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— Compare the novel and film adaptation of Disgrace. What different visions of postapartheid South Africa do they offer? What does the film show, or refuse to show? How might we read these choices in light of the novel’s meditation on we can and canno Essay Example


Post-Colonial Literature

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29, 05, 2011

Compare the Novel and the Film Adaptation of Disgrace

Steve Jacobs and writer Anna-Maria Monticelli have succeeded in making a film from John Maxwell Coetzee’s prize winning novel Disgrace with John Malkovich taking the role of the main character, David Lurie (Leader 1). As we read the novel and watch its adaptation film we witness as Lurie broke apart under forces that squeeze his life up to a point when he comes to terms with a reality that his redemption will come when he gives up his illusions and accept the reality of the time (Leusmann 62). In this paper we will compare the novel Disgrace and its adaptation film and try to examine their presentation of different visions of post apartheid South Africa.

Written by J.M. Coetzee, the novel Disgrace traces the troubled life of David Lurie, a South African professor of English who literally loses his reputation, his peace of mind, his vision of success, his two wives and lastly his ability to protect his only daughter Lucy. The novel opens by declaring this tragic loss with no unclear terms “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well»(Coetzee 1). At this point we are hinted to the fact that professor Lurie’s sex life has become a problem and it is bound to go to the worst.

The book yet presents at the opening the life of Lurie, coming from the brothel where he meets Soraya, a prostitute he meets weekly but this arrangement falls apart soon. Although his arrangement had worked Lurie can not come in terms with the reality because alternatives never work for him and we see him acquiring a detective to find Soraya but Soraya stood her ground that she has quit and had nothing to do with Lurie (Coetzee 2). As the novel goes on Lurie is fearful that he is getting old and he is losing the attention of ladies like before. Prostitutes offered a solution but his sexual frustration is too big to be solved in brief moments of pleasure.

The last lap of Lorie’s life comes with an opportunity to seduce a student called Melanie Isaacs in what can be described as an awkward relationship. However just like the Lurie’s relationship with Soraya, the relationship with Melanie did not last because the professor seems to want something beyond her ability other than sex. Before this fall the professor wrestled with the loss of his wives but it becomes a disgrace as he is charged with sexual harassment (Leusmann 60). The subservience inherent in his frustration is seen when he fails to defend himself and pleaded guilty and as far as the writer is concerned, Lurie is not ready to face the charade and he end ups leaving the university in disgrace and flees to his daughter who has a plot of land and does the business of boarding dogs and selling flowers in a local market.

However a second disgrace comes in when three hoodlums attack Lurie and rapes her daughter, but Lucy chooses not to report the incident to the police. They only reported that Lurie was the one attacked and some property stolen. In what can be seen as a post apartheid vision, Lucy did not see the ability of the current authority to deal with her case and declared to her father that what happened to her was purely a private matter which would be held as a public concern in some other places (Coetzee 112). Lucy believed that in post apartheid South Africa the issue of rape, especially the one committed by blacks to whites, justice is barred by racism, history and politics. The post apartheid’s black moments are when there are successive power shifts especially typified by the shift of power from Lucy to Petrus.

Another vivid post apartheid reality is where there is the rule of law throughout the novel but no efforts are seen in respecting the authorities or the laid down procedures literally by both the whites and the blacks. For example when police claim to have found Lurie’s stolen car and he goes to the vehicle theft unit, he is shown a different car and the culprits caught with the stolen car are released on bail and Lurie confronts the police as to why they released the culprits before he could come and identify them.

The depth of crime in the post apartheid SA is hereby depicted after that incident and when Lurie returns to Cape Town and found his house ransacked, he never bothered to call the police because South Africa has become a world in transition. Lurie latter opts to work for one of Lucy’s friends. However in what is seen as a mix of inevitable tragic with sex, Lurie seduces the woman and after having sex with her he has an ambivalent feeling about his deeds (Leusmann 62). After a feeling of a void life Lurie is willing to send Lucy to Holland but she is reluctant to leave her piece of land and ready to leave with the traces of rape, the child she was carrying in her womb.

Disgrace is a terrible revelation where rape is discreetly handled and there are many other themes woven in it that are closely examined. There is a lot of violence against animals and even the extreme violence leaves some menace traces in what can be a binary relationship; depicted by Lurie’s seduction of Melanie to the relationship between Lucy and Petrus. Although Lucy and her father are seen as misguided in their unwillingness to do the obvious, the novel handles them with a convincing sympathy (Leusmann 61). For every problem provided there is no outright solution proposed by the novel and this leaves at least some traces of hope for the characters (Leusmann 63). This is the kind of uncertainty faced by those caught in the crossroads of post apartheid South Africa.

Lurie and his daughter, being white in a post apartheid South Africa are greatly troubled and they stand a stead of other remnants of the former era who are ill prepared and unwilling to embrace the realities of the tumultuous time but they are shown to try to fix themselves in it.

In the film the beginning is what can be said to be insufficient and John Malkovich takes the role of David Lurie, the professor who spends days teaching at the university in cape town in South Africa teaching apathetic youngsters and spends his evenings with a prostitute named Soraya. After this we see the professor courting a female student Melanie (Antoinette Engel) whom they have a one sided affair but before long there are rumors all over and he is disgraced and he is seen offering his resignation from the university. All this is a contracted version of the original novel from which the film is adapted and one critic Michael leader describes this as “more than enough material for a compelling narrative” (leader 1). With characters live on the screen, the film presents a more real and easy to explore genre version of the novel. Avoiding much description and leaving it to the viewers to interpret, the scenes of Disgrace film are short and elliptical and this gives neither the characters nor the narrative much attraction.

Lurie fares better in the film more than in the novel, probably because he is the protagonist but Malkovich internalized performance and tongue tied style of performing is not depicting the true character we meet in the novel. This is of course the effect of adaptation and not all characters can match the ones created by the novel itself thus the proceedings of the film seems a bit insubstantial (Leader 1).

However just like the novel itself Disgrace is a great film overflowing with social political and philosophical issues and in a new display the film magnificently reveals the twists and turns of the new era. The film presents the post apartheid South Africa as a disgrace with most tendencies being elevated symbolically. In the film we see Lucy sharing her land with Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) an ambitious black gentleman who stirs unprecedented feelings of paranoia in Lurie (Leader 1). This developing relationship with the sense of prejudice and relenting compromise creates a vision of post apartheid South Africa with a new convoluted racial discourse. The film takes the audience in yet a more thematic ground with notions of responsibility, penance and forgiveness which are handled with easy conclusions and a heavy literary weight.

The most moving event in the film is Lucy’s long suffering as she works hard and kindly to embrace Petrus which is probably symbolic of welcoming the inevitable post apartheid black culture by the remnants of the colonizers. In this case there is a kind of retributive justice where as a representative of the colonizer, Lucy is raped and left bearing a child and mostly she acts powerless (Leusmann 62). Therefore the race and assault in the history of white culture and the sexual lovers like Lurie are not a different case in the new South Africa. The film is produced in a realistic photography with clear dialogue and location thus achieving the aim of the character and the narrative gracefully more than in the novel itself. Lastly the casting of Malkovich adds a new element or the lordliness which is seen as he admits his guilt and leaves. On the other hand Haines brings a gentle strength that contracts and puts forth the best in Malkovich and a trace of humour.

In both the film and the novel the writer Coetzee has deployed a subtle symbolism in the plot of the novel and through his characters we are able to see the writer’s political and personal views of post apartheid South Africa and thus the historical guilt (Leusmann 62). The novel and film depict what it was to be white and conscious in the face of apartheids stupidities, cruelties and tries to paste the same in the post apartheid South Africa. South African history is unique and its political landscape functions differently from those of other countries and this is noted in the novel as Lucy tells his father after she is rapes that “in another time, in another place it might [have been different]. But in this place, at this time, it is not. […] This place being South Africa” (Coetzee 112). The life of David Lurie, starting with his sexual life and his daughters struggle with injustices, can be seen as symbolic of the situation of the whites in post-apartheid South Africa as well as failure of colonialism. In another revelation of the post apartheid South Africa Coetzee explicitly writes;

Petrus is the one who swiftly and efficiently lays out their wares, the one who knows the prices, takes the money, and makes the change. Petrus is, in fact, the one who does the work, while he [David] sits and warms his hands. Just like the old days: “Baas en Klaas.”(Coetzee 116).

Disgrace therefore presents David Lurie as a representative for the post apartheid white South Africa and Petrus for the blacks. The reverse of the situations is seen where Petrus former employer is now his co-proprietor and a neighbour and as the story goes Lucy becomes Petrus mistress. However Petrus life is also trouble by his lucy’s rape which was done by members of his wife’s family thus bringing to stage the problems bedevilling most black South Africa in the new era. Coetzees Disgrace also shows the frustrations of the black population long after the ban of apartheid and the effect is revealed in the rape and through lurie’s eyes , “it was history speaking through a history of wrong. […] It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” (Coetzee 156). But in the eyes of lucy the rape act is “the price she must pay in order to be allowed to stay and continue an undignified life” (Leusmann 61). This argument drives the point that both Lucy and Lurie are punished for the history of their race in the post apartheid SA and the disgrace is in the end of the novel where the narrator seems to suggest that there is little place for the white people in post apartheid south africa (Leusmann 62).Coetzee’s work shows the disgrace in the post apartheid South Africa as personal and so is the debt that each white man owes each black man thus, the writer proposes that the only solution is to establish a new identity.

Another vision is contrasted by the value attached to animals which formally used to be classified with the black people but the black man in post apartheid South Africa is of the same value and class as the Whiteman. On the list of national priority animals come nowhere unlike during apartheid times when the black population and the animals were of the same order of creation.

The reader never gets Melanie’s side of things since Lurie quickly appropriates her place with his own thought of sex (Coetzee
25). Disgrace is not a hard book to read nor is its adapted film complicated to watch. Both are supposed to be seen as spiritual documentations and a lament for the disgraced century and post apartheid South Africa showing the chaos and hatred vividly, probing the terrible fallout from the white denial and creating the former colonizers as noble victims (Leusmann 63). This is the light in which we should appreciate the two works whose rendition brings out difference in interpreting and apprehending their aims, intentions and transforming powers.

Works cited

Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace. Parktown: Random House Limited, 2000. Print

Leader, Michael. “How does 1999 Booker prize winner Disgrace fare on the big screen?” 30 Nov. 2009. Web. 26 May 2011.


Leusmann, Harald. “J.M. Coetzee’s Cultural Critique.” World Literature Today 78.3 (2004):60 – 63.

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