Blessed with a voracious appetite for words, I often aim to read books before I watch shows and movies adapted from them.
True, adaptations never quite capture the exact nuances of written prose, but they should at least stay true to the spirit of the unfolding narrative and maintain the integrity of the protagonist.
Sadly, this has not been the case with Showmax’s “The Wife”, a television adaptation of the cult classic series “Hlomu: The Wife” by South African author and journalist Dudu Busani-Dube.
The author portrayed a strong, self-made, ambitious woman who lived life by her own rules – yet tempered her inner warrior with distinctly feminine softness. Hlomu loved as hard as she lived and readers rooted for her.
We were all Team Hlomu – the ambitious, street smart journalist who lived by her own rules, cowering to no man.
However, the Showmax adaptation of the books, produced by Stained Glass Productions (who gave us “Uzalo”, “Durban Gen” and “eHostela”), missed the taxi on this one.
They could not have asked for a more quintessentially South African story; a deep dive into the notorious taxi industry, love, sex, money, corruption, family, African tradition and culture.
A hard-nosed journalist falls in love with a man whom she later discovers is a member of a taxi empire. She becomes mired in the family business and gives up her former life to take on the role of matriarch of a powerful family where she is loved and revered by her brothers-in-law.
She reforms their illegal business, turning it into a legit, tax-compliant enterprise.
Tough as nails, she is still a doting mother to the children, ensuring their best care at all times and maintains a proud home.
The Showmax portrayal of Hlomu does her a great disservice. Her character clearly got lost between pages of the books and the screen. Quite frankly, TV stole Hlomu’s essence.
The series could have expanded and made sense of the decisions she makes. What the writers could have done better than the source material was to go in depth in making us understand Hlomu’s motivation.
The series could have been so much better than the books by helping viewers understand why Hlomu stays with her husband, Mqhele, why she goes from being equally yoked to Mqhele to someone who lives in fear of him.
When she shows any sign of independence, of being her own person, striving to have a career, she is beaten.
Worse, the scenes of her being beaten and hurt during sexual intercourse, which is tantamount to marital rape, are gratuitous.
Sure, their love has always been toxic. Even in the books, I sometimes wondered why Hlomu stayed in the relationship, especially since Mqhele was an abuser, a serial liar and philanderer, but she still had agency and was her own woman, beyond her status as the Zulu wife.
And now on “The Wife”, she’s become a person who constantly needs to be saved, either by her twin brother, parents or her friends, and still, she chooses to stay. The essence of the character has been changed.
“The Wife” is all about Hlomu. Or rather it should be all about her.
The story should be narrated by her, taking us into her confidence. However, we are denied understanding of the protagonist and what she is thinking.
I still find it strange that she would suddenly become an unscrupulous journalist simply to protect a man she loves and a family she barely knows.
The same family that whips out guns, ready to kill her for discovering the truth about their wealth a few minutes before she walks down the aisle?
It’s too far-fetched. And here, again, is where the viewers needed to be taken into Hlomu’s confidence and made to understand her decision.
The choices made by the writers bothered me so much I stopped watching the show for some time. There were some important moments that were simply glossed over.
Like how Hlomu became a mother figure to the children of the Zulu brothers. We never saw that relationship blossom between her, the children and even the younger Zulu brothers.
Watching her say farewell to one of ’her’ children, Mvelo, during the funeral scenes left me cold. How were we supposed to feel her loss and devastation when we hadn’t seen their relationship? Cry me a river … not!
A local TV producer once remarked that South African viewers love to be shown things and because of that, we are lazy.
For an original screenplay, sure. But for a story that was adapted from a beloved book series, you had better show us why these characters do the things they do and why we should care about their angst.
There have been a few things that have been the show’s saving grace. The performances by the actors have been mostly solid.
They have made the most with what they have been given to work with. Zikhona Sodlaka and Abdul Khoza have proven why they are regarded by the industry as brilliant and committed actors.
Bonko Khoza and Mbalenhle Mavimbela were also great choices as Mqhele and Hlomu, respectively, and are committed to their roles.
However, for the series to do justice to their fans, the the story has to make sense.
It has become a disappointing adaptation for fans who fell in love with the book series and it’s dishonest to say “The Wife” is not just for those who read the books.
That’s a cop-out. Fans who were there from the beginning deserve better because there would be no The Wife if the book series did not have a cult following in the first place.