City meets celluloid

Film rights to Lauren Beukes’s award-winning novel Zoo City have been awarded to local producer Helena Spring.

Spring, who has worked with filmmakers such as Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), produced the Oscar-nominated South African film Yesterday, directed by Darrell Roodt.

Zoo City won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award earlier this year, and many producers and production houses had shown interest in a cinema adaptation.

We spoke to Beukes about adapting her novel.

At what point did you start thinking about a film? Was it something that you were thinking about when writing? After publication? Or only when people started approaching you?
I’ve been working as a cartoon scriptwriter for the last six years and now as a freelance comics writer, so I do think visually when I’m writing. If the book has those elements it’s because it’s part of my grammar anyway. Screenwriting rules (start a scene as late as possible, get out as quick as you can, make your dialogue work hard) work very well in novels too. But every writer thinks about the movie, even if it’s in the back of your head germinating somewhere while you try to get these damn characters to do what they’re supposed to on the page.

Were you at all reluctant?
Nope. That’s not to say that adaptations aren’t risky. I think the problems come in when people try to hold on too tightly to the book. Movies are different animals, they have their own pacing and style and needs. As long as it’s handled by someone who knows what they’re doing, who gets the heart of the book.

Were you looking for any specific qualities in the producer or production house that would take it on?
Someone who got it, who didn’t want to switch it to New Orleans, re-cast Zinzi as white (because filmgoers apparently can’t handle seeing black people in lead roles on screen, unless its Will Smith), someone who would let me take first shot at the script, working with an experienced script editor.

Tell me a bit about the process that led to Helena Spring being awarded rights to the piece?
We had a lot of interest from overseas producers, but I had the best feeling from Helena and another fantastic local producer who were both committed to doing it in South Africa and doing it right. It came down to a joint decision between me, my agent, my publisher Angry Robot, who hold the film rights, and their agent as to who was best positioned to make this happen in the best possible way.

How will you approach the script? What changes will have to be made, if any?

We’re streamlining and simplifying and sometimes dumping subplots altogether, figuring out how to translate heavy texty bits (like the email scams) into a visual medium and changing some details. But the heart and guts are the same. It’s a dark and twisty love story murder mystery noir in a gritty magical Jo’burg.

How much creative control will you have (or want to have) over the look and feel of the film?
Working on animated TV shows taught me how much creativity there is collaboration. It’s amazing to see what other people bring to the story, how they make it richer and cooler and more interesting, building on your ideas. That’s an incredibly exciting thing. It really depends on the director, but I hope I’ll be able to have some input and Helena and I have already been talking about how we could use the film as a showcase for South African talent, from fashion to design and graffiti, anything that makes sense to bring into the film and really blow people’s minds. In many ways it’s an ode to Johannesburg and it would be amazing to use the talent here.

If you are leaving these aspects in the hands of others, do you think that the book, with its very specific mood and feel, will lend itself to an “accurate” translation to the big screen? The images you create are pretty tight and specific.
It’s not about being accurate, it’s about being true. To the spirit of the book if not the letters on the page. A film shouldn’t be a direct translation. It should be it’s own thing entirely, but based on the same genetic code.

What will be the most difficult aspect of the novel to adapt?
The animals are probably going to be the biggest part of the budget, Sloth in particular. I’d guess that it will probably have to involve a combination of real animals, very good CGI and animatronics.

Has your own view of your novel changed in any way since its release?

I’m aware that some readers missed the subtle clues to the mystery and had to re-read the book to figure out what was going on in the end. A movie allows you to emphasise that stuff more easily with a lingering shot on a manky swimming pool, for example. But it’s still a twisty noir. You’re still going to have to concentrate.

A new group exhibition inspired by Lauren Beukes’s award-winning novel Zoo City explores themes of xenophobia, city life, suburbia and paranoia.

Have you been surprised by any interpretation of the work, and will this inform your script?
I love getting fan art (my favourites include work by Werner Diedericks and Jonno Cohen) and the Zoo City exhibition put together at the Old Fort by Wits student curators was mindblowing. I love seeing what other people take from my work and how it sparks in their heads. See also the official Zoo City soundtrack from African Dope (, some of which I hope we’ll be able to use for the film.

I suppose this might be an impossible question to answer so early in the process, but perhaps your own experiences of seeing novels translated onto the big screen will give you some idea. How do you think audiences will relate to the story in a different medium? Is there something about the process of reading that immerses the reader more deeply into the world you have created?

I think audiences have to let go of the idea that this will be exactly like the book and appreciate that it’s a different medium, a different telling. Books allow you to imagine the world and the characters in your own way. It’s very liberating and certainly more immersive. Film is more accessible, but maybe the characters aren’t exactly as you imagined them, the streets not quite that shade of mean you had in your head.

Can I add that movie development takes a long time and this is only the first part of the process. Now comes that pesky task of raising millions of dollars to actually make it. (If you’ve got spare millions to throw around, get hold of Helena).

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