similar setting and story of Romeo and Juliet.
(c) Racism and Apartheid
While Bryce Courtenary intends to show of the racism and prejudice of the white man to the black man in his own land, John Avildsen uses the movie to show of Apartheid, which had hit South Africa. The book illustrates the beginning of the healing in this African nation from oppression. One of the “enemies” comes between them and brings a blessing of bonding and pride. The author never encourages racism at any point. In fact, all “racists” are depicted as bad and evil people.
The movie uses the setting to bring out the sore part of South Africa that we are all aware of. Apartheid is discussed and even during a dinner, there is a toss to apartheid.
(d) Family setting
The author’s concept of a family can not be defined in his book. We never get to know of Peekay’s father and Doc spends more time with Peekay, more than his own mother does. Nanny, the Zulu woman that raised Peekay, leaves her child right after she is born and uses her milk to dress Peekay. We never get to read at any time of Peekay having a meal as a family.
The movie brings out a well set family that has a background. Anna’s family spends time together and even shares meals. Peekay confides with his mother and dines with her at several instances. We also get to know that Peekay was born three weeks after an elephant had trampled his father.
Most of the character and character traits developed from the movie follow those that the author had placed in his book. Characters like Peekay, Doc, Botha (Judge), Geel Peit, Nanny etc. are all well attributed in the subjects. It is notable that there are no significant additions or seclusion of characters in the book from the movie.
(b) Story Line
Despite the obvious divergence from the story line in the movie, there are some things that are identical. Peekay’s life from his school days – from his boarding school days, is all well attributed in the movie as well as in the book. Characters, like the Judge, are shown as mean and narrow minded. They kill Peekays pet chicken, Granpa Chook/Masibindi, as a sign of power over the English. Peekay later buries his chicken and marks it with rubble of rocks as a commemorative monument. His young lonely life is brought forward well. The best portrayed factor is the struggle Peekay had to go through to fulfill his dreams. The incidents that come about with him being a role player amongst the African people are well symbolized and represented. We also get to see of Doc as an influence to Peekays life.
Something that is notably similar apart from the creation of the main character is the theme of racial segregation. In both settings, the background is mainly a fight amongst the Africans versus the white foreigners. The prison setting is used to symbolize this.
STRONG POINTS OF VIDEO versus BOOK:
(a) Depiction of African culture
For someone that has not traveled to Africa, it would be hard to build the images intended by the author in his book. The movie breaks down African culture and attributes in a way that a first timer would love to learn more of the culture and its wealth.
(b) Sound track
The soundtrack that the director has put together is an awesome set piece. It sets the mood to every occurrence in the scenes. Instead of using sophisticated instruments, voices hum away in rich African tunes tricking one emotion to another.
(c) Visual Implications
I like the way the movie started. The map of Africa is in full then the camera slowly zooms into South Africa and when fully zoomed in, it slowly fades in the horizon with the rising sun and animals roaming freely in the wild. This gives the viewer a sense of attachment.
WEAK POINTS OF VIDEO versus BOOK:
(a) African culture
There are some aspects that can not be put in visual form for a viewer to understand. A good example is when Peekay is cured off his bed wetting disease by the medicine man. We only get to see the medicine man jump around like a clown, where in the real sense as symbolized in the book, this was a serious event that even brought people from other villages to come and spectate the works of this great man. Also, when the African people sing, it may just sound like part of the sound track where as it is intended to tell us of their feelings. The songs they sing, especially while in prison, are songs that cry for liberation and freedom from the oppressors. Songs that yearn for hope to come and heal their shattered hearts. When Peekay and Doc organize a concert, the movie makes it sounds like mere signing to entertain the viewer where as the author shows this as part of the fulfillment of the superstition that Peekay would bring together the people from different tribes.
(b) Creativity of the Mind
As expected, it is easier to jog the mind by reading a book than by watching the movie. The author puts together interesting concepts that juggle different thoughts through the mind. When Peekay trounces his opponents with his mighty punches, we can not help think of his speed, tactics and strategies, like the eight and twelve punch combo, as illustrated by the author. We even get to put him amongst the untouchables. In the movie, it is all set out right in front of us and no longer looks like anything extra ordinary. His punches are like of any other young amateur with great dreams.
One of the most important part of the movie that is impossible to transform or reconstruct into visual or even assign to a talent is the wording. While we get to attribute characters of people in movies by watching their movement, gait and interaction, the character of a person in a book can only be created in the mind depending with the wording and emphasis placed by the author. The author has placed Doc as a man full of wisdom. He utters challenging teachings that Peekay later translates into life solving solutions. He
Equates and relates his uttering to the surrounding making his line of thought easy to translate.
I must commend the director for his attempt to translate the book to a movie. However, his luck of exposure is very evident because his theories and implications of Africa are limited. The author seems to have an edge having been born in South Africa and even worked in the Copper Mines, one of the setting in his book where we get a deep out look.
The mode of life of the director reflects by the fact that he blends a “Romeo and Juliet” setting? Peekay sneaks into Anna’s compound, throws pebbles to her window to catch her attention, then right before they make out, Anna hears footsteps approaching so, Peekay climbs off the window and sneaks out of the compound. This is a duplicate of Shakespeare masterpiece? with a touch of African culture.
Also, the media has played a role in his decision towards making the movie. This is because; the media put a lot of emphasis in the apartheid in South Africa. Hence, the rest of the world blocks off all other positive motivations and sets their minds on just this one. The author intended to show the healing that has started to take place in the nation. He ironically uses a white character to bring together the ailing tribes of Africa.
As it is for most American directors who always signature their movies with the images of an invincible America, this is no exception. When the British break the German line during the Second World War, the movie script says that it was the Americans that did it.
The director should be commended for his attempt to translate Bruce Courtenary’s book to a movie. However, for it to match up the masterpiece that the author has created, there may be a need to have a director with more insight to the African culture and be able to illustrate the symbolism that the author has put together in his book.
This is a critical analysis between the Film that was created from the Novel; “Power of One.” In this paper, you may notice a bias or preference towards the novel. Any response will be appreciated.
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