Saga of A Rude Boy

Remember the movie The Harder They Come? It was turned into a book, and became a classic of the Jamaican experience, as James Ferguson explains

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We’ve all read a book, heard that it had been turned into a film, watched it, and come to the conclusion that the book was far better. Hardly an unusual experience. But the other way round, the film coming before the book, and the book being even better than the film, is rather less common. But this “prequel” process is precisely what happened with The Harder They Come, the novel that followed the film of the same name.

The film itself is a minor masterpiece, even if, when it first opened in a small cinema in Boston in 1973, it seemed destined for commercial oblivion. A cast of amateurs speaking impenetrable Jamaican dialect play out the story of the notorious 1940s Kingston gunman, Rhygin, the archetypal “rude boy” and prototype Yardie. Filmed on a low budget and grittily realistic, it had little to appeal to a wide audience. Apart, that is, from the soundtrack. When Jimmy Cliff, playing the part of Rhygin, sang those immortal lines – They tell me ’bout pie up in the sky/Waiting for me when I die – anybody except the tone-deaf understood that this was a milestone in Caribbean popular culture and another step forward in reggae music’s conquest of the world.

If the soundtrack and Cliffs unmistakably fragile-sounding voice ensured the film’s success (it ran at that Boston cinema for seven years), credit was also due to director Perry Henzell and his co-writer Trevor Rhone, who took the simple story of a country boy turned ghetto gunman and transformed it into a powerful cinematic statement. But the film had in-built limitations. The character of Ivanhoe Martin (Rhygin) is one-dimensional; the plot is perhaps a little too predictable; too many aspects of the social context are only hinted at.

This, at least, was how it seemed to an editor at Grove Press, New York, who saw the screenplay as something like the synopsis of a bigger novel. He contacted Michael Thelwell, a young Jamaica-born academic and civil rights campaigner, who agreed to write the book of the film. In 1980, the novel, some 400 pages long, appeared.

It could so easily have been a big mistake. If Thelwell had simply chosen to flesh out the screenplay, it would not have worked, as he himself acknowledged, insisting that “adding chunks of narrative and description to a film’s dialogue does not, to my mind, result in a novel. At least, not what I think of as a novel.” Instead, his project was altogether more ambitious: to take the framework of Henzell and Rhone’s plot and to build around it a narrative structure that was more complex and satisfying than the original screenplay. The aim, said Thelwell, was “to preserve, and indeed deepen, the essential character and vision of the film while expanding its historical and cultural range.” And that is what he achieved.

In the novel, Ivan is already a flesh-and-blood character by the time he arrives in the big city of Kingston. His rural childhood is skillfully drawn as a mixture of natural bounty and grinding poverty, his adolescence torn between Bible meetings and the lure of the urban bright lights. With the death of his grandmother, Miss Mando, his bond with the rural community – depicted by Thelwell as the source of a moral and spiritual integrity – is broken, and Ivan is ready to head to Kingston, the words of Maas’ Nattie ringing in his ears: “Town people dem different, different bad, you hear ah tell you? Dem no stay like we.”

Into his account of Ivan’s early life Thelwell has already injected a range of themes and insights that go far beyond the film’s limited possibilities: the role of religion in rural Jamaica, the legacy of Marcus Garvey, the impact of emigration, are all woven into the story. But it is when the unworldly Ivan, with his unrealistic expectations, arrives in the bustling metropolis that the novel becomes panoramic in scope, revealing the streets, the squalid tenements and the criminal subculture of the Jamaican capital. Briefly reunited with his poverty-stricken mother, Ivan becomes a drifter, then a member of a ghetto gang, caught up in the casual lawlessness on society’s fringes.

Ivan’s descent into big time crime is depicted as both inevitable and utterly understandable. His desire to be a reggae star is deliberately and malevolently frustrated by the record label magnate, Hilton, who controls the entire music scene. The only other quick route to riches is the ganja trade, and with his involvement in drug dealing comes his initiation into the gun culture that has plagued Kingston for the last half century. But at no stage in this process does Ivan become the stereotypical swaggering Yardie of popular mythology. Instead, he remains a contradictory personality, caught between the temptations of wealth and notoriety and a residual sense of decency that finds expression in his relationship with the faithful Elsa.

The novel’s turning-point comes when the streetwise Ivan returns for a visit to his childhood village, only to discover that the beach has become a private tourist development and his friends waiters and tourist guides. Worse, his grandmother’s house is derelict and overgrown, Maas’ Nattie long since dead and his house occupied by white Rastafarians.  It is a deftly drawn image of rural Jamaica’s modern “development” and one that emphasizes Ivan’s traumatic loss: of identity and bearings. From that moment on, Ivan become: the gun-toting Rhygin, the amoral, sexually charged gangster of his own fantasies:

Which Rhygin? Rhygin de mysterious, one know whe’ him come from. Rhygin the dangerous. Rhygin the man cutter. Rhygin, de bull bucker de duppi conqueror. Same one – you no wan’ mess wid him. Him alias.

But potent as the rude boy mystique is, the forces of “Babylon” are stronger still. As the authorities clamp down on the ganja trade, Rhygin shoots a policeman, then is hunted down, wounded, and finally killed. But by now, his exploits are legendary, his outlaw image one for Kingston’s ghetto children to aspire to.

By compressing several decades of social and cultural history into a single narrative, Thelwell succeeds in providing an almost unprecedented fictional analysis of Jamaica’, woes. But there is nothing dry or academic about this analysis. For the novel exudes authenticity -linguistic as well as psychological- in its portrayal of a country boy gone bad. “Ivan dead,” says this most flawed of heroes, “Rhygin time now.” It is a rite of passage, a transition from innocence to corruption, a symbolic fall from grace which this important work places firmly and unsentimentally in its proper social context.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers).