The City & The City is one of my favorite China Miéville books. I love the conceit of the nested cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, and I love the voice of our narrator, the smart, world-weary and not-always-so-honest Tyador Borlu.
Amazon Prime offers a four-part adaptation of the book. All four episodes are directed by Tom Shankland, with Tony Grisoni, who was also credited as a writer, as one of the producers. China Miéville shared a writing credit. The series first aired on BBC2 in 2018.
The four episodes are named for each of the four sections in the book, and while it is simplified, the show at least follows the police-procedural part of the book. As usual, some parts were better than the book (mostly where visuals were needed), some were as good, and at least one change was purely disappointing.
Borlu and Corwi are called to the scene of a murder. They soon realize that the woman was murdered somewhere else and dumped. They struggle to identify the woman and find the murder site, which is made more challenging than it would be in most cities.
Beszel and Ul Qoma are two completely different municipalities that occupy the same space and time but seem to exist in different dimensions except for places where they bleed through. I tried to imagine what a viewer who hasn’t read the book would think the first time Borlu looks away from a building, or a group of people walking on the road. Or what they would make of the shimmery, rainbow barrier down the center of a main street. Eventually the story gives an explanation of the crime of “breach,” deliberately looking at either of the other cities from the one you’re in.
Basically, this was one of the areas where the story was “dumbed down” a bit, with the most obvious signal coming when a child launches a flying toy from Ul Qoma and it lands in Beszel, by Borlu’s foot, and he won’t kick it back. The show relies instead on posters that seem to warn mostly about the citizens of Ul Qoma (“They look just like you!”). This tied into the fascistic nationalism in Beszel, which is what the show, rather than the book, is really interested in. The show depicts the fascist group as far more powerful and far more dangerous, directly dangerous to Borlu, than they ever seemed to be in the book, and this worked as far as creating immediate danger, which otherwise would be lacking from the episodic story.
I thought they got closer to capturing the surrealistic feeling of breach later in the show, when Borlu, who is sent to Ul Qoma to consult on the case, experiences actual physical discomfort and disorientation his first few minutes in the city he is not supposed to see.
The adaptation does an excellent job of keeping Sear and Core, the American corporation that is infusing capital into both cities, in our consciousness. While this important player disappears for a good part of the book, the show harks back to it now and again, replaying its hypnotic slogan like a refrain, even if sometimes it is only background.
Another area of excellence is the archeological dig with the weird petroglyphs, which might have originated in Orciny, a mythical “third city” that fascinates a number of the show’s characters.
Where the series is brilliant is in the casting of Mandeep Dhillon as Lizbetya Corwi, Borlu’s constable. I have never seen Dhillon act before; she is vibrant and nearly luminous, providing just the right amount of snark and eye-rolling, still convincing us that she is an excellent copper. I enjoyed the plot twist that they gave her character, too.
I was not as happy with the way the series chose to depict Qussin Dhatt, the Ul Qoma detective Borlu is seconded to. They changed the gender — she’s a woman now – but she has none of Dhatt’s fierce, frenetic energy or the cheerful, venial corruption of the origin character. Instead she’s a flat bureaucrat and a device for exposition about Ul Qoma government and Ul Qoma society. When she does decide to color outside the lines to help Borlu, her motivations aren’t clear at all.
But the adaptation’s biggest letdown in the addition and then fridging of a wife for Borlu. Katrinya Borlu (Lara Pulver) is a scholar who is interested in Orciny, and she has been missing for two years. Borlu suspects breach. Through flashbacks, we see Katrinya’s increasingly close relationship with the notorious archeology professor David Bowden (Christian Camargo), who disgraced himself writing a book about the possibility of the existence of Orciny. Like Dhatt, Katrinya exists solely to provide exposition and to morph Borlu into a stereotypical jealous husband with unresolved issues. The end is pure fridging, and Borlu’s plot resolution is a hopeless cliché, visually as well as from a story viewpoint. What a letdown.
This came pretty close to ruining the show for me, and pretty early on, really, as soon as I realized that Borlu had a missing wife. I am glad I hung in there, mainly for Dhillon’s performance, and for the eerie, lovely visuals and some of the production values, like the photography and the lighting. There is a lovely scene near the end where Borlu imagines one of the two dead graduate students following the dig shaft all the way to its end, where there is a spiral of ethereal light… and then something is revealed. It was perfect.
The Woman in the Fridge choice hampered, but did not destroy, this series. Still, I don’t think it was overly successfully, and I would guess it failed to find its audience. I’d generally say, “Reread the book instead,” but if you’re bored out of your skull right now, it’s worth a watch.