Once Were Warriors, Alan Duff's sociological epic of Maori despair, is -- besides powerful, visceral -- almost a grab-bag of postcoloniality; it touches on issues of translation, gender and power roles, traditional versus modern culture, media influence on culture, conflict of ideology, and, of course, is rooted in a current socio-political context of a once-colonized land, New Zealand. The novel and film are exceptional, however, in that the events themselves are not so contextualized that they must be seen only in terms of Maori identity in present-day New Zealand. The film's visual treatment of the housing project in which the Heke family lives, and the actual plot and despair of the main characters, are not exclusive to dispossessed ethnic peoples; drunkenness, violence, and poverty are facts of life in every ghetto slum, whether in America or Calcutta. And yet, the politics of identity figure very prominently even as they are unessential to a reading of the novel.
As Sage Wilson points out, language is a huge issue in the novel, or, rather, communication. "None of the main characters can consistently or fluidly speak or even just think," and this factor becomes a crucial factor of the book's conflicts; Jake cannot express himself save through violence, Beth cannot express herself until she is drunk, when she speaks her mind and is beaten for her troubles. Nig hardly bothers; even as he rejects him, he sets out on his father's path. Grace expresses herself only to herself. No one can communicate with anyone else, and, if one has any knowledge of Maori history (which the characters continually bring up in passing), it becomes clear that the traditional extended family system of social structuring is in serious decline, so that, yes, Jake's friends are "uncles" to the children, but no, reciprocity is not a driving force of that relationship. People watch out for each other only when it can get them alcohol or other oblivions. And yet. . .there is love in this family, albeit twisted, sometimes sickening love, the sort that prompt Beth to attempt a family visit to Boogie at the juvenile home, to hate Jake even as she acknowledges that she loves him, to worry her over Grace's sullenness. But she can say nothing, just as no one else can.The film, however, is a very different story indeed -- unlike the efforts at imitation so clear in The Remains of the Day (though not in my nonsense explanation of it), the screenplay of Once Were Warriors makes changes which are both significant and fundamentally transformative; if The Remains of the Day loses details mostly in passing, changing things but leaving them the same, the New Zealand film alters its very intent.
For instance, in the novel, Grace's rape is repeated and anonymously perpetrated -- and she is silent and brooding, obsessed with the lie of the "magazine it was; about everyone having the right -- the right, it said -- to realise their potential" (113). In the film, she is almost garrulous, a writer of fanciful stories which she reads to her younger siblings and her friend Toot. Her rape is also different. In the film, Grace is raped -- and knows she is raped by him -- by her "uncle" Bully, and only once, though that is of course more than enough, and that rape is the central pivot of the plot. The rape and its repercussions -- Grace's suicide being chief -- are the driving dramatic element of the film, and that centrality changes everything. If in the novel Beth is almost as confused and useless as Jake, in the film she is stronger, fighting, and closer to her family. If in the text she is as ignorant and derisive as Jake towards Maoriness, its language, culture, and revitalization, in the film she speaks Maori enough to call an aunt in the country to ask for her help with Grace's burial. And if in the novel his uncertainty as to his guilt over Grace's death is what shatters Jake's hatred, in the film that destruction comes not until he has shattered Bully and Beth is leaving him and his culture of drink and violence behind.
In other, more subtle ways, the politics of the book are traded for the personal of the fractured lives these characters live -- Grace kills herself not on the Tramberts' property, but in her own backyard, and, indeed, the only Pakehas in the entire film are two police officers and some court personnel. Maori identity is touched on more obliquely, Jake pointing out stars that "your ancestors followed to get here" (a central founding myth of Maori culture) and Beth talking about growing up among Maoris; Jake's bitterness toward Beth's more noble (Maori nobility) heritage. The most striking Maoriness of the film, however, is perhaps its greatest strength over the novel: the viewer sees the rituals, the chants, and the power of a Maori warrior. In comparison, the novel only manages at the end to convey the sort of potency of such an image, in the reaction when Te Tupaea speaks:
And in every line of mad, rhythmic shout, this familiarity just impossible to know where it was coming from or why. Just this sense of: This is me. At them, the sight of your warrior past stood in animated defiance of all that this struggle of a life can throw up. Sorta like a, you know, a culturalised way of saying: Fuck you! I am me! I stand here, I fall here. Sumpthin like that.(174)
This passage also emphasizes the most striking consequence of the personal versus the political in the film: above, in the novel, Te Tupaea speaks in English to the assembled residents of Pine Block because none of them speak Maori, because he is at Beth's house, because she has spat a gigantic fuck you! to Jake and to his cronies and hers, she has said I will build community. I will refuse henceforth to fracture. I will rage against the dying of the light. "I mean, ya feelin like down, on a bummer, got no one ta turn to, call on Mrs H, man. She's choice" (162). Beth has embraced a communal ideal, a Maori communal ideal. By contrast, in the film, after Grace's funeral, we see not the local community, but the family one: Beth with her children, even Nig and Toot, together and happy, bidding a fond farewell to her aunt, who suggests a visit to the ancestral home. The film's Beth is a woman who finds her community in her own bloodstream, with none of the wider consequences hinted at by the novel. In some ways, perhaps her reaction is (arguably) more realistic, but on the other, the loss of the scenes of neighborhood revitalization newfound community by the time of Nig's funeral, removes a look at a very real social situation and a very real possibility of solution. Such is, I think it safe to say, Duff's point -- a pointing, that is, of direction, a passionate plea for action. The film is not merely tragic, but it is closer to that mark than the novel. Our last image on camera is of Jake shouting expletives after Beth and Nig, collapsing inside. Poignant, but not quite so eloquent as
The last refrains of sweetsad hymn more mighty than the departing rumble and roar of Browns. And a sky stayed blue. And that cloud formation had changed shape -- Oh, but only if you're looking for that sorta thing (192).
Two novels and their film adaptations are, combined in any particular combination thereof, are virtual primers of postcolonial theory. They are ambiguous; convoluted; passionate; political; apolitical; rejecting; embracing. They are contradictory and excruciating sometimes. Other times logical and smooth. All of these sense impressions are the impacts which I associate with my postcolonial experience of literature. I associate them also with literature in general, and what I wish I had been clever enough to prove is that postcolonial theory is as chimerical as Marxism, religion, or love: yes it exists, can be pointed out and described, understood and experiment with, but, finally, it is just like those other words, an attempt at tying up a very angry cat. The knot will hold for a while, but just one won't do it. Ideas cross more borders than there are countries to guard them.
Duff, Alan. Once Were Warriors. Vintage Books, New York NY: 1990.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Vintage Books, New York NY: 1988.
Vera, Yvonne. Nehanda. TSAR Publications, Toronto, Ontario: 1994.