The Novel "Tsotsi" and its Adaptation on Film

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Athol Fugard as a writer and the historical context

3. Tsotsi as a novel and Tsotsi as a film - a direct comparison
3.a. General differences
3.a.1. Narrators in novels and pictures in films
3.a.2. The atmosphere
3.a.3. The setting
3.a.4. The language
3.b. The differences in the plots of the two versions
3.b.1. Tsotsi’s gang and the murder of Gumboot Dhlamini (Chapter 1)
3.b.2. Tsotsi’s fight with Boston (Chapter 2)
3.b.3. Tsotsi’s encounter with the baby (Chapter 3)
3.b.4. Tsotsi hides the baby in the ruins (Chapter 4)
3.b.5. The funeral of Gumboot Dhlamini, Boston’s recovery and Tsotsi’s reunification with Butcher and Die Aap (Chapter 5)
3.b.6. Tsotsi’s encounter with Morris Tshabalala (Chapters 6 and 7)
3.b.7. Tsotsi finds a replacement mother in Miriam Ngidi (Chapter 8)
3.b.8. Tsotsi’s childhood (Chapter 9)
3.b.9. Tsotsi’s second encounter with Miriam Ngidi (Chapter 10)
3.b.10. The story of Boston’s life (Chapter 11)
3.b.11. Tsotsi’s death (Chapter 12)

4. Interpretations of the major differences
4.a. The replacement of the apartheid topic
4.b. The different atmospheres in the two works
4.c. The missing narrator and its effect on the plausibility and numerous details
4.d. Apparent commercial reasons for changes in the plot

5. Summary

6. Works cited

1. Introduction

Tsotsi is the first and up-to-present only novel by the South African playwright Athol Fugard (*1932). The novel deals with a young, acrimonious criminal whose life starts to change when he becomes responsible for a baby. Influenced by the author’s visit to Sophiatown near Johannesburg, Tsotsi was written between 1958 and 1962, but then Fugard put the manuscript away and did not think it was “worth publishing and did not show or submit it to anyone” (Kaplan in Fugard 2009:239). Later he “could not even remember having written it” (Pogrund in Gray 1982:37). About twenty years later, in 1978, a researcher named Stephen Gray edited the novel for publication and cut about 20 percent from the original manuscript. In 1979, Fugard read the novel for the first time in 20 years and approved its publication. More than another two decades later, in 2004 and 2005, Tsotsi was made into a film, directed by Gavin Hood, which won the Academy Award for the best foreign film in 2006. Unlike the novel’s plot, the plot of the film is not set in the 1950s to 60s but in the post-apartheid South Africa around the beginning of the new millennium. Not just because more than 40 years passed from the original idea until its publication as a film, the original novel and the film version are quite different in many aspects. Although both the novel and the film follow roughly the same structure, the differences offer many enlightening insights. This paper is going to compare the film version with the original version in the novel in order to analyze and interpret the differences. Some of the major differences revolve around the role of racism, apartheid, politics and social criticism in the two versions, and still others around the different impacts of the two works and the different reasons, purposes and circumstances under which the novel was written and why the film was made.

2. Athol Fugard as a writer and the historical context

Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard was born in 1932 near the South African village of Middelburg as a child of a white father of English descent and an Afrikaner mother (Afrikaner is a term for a white ethnic group in Africa, mainly descended from northwestern European settlers). Fugard’s parents owned a tearoom in the town of Port Elizabeth, which was frequently visited by black workers (Kaplan in Fugard 2009). Since 1913, seventy-seven per cent of the South African area was reserved for white people, while the black population, which today as much as then formed the vast majority of the country’s population, predominantly moved to urban labour dormitories around the cities. In 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party with its leader Daniel François Malan won the election and the apartheid laws (apartheid means separateness in Afrikaans), which aggravated the living conditions of black people even more, were established. Black people required passes, for example in order to go to work in the cities inhabited by white people. Furthermore, forced removals of black people from their homes and the creation of areas designated for black people only (so-called black townships) increased. The townships suffered from harsh problems like unemployment, poverty, diseases and crime, while the white authorities hardly did anything to improve the situation. Some very ruthless criminals, so-called tsotsis (the term tsotsi might have derived from the Africanisation of the term zoot-suit, a way of dressing in 1940 American gangster films) (Kaplan in Fugard 2009:i), who in many cases robbed, murdered and raped, soon became notorious for their pitiless and extremely violent crimes.

In 1958, at the time when the twenty-six-year-old Fugard started to write Tsotsi, he had just moved from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, where he worked as a clerk dealing with violations of passports. More than most white people in South Africa, Fugard soon became very critical of the apartheid system and its brutality, which he became more and more aware of during his stay in Johannesburg. The plot of his novel Tsotsi is set in Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg, where “black and white could drink and dance together” (Kaplan in Fugard 2009:v) until it was demolished, renamed into Triomf and turned into a suburb for white people only. At the time when Tsotsi was written, Fugard travelled repeatedly between Europe and South Africa. Roughly at the same time, Fugard wrote The Blood Knot, his first play that was publicly performed and deals with similar issues as Tsotsi does.

3. Tsotsi as a novel and Tsotsi as a film - a direct comparison

Although the novel and the film follow roughly the same structure, there are also many differences. The following subsections of this chapter are going to compare the novel and the film directly and analyze the differences. In the first part of this chapter some general differences will be pointed out, then, in the second part, the two plots will be compared.

3.a. General differences

3.a.1. Narrators in novels and pictures in films

When a novel is compared to an adaptation on film, the novel’s narrator is always either completely left out or considerably reduced in the film version. Narrators in films usually only exist as voice-overs or short, written remarks in some rare scenes. Of course, the narrator is usually not very necessary in a film because, as a famous adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. For example, when the narrator in the novel describes what a place or a character looks like, the viewer of a film can see that directly. However, the narrator in a novel can provide the reader with important background information, for example about the exact feelings or the thoughts of a character, which a film cannot do so easily. In a film version the viewer has to interpret the acting and the dialogues in order to understand the feelings and thoughts. Although a viewer of a film version does not need as much imagination as a reader of a novel (and the picture in the heads of different readers might also differ), he is less well-informed, for example about the exact reasons why a character acts in a certain way. This is especially true for omniscient third-person-narrators like in the case of Tsotsi. For this reason the plot and the dialogues must sometimes be changed in the adaptation process in order to make the actions of characters appear plausible.

3.a.2. The atmosphere

When a novel is adapted into a film, the writer of the screenplay and the director have many possibilities to change the atmosphere. For example they can add happy or sad music, they can add beautiful or unsightly shots of the scenery or they can use different camera angles and effects. Thus in the case of Tsotsi the atmosphere created by the director is quite positive. Gavin Hood answered an interview question about this topic in the following way:

The typical gangster-ghetto style film is portrayed with lots of handheld cameras, but I wanted to use my own style instead.(…). People were worried that it would be too slow but I wanted to reflect the inner conscious of the characters and depict their inner world. (…). I wanted my shots to be intimate and long. Using widescreen, the characters appear tiny against the big city and township backdrops. I just wanted to create my own visual sensibility. (Cowley)

3.a.3. The setting

Another general difference dealing with the adaptation of novels into films is that the plot can be moved to a different place time or even a different time. The effect of it is that the plot itself becomes renewed and isn’t just a rumination. The novel and the film versions of Tsotsi are set in different times. When Gavin Hood, director and editor of the screenplay, was asked why he moved the setting to a time 40 or 50 years later, he answered:

First of all I just thought that the great thing about Tsotsi is it's a very kind of universal story, not only could you set it in the contemporary world, but in fact you could have set it in almost any city in the world and just given it back it's flavour. (Cowley) Of course this raises the question if some plots don’t lose some of their most important messages when they are set to different times. In the case of Tsotsi this question will be dealt with in chapter 4.a.

3.a.4. The language

In the case of Tsotsi, the language was changed in the adaptation. The novel was written in English but the characters in the film speak Tsotsitaal, which is a Creole of Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans. If the original novel had been written in Tsotsitaal, most people wouldn’t have been able to read it. In the film version however it was possible to use the original language, because it could be made understandable for everybody else with the help of subtitles. A book can’t be subtitled, but the film version made it possible.

3.b. The differences in the plots of the two versions

3.b.1. Tsotsi’s gang and the murder of Gumboot Dhlamini (Chapter 1)

The novel begins with Tsotsi and the other three member of his gang sitting together on a Friday night and drinking beer. The characters are introduced. The reader meets Tsotsi, who is “the youngest of the four, the one who had said the least” (1), Boston, who “always had a story” (1), Die Aap, who has got his name “because of his long arms” (2) and Butcher whose “stories were told in ten words or less” (2) and who laughed with”a cold sound, sharp as a knife blade” (4). The four young men decide to “take one on the trains” (4). The victim’s name is Gumboot Dhlamini. The reader learns that Dhlamini left his loving wife on the countryside for one year in order to earn money in Johannesburg’s mining belt. It is the last week of that one year when he encounters Tsotsi’s gang. Tsotsi chooses him for three reasons: he is smiling, he wears a tie and he pays his money with cash from his pay packet. Unnoticed by the other passengers, the four tsotsis surround Dhlamini in the crowded train and without any further ado, Butcher murders him by stinging a bicycle spoke into Dhlamini’s heart. “Even as that was happening, Tsotsi bent close to the dying man and in his ear whispered an obscene reference to his mother” (12). Only when the crowd has left the train, the few remaining passengers find the dead body of Dhlamini.

The film begins with Tsotsi, Aap (in the film version the “Die” in his name is left out), Boston and Butcher playing with dice, but apart from such minor changes the first chapter of the novel does not differ much from its adaption on film. The novel’s first chapter as well as the film are simply used in order to introduce the reader/viewer to some of the main characters. Especially in the film version the deeper situation, which the characters are in, doesn’t surface yet at all. It doesn’t make too much of a difference if the robbery and murder is committed in the 1960s or at the beginning of the 21st century. Hence, the two versions start very similarly. Nevertheless, the novel of course has got much more possibilities to go into detail. For example the reader learns the name and the pitiable background of the victim, while he remains just a nameless, more or less anonymous character in the film version. This makes the murder appear even crueller in the original version. In the film version, Dhlamini is only murdered after he tried to verbally defend himself. Tsotsi’s whispered final insult is left out in the film version as well. The film version does not show the characters backgrounds and Tsotsi’s cruelty, hate and bitterness as much as the original version does.

3.b.2. Tsotsi’s fight with Boston (Chapter 2)

The novel’s second chapter is set at Soekie’s place, where the four young men are drinking and smoking marihuana after the “job on the trains”. Soekie is a coloured woman in her fifties. Tsotsi feels at unease because his gang-member Boston feels sick about their crime. Tsotsi avoids talking about his age or his real name and would rather kill than tell anybody the truth about himself (17). Tsotsi “allowed himself no thought of himself, he remembered no yesterdays, and tomorrow existed only when it was the present, living moment” (21), but Boston keeps asking questions and tries to teach Tsotsi the meaning of the word “decency”

(25). Butcher and Die Aap take a woman from the bar outside with them. Boston asks Tsotsi if he feels nothing but Tsotsi does not want to understand the question. Boston takes out a knife and cuts his arm in order to show Tsotsi how he feels about the murder earlier that night, which makes Tsotsi hate Boston even more than before. After Boston says that even Tsotsi must have a soul, Tsotsi lunges at him and beats him up brutally until Soekie, Butcher and Die Aap enter the room and keep Tsotsi back. Then Tsotsi walks out into the night.

Up to that point the plot of the film adheres quite closely to the original version. The dialogue is only slightly different, Soekie’s bar is crowded with dancing people in the film version, the four young men don’t smoke and Butcher and Aap don’t leave the room in company of a girl. In the film version Tsotsi rather runs out of the room instead of walking. Apart from these minor differences that, above all, have effects on the atmosphere, the second chapter is adapted quite identically and hence doesn’t offer many possibilities for further interpretation.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Novel "Tsotsi" and its Adaptation on Film
University of Bayreuth  (Anglophone Literaturen und Kulturen )
HS Africa on Film
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ISBN (Book)
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novel, tsotsi, adaptation, film
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B.A: Uwe Mehlbaum (Author), 2010, The Novel "Tsotsi" and its Adaptation on Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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