Will Zoo City be the next District 9?

Plans are afoot to make a movie of Zoo City, a novel by South African author Lauren Beukes which won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011.

South African movie producer Helena Spring recently acquired the rights to the book and will be presenting the project to some directors according to recent news reports.

The news didn’t get much attention outside of South Africa, probably because Spring’s output is mostly South African comedies largely unknown outside of the country. Her biggest claim to fame (for international audiences at least) is that she served as executive producer on The First Grader which is based on a true story about an 84 year-old Kenyan villager who fights for his right to go to school for the first time to get the education he could never afford.

Right now Lauren Beukes is probably South Africa’s third biggest sci-fi export after Hollywood directors Neil Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) and Gavin Hood (Wolverine, the planned Ender’s Game movie). One would like to see any of these two directors tackle Beukes’ novel not just because they are also South Africans, but because they injected a very South African flavor into their most critically-acclaimed projects, namely District 9 (a sci-fi parable about apartheid) and Tsotsi (a redemptive tale about a South African hoodlum).

Needless to say Zoo City also has a very South African vibe to it.

Not only is the movie set in contemporary Johannesburg, but the author also injects a lot of local lingo into her book in the same way as Anthony Burgess did with nadsat in A Clockwork Orange (except it is not as distracting). One is of course also reminded of how Blade Runner and the Battlestar Galactica revamp used “foreign” lingos.

For readers alien to the culture it will all come across as very exotic, but will very recognizable to South Africans. (Full disclosure: the present author is South African.)

The novel isn’t strictly science fiction although it has the same tough grittiness and attitude that marked many cyberpunk novels from the 1980s and 1990s. (On the cover Neuromancer author William Gibson states that the book “feels effortless.” He’s got that right.)

The story is set in what can only be described as an alternate universe Johannesburg (the same city District 9 was set). In this reality all people with a dark past have a magic animal that must remain with them at all times. If the animal gets killed, the human dies. If they are physically separated then the human will also die. (Peculiarly enough the animal will keep on living if the human dies though.)

"People with a dark past have a magic animal that must remain with them at all times . . ."

This concept is central to the plot of Zoo City and like the animals themselves cannot be excised from the story. Sharp-eyed readers will of course spot that Beukes, er, borrowed this idea from Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass novels, which are set in a parallel universe in which a person's soul resides outside their body in an animal-like form called a Daemon.

Sure, what Beukes does with the idea is very different from Pullman’s novels (she has no religious stones to grind for one), but knowing this does unfortunately distract from one’s ultimate enjoyment of Zoo City.

Not everyone owns a daemon, only those who have committed some heinous crime. The bigger your sin, the bigger your animal daemon – some people may only have a sparrow or perhaps a mouse, but others have anything from bears and cougars to alligators.

Murder is one sure way to gain an animal daemon, so it goes without saying that there a lot of people in Johannesburg with one (South Africa has one of the highest – if not the highest - murder rates in the world).

Owning such an animal of course makes one a social outcast and in Beukes’ novel a lot of these outcasts live in “Zoo City” – the slums of central Johannesburg.

Scratch away the fantasy element from Zoo City and you have a detective noir story á la Raymond Chandler.

The “heroine” of the piece is one Zinzi, who has a Sloth on her back and makes her living running 419 scams (you know, those e-mails promising to unfreeze someone’s funds somewhere if you only pay an admin fee).

She also has a magical gift for finding lost objects and one day is tasked with finding a missing pop singer for a reclusive record producer. Her quest will catapult her (as the jacket blurb states) “deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own.”

Writing a screenplay for Zoo City shouldn’t present too much of a problem: the novel is a pretty straightforward private detective-style story. Only problem is that there are only two action scenes that involve Zinzi herself. The rest is all chatter as Zinzi goes around interviewing people. All the talk might drag any movie adaptation down. In the book it is fine however as the writing is very polished. It really is “effortless” as Gibson said.

The biggest challenge however would be the whole animal daemon thing.

It would be difficult – if not downright impossible - to film the movie using only real, live animals. Luckily CGI animals have come a long way as movies such as Golden Compass and, of course, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, have illustrated. This however means a bigger budget and, if it gets made properly, Zoo City will probably be producer Helena Spring’s most expensive and ambitious project to date.

The South African movie industry is very small. Overseas companies film movies such as Starship Troopers 3, Death Race 2 and Scorpion King 2 there because it is cheap to do so. Movies made for local South African consumption alone are however normally money-losing propositions. Spring’s best hope would be to attract overseas talent and capital as well as distribution.

Maybe there will be some Hollywood producer out there willing to spend the type of money the project requires in the wake of District 9’s financial success. The “exotic” locales (at least it isn’t downtown Los Angeles) will perhaps distract from the fact that its central plot concept is taken from one of 2007’s most disappointing films at the box office.



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