Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Unsympathetic Protagonist

Contains spoilers for The Last King of Scotland

‘Adaptation’ seems to be the buzz word of the moment wherever you’re lurking in the ‘scribosphere’ (someone, please – come up with a better term than this to describe what writers do on the internet – I’ll pay good money to see a new non-cringe worthy term). What with Lianne’s Adaptation group convening on 26th February for a spot of cake flinging, adaptation fever is everywhere, and on UFP it’s no different. Okay, so it took me a year to get round to it (after reading a great review on the now sadly and apparently defunct Film Flam), but after having watched The Last King of Scotland I feel the need to go off on yet another wild and rambling tangent. Oh yes.

My wife’s reaction on having sat through Nicholas Garrigan’s (James McAvoy) exploits in TLKOS was, “The bloke’s a twat.” It’s hard to disagree, and therein lies the problem. Although he doesn’t instantly come across as a twat, it doesn’t take Garrigan long to settle into a twat-like groove – and the first three scenes send him down this route quite nicely, thank you. Admittedly, the first three scenes are fantastic: the character of Garrigan – a newly graduated medical student – craves stimulation, excitement. To escape the suffocating clutches of his parents, Garrigan spins a globe in his room and jabs a finger at it in a random effort to find somewhere – anywhere – to run to: he doesn’t care where. Well, he does a bit, as his first choice – Canada – is rejected in favour of Uganda.

Within ten minutes of setting foot in country, he is cheerfully rutting with the citizenry and putting the moves on Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson), the wife of the doctor who runs the medical centre where Garrigan is supposed to work. His words about wanting to help seem increasingly empty, especially as Uganda is a place that he knows absolutely nothing about – not that he particularly wants to. The spin of the globe sets this all up superbly. We know that Garrigan doesn’t really care – a fact that is driven home when he absconds from his duties at the medical centre to become Idi Amin’s (Forest Whittaker) personal physician and sidekick. Dazzled by uniforms and medals, Garrigan is essentially a naive lout. As the brutal truth regarding Amin’s dictatorship is made apparent, Garrigan belatedly realises that he’s bet on the wrong horse. His punishment – his retribution – is bloody and terrifying.

This is all well and good, but the central problem still remains: the bloke’s a twat. The writers Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock have certainly crafted a memorable enough character, but as George Lucas points out (I’m paraphrasing here), writing an unsympathetic character is easy – all you have to do is make him/her kick a dog: job done. Garrigan’s journey sees him travel from naive simpleton to naive simpleton who’s had a bit of a slap – not much of a character arc there, if that’s what you’re looking for. The spin of the globe is brilliant screenwriting – but making us care for a character whose sole function appears to be pursuing his own mostly hedonistic pursuits is probably a draft too far in this case...

...which all seems very strange when you start comparing Giles Foden’s book with the screenplay. In the book, Garrigan is more of a clueless prat than the gung-ho know-nothing McAvoy portrays him as. Due to this, there are several scenes in the film that jump out due to their incongruousness. Whilst treating Amin for a hand injury, Garrigan grabs Amin’s own handgun and shoots an injured cow that is ‘ruining his concentration’. Garrigan’s pursuit of Sarah Merrit is portrayed in a soft romantic focus that lacks the harder edge of the book, where Garrigan misreads the situation and is unceremoniously rejected, a scene that partially speeds his journey to Amin’s side. The script manoeuvres him quickly out of the medical centre, which only reinforces the idea that he’s a naive simpleton overly impressed by power and shiny medals.

I guess you could make the argument that Garrigan actually wants to help, but this is rather swamped by his starry eyed admiration for Amin. In this case, expecting us to follow Garrigan for two hours does rather try the patience, not least because the story is told almost exclusively from Garrigan’s point of view. His ignorance becomes our ignorance; he knows nothing about the history – post-colonial or otherwise – of Uganda, and so neither do we. To expect any film to do something like this is a tall order, so the script relies upon the larger than life character of Amin to deliver this aspect of the narrative. Does it succeed? Sort of. However, you have to negotiate round a bone-headed protagonist in order to see it properly.

There’s nothing wrong with unsympathetic protagonists of course – look at Taxi Driver, which juggles with this issue brilliantly – the problem with Garrigan is that he doesn’t appear to possess much humanity in the first place. The spin of the globe tells you all you need to know.

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