HBO TV Series: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I just finished watching the HBO series ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ and it was one of the finest tv series I have seen in a few years, hands down. And it hurts me that the series was cancelled after one season.

Watching a tv series is totally different from reading a book series. It’s ok if the story is plot-heavy, and by that I mean that it’s a case of “this happened, and then that happened, and then we have a cliffhanger”. A series of events is fundamentally easier to translate onto the screen because you only have to worry about the action, the dialogue, and if the actors are up to par.

If the plot is character heavy however, or if the characters enjoy having a lot of internal dialogue, then adapting the story is significantly harder. The director almost needs to have a complete understanding of the series because they need to capture all the prose that describes the character in a visual form.

Furthermore one big difference between adapting a series versus a stand-alone novel is that the characters have had a longer period to show development and complexity. The author has time to detail their history, show their opinions, how they respond to problems, and essentially flesh them out. 

And a series like ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, with all its nuances and biting social commentary needs to have a director that understands the tone and underlying themes of the series and be able to effectively adapt it.

But I think the HBO series did an amazing job.

  • The actors that played Ramostwe, Makutsi, and Matekoni were spot on. Not only did they physically resemble the characters but they owned the entire representation, all the little quirks and behavioural tics, and the portrayal of their relationships really drove the series.
  • I love the little inside jokes such as the fact that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is always referred to by his full name (in the book series, the author has yet to reveal his first name). I giggled when one woman even insists that Matekoni never reveals his name to keep the mystery.
  • The scenery was stunning. One of the defining features of the series is that Alexander McCall Smith describes the Botswana land in such beautiful prose that there is no doubt in the readers mind that he holds immense reverence for the land and the director was able to translate this love into the screen.
  • A couple of storylines were expanded or removed to suit the series but the overall essence of the series was not altered. For example, the rival detective that shows up in Book 4 is a much more persistent nemesis to Mma Ramotswe in the tv adaptation.

    This tv series took the book series and essentially translated into a tv series so I believe if you are well versed in the series like I am, being able to watch a faithful adaptation is immensely satisfying. 

    However, if this is your first foray into ‘The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ then I have a feeling that some of the storylines and characters might fall flat. The eternally optimistic Mamostwe and her dues ex-machina ability to neatly solve all her cases with a clear black-and-white result, with good always emerging triumphant over evil can feel two-dimensional.

    And this is quite sad because the book series is anything but two-dimensional. When I watched the series I already had an understanding of the characters and all their behavioural tics so I already had the emotional baggage, but for someone starting fresh, that history was missing.

    It also covers many serious themes like depression and AIDS but this isn’t expanded on in the tv series.

    If you’re a fan of the series I highly recommend watching this. But if it’s your first exposure, I highly recommend reading a few installments first.

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