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Literature / White Teeth

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White Teeth, a 2000 novel by Zadie Smith, chronicles the lives of two World War II veterans and their families in late-twentieth-century London. Samad Iqbal is an intelligent and voluble but underemployed waiter, and Archie Jones is a laconic and indecisive everyman, but they are drawn together by their shared experiences in the war, similar family situations, and mutual need for a balancing influence.

When Samad's son Millat, Archie's daughter Irie, and their classmate Joshua Chalfen are accused of using drugs on school property, Joshua's intellectual parents decide to be an uplifting influence on the poor working-class children. Joyce Chalfen aspires to become a mother figure to the Troubled, but Cute Millat, while Marcus Chalfen decides that Irie Jones and Millat's more studious twin Magid can be of assistance in a controversial experiment he is conducting.


As the three families become involved with religious fanatics, political intrigues and ethical dilemmas, it becomes apparent that the fate of a single mouse may rest in their hands.

In 2002, the book receive a British TV drama adaptation. The show was broadcast by Channel 4 and it was directed by Julian Jarrold and adapted by Simon Burke. The series was split into four short self-contained stories about three families in multi-cultural Britain, whose lives are woven together across three decades, from 1974 to 1992.


White Teeth provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Alsana Iqbal can whip her husband in hand-to-hand combat (okay, so she sometimes cheats) and is a Mama Bear to boot. Amusingly, she always looks in public like the stereotype of the oppressed South Asian wife (and likes to lecture her relatives as if it were so.) The truth is... more complicated.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Millat is horrible on pretty much every level, but is able to spread his seed to seemingly every girl in the vicinity. This could include Irie if he had any interest in her.
  • Animal Wrongs Group: Joshua Chalfen is part of a radical animals rights group, FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation).
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: this is cause for serious angst for the semi-devout Muslim Samad Iqbal, since it is against his religion, but he uses a loophole to justify his transgression: the actual instruction from the imam to mind his 'right hand', seemingly forgetting that Samad's right hand is mostly paralysed. So he uses his left.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted a number of times.
    • Alsana becomes quite flabby after giving birth to Magid and Millat.
    • Irie literally gets her hair burned off at the beauty salon.
    • As a teenager, Clara is riding on a motorscooter with Ryan when it crashes into a tree. Ryan is thrown safely clear, but Clara's face hits the trunk squarely and all her teeth are knocked out. She is forced to wear false teeth for the rest of her life - and, while as an adult she speaks the Queen's English when her teeth are in, she reverts to the crude Jamaican patois of her youth when the teeth are out.
    • Magid and Millat individually break and disfigure their noses in the exact same place, as if to emphasize just how alike they look...and yes, this does become important at the climax.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The Chalfens, who live in the suburbs but subscribe to socialist and anarchist magazines.
  • British Teeth: Played with. Teeth are, naturally, a recurring motif.
  • Bully and Wimp Pairing: Subverted (inverted, perhaps?) with both Archie and Samad. Archie appears to embody the archetype of the working-class macho man, but he's actually quite ineffectual for the most part. Samad, meanwhile, comes off as prissy and overly intellectual but bloodies the face of a drunken white man who racially harasses him at O'Connell's pub.
  • But Not Too Black: In-universe- Irie (who is mixed-race) is hugely hung up about her Jamaican hair and typically curvaceous figure, wishing she could have sleek hair and a willowy body like she perceives all the Caucasian girls at school do.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: "Dr. Sick" is a Vichy collaborator during the war.
  • Driven to Suicide: When we first meet Archie, he's in the middle of trying to commit suicide, but doesn't have the courage to go through with it.
  • Eagleland Osmosis
    • The female characters sometimes talk like Valley Girls.
    • Millat is a voracious devourer of American pop culture (the films of Martin Scorsese in particular), and feels a great deal of guilt because of this. In fact, at one point he reflects that, in some ways, he's more American than he is either British or Bengali.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: In-Universe, several characters consider Marcus Chalfen to be this, although 'Dr. Sick' is better example.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Millat is part of a group of young radical second-generation British Muslims called K.E.V.I.N.: Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. (They are aware they have an acronym problem.)
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: The source of all the political extrapolations about Future Mouse.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In late 1980s North London street slang, the word "chief" is a vulgar insult - but, generally, only teenagers are aware of this. When Samad uses the word in its original, respectable sense, Millat finds this so funny that he laughs hysterically, falls down, and breaks his nose.
  • Hollywood Jehovah's Witness: Archie's wife Clara was raised in a very strict Jehovah's Witness family. This becomes important later when her mother, her ex-boyfriend and a group of JW's protest Marcus Chalfen's experiment.
  • Hot for Teacher: Samad, though not a student (and considerably older), has an affair with a teacher after he gives up pining for her.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: After joining a street gang, Millat burns a copy of The Satanic Verses at a book-burning on the evening news. After seeing this on television, his mother decides to teach him a lesson by burning not only his books, but also his records and videotapes.
  • Hypocrite: Many of the Muslim characters, especially the ones who are constantly ranting about how "immoral" the West is.
  • The Indecisive: Archie is such an indecisive person he actually uses coin tosses to make decisions for him.
  • Innocent Bigot: Almost all the major characters have their moments.
  • Insistent Terminology: "Peace be upon him!" (whenever a Muslim character mentions, or even thinks of, the prophet Muhammad).
  • Karma Houdini
    • Despite being a Nazi collaborator, Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret becomes a respected biologist in his later years (with a Jewish protege for added irony). Very much Truth in Television, actually.
    • Millat gets off with a mere slap on the wrist for trying to assassinate Dr. Perret (although this is largely because so many eyewitnesses mistake him for Magid and vice versa). He also inexplicably survives a sexual encounter with an HIV-positive girl despite not using a condom (this being during a time when getting AIDS was practically an instant death sentence).
  • Luke, I Might Be Your Father: At the end of the novel, it is impossible to tell which of the identical Iqbal twins is the father of Irie's baby.
  • Malcolm Xerox: KEVIN, the "Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation", a group of radical Islamic activists
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Is ambiguous whether or not Archie is Irie's real dad or if it was Clara's old beau, something that causes some angst to her. Ironically Irie's herself becomes pregnant, and isn't sure if the father is of Magid or Millat, since she slept with both around the same time.
  • May–December Romance: When they are both forty-eight, Archie and Samad marry nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden and Alsana Begum. While the trope is played straight for Archie and Clara, Samad's marriage to Alsana was arranged sometime before 1945. When he was only eighteen and a decade before she was born.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The Raggastani gang lifestyle consists of wearing "hip-hop" clothes, smoking marijuana, using vulgar Bengali terms, and watching kung-fu movies.
  • Noble Bigot: Alsana, who looks down upon anyone who is not Bengali, but still admits that there are things about other ethnicities she does find admirable. She also has a grudgingly friendly relationship with her lesbian niece.
  • Racist Grandpa:
    • Mr. J. P. Hamilton, who isn't really racist but comes off that way because of his casual use of demeaning Victorian-era terms.
    • Clara's actual grandpa is a white man with a confused and ultimately destructive attitude to black women- it seems he loved Ambrosia but his ingrained colonial attitudes meant the relationship could only leave her hurt.
  • Really Gets Around: Millat sleeps around with women a lot, and doesn't seem to have many steady relationships.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: At the end of the Second World War, Samad insists that Archie must prove himself by executing the sick Nazi doctor they have captured.

Tropes Specific To The TV Adaptation:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Several characters in the television version.
    • Joshua Chalfen, who is a pudgy nerd in the novel, is played by Pretty Boy James McAvoy. The novel suggests he grows out of the dorkiness, and possibly slims down too, but having been that kid is still informing who he is.
    • Irie whose weight (thirteen stone), buck teeth, glasses and unmanageable afro are major factors in her poor self-image is played by Sarah Ozeke who has none of these traits other than wearing glasses in some scenes.
    • Alsana is mentioned by both Samad and the Narrator to gain a not inconsiderable amount of weight over the years. In the TV adaptation, she stays relatively slim.
  • Adaptational Badass:
    • In the novel, KEVIN’s leader Brother Ibrahim is mentioned as being 5’7’’ and a deeply unimpressive public speaker thanks to his odd intonations and constant use of Department of Redundancy Department. In the TV adaptation, he is a much more imposing leader played by 6’1’’ Chu Omambala
    • KEVIN itself is portrayed as a far more organised and militant organisation than the novel suggested. Additionally; their uniform replaces the green bowties of the novel with black neckties and adds sunglasses, creating a more striking appearance for its members.
    • Dr. Sick is a scientific genius who was part of the Nazis eugenics program but is limited by illness and spends most of his time in a secluded house in Bulgaria painting the surrounding landscape. In the TV adaptation, he is a concentration camp commandant notorious enough to earn the nickname “Devil Of Dachau”.
    • Unlike in the novel, Josh actually acts on his crush on Joely and hatred of Crispin by pushing Crispin and several other FATE members out of the back of the group's van after they have been pulled over by the police, and proceeding to try and carry out their plan with just himself and Joely.
    • Halal butcher Mohammad Hussein-Ishmael is a recent KEVIN recruit and is looked down upon by Millat as an embarrassment partly because of his love of Elvis and him being considerably overweight. In the TV adaptation; he is far more composed and assertive, and is the one to recruit Millat into the organisation.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • In the novel, Alsana burns Millat's secular belongings to teach him a lesson after she sees him on the news at a Book Burning of The Satanic Verses. In the TV adaptation, the act is carried out by Samad in a drunken rage with no provocation by Millat.
    • It is implied that one of the reasons Samad chooses to send Magid to Bangladesh rather than Millat is because Magid saw him in a compromising position with Poppy Burt-Jones, and Magid being thousands of miles away means that Alsana won’t find out he has been unfaithful. Whereas in the novel, a letter from Archie’s Swedish pen pal indirectly makes the point that Millat may do better in life if he isn’t growing up in Magid’s shadow.
    • Irie deliberately tries to disrupt the Future-Mouse launch by giving tickets to Hortense, and helping Josh steal some because of bitterness about being overshadowed as Marcus’s protégé by Magid. In the novel, taking a cue from one of Marcus’s letters to Magid, she decides to accept her lot in life and turns her ambitions to dentistry.
    • Dr. Sick is mentioned by Samad to have been part of the Nazis' eugenics program. The Devil Of Dachau is a concentration camp commandant monstrous enough to gain a Red Baron-style nickname.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Alsana’s tendency to settle disputes with Samad through physical violence (and winning by fighting dirty) are cut, as is her steelier and more confrontational side.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • A number of events that the novel mentions in passing as having already happened are actually depicted onscreen such as Samad and Archie meeting again for the first time after the war, Samad and Alsana's wedding, and Clara recovering from the motorcycle accident where she loses most of her teeth.
    • Archie and Clara's wedding is given more focus than in the novel; with Samad's best man speech segueing into the World War Two flashbacks, as he tells the story of capturing the Devil Of Dachau in lieu of a traditional speech.
    • Darcus's death is shown onscreen unlike the novel where it is first mentioned five years after the fact.
    • Josh, Hortense, Ryan, Joyce, and Marcus all appear in Part Two while the second section of the novel included them as background characters (Joyce and Marcus), or gave them a token mention at best (Hortense and Ryan).
  • Adaptation Name Change: The Chalfens become the Malfens (and, correspondingly, their original Polish name changes from Chalfenovsky to Malfenovsky), Dr Sick becomes the Devil Of Dachau, and Samad’s ancestor Mangal Pande becomes Bahadur Khan.
  • Adapted Out: Thanks to the novel having a large cast, a huge number are cut from the TV adaptation including everyone connected to O’Connell’s, Josh’s three younger brothers, and everybody from Archie and Samad’s World War Two flashback other than Dr Sick/the Devil Of Dachau.
  • Artifact Title: Teeth are a recurring theme in the novel (being shown as a common feature between people regardless of race and culture) but receive far less focus in the TV adaptation.
  • Composite Character:
    • Sir Edmund Flecker-Glenard becomes a combination of himself (a turn-of-the-century industrialist stationed in Jamaica) and Captain Charlie Durham (Irie’s maternal great-grandfather).
    • Millat’s old school friend Hifan is Adapted Out and his role of recruiting Millat into KEVIN is given to Mo.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: After Darcus’s death scene, the camera pans over to the television where an episode of Bagpuss is finishing. "And Bagpuss gave a big yawn and settled down to sleep."
  • Compressed Adaptation: A necessity thanks to the source material being a Doorstopper with plenty of philosophising and exposition by an omniscient narrator.
  • Dawson Casting:
    • Millat and Magid (both fifteen years old in Part Three and seventeen in Part Four) are played by twenty-six-year-old Christopher Simpson.
    • Josh (who is the same age as Magid and Millat) is played by twenty-three-year-old James McAvoy
    • Clara and Alsana (both nineteen years old in Part One) are played by Naomie Harris and Archie Panjabi who were twenty-five and twenty-nine years old during filming. Though this becomes inverted as Time Skips mean that, by Part Three, their characters are both thirty-four.
  • Death by Adaptation: Dr. Sick's ultimate fate is never mentioned in the novel but in the TV adaptation, Samad mentions that he had a heart attack and is a goner.
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: The restaurant scene in Part Two becomes this as Samad attempts to maintain his lie that he owns the restaurant to impress Joyce and Marcus Malfen; while actually attempting to fulfill his duties as a waiter, deal with a scorned Poppy Burt-Jones, and carry out his plan to secretly send Magid to Bangladesh.
  • Lighter and Softer: As well as including more obvious comedy (see "Fawlty Towers" Plot), the TV adaptation excises some of the novel’s darker moments such as Samad’s brief domestic abuse of Alsana after Indira Gandhi is assassinated, and Edmund Flecker-Glenard attempting to rape Ambrosia Bowden, who is nine months pregnant and (at most) fifteen years old at the time.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: A variant happens after (while still in an ambulance and en-route to a hospital) Archie learns that he survived being shot thanks to a coin acting as a Pocket Protector. His response (as he has a habit of flipping coins to make decisions) is to ask which side the bullet hit.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Used to smoothly transition between different character threads. Most prominent in Part One before all of the main characters become fully connected to each other.
  • Pocket Protector: Archie survives Taking the Bullet for the Devil Of Dachau thanks to a coin in his pocket acting as this.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation:
    • Much of the philosophising and world-building (such as the history of O'Connell's and exposition about characters' experiences outside of the main story) by the narrator are cut without being recycled in some way.
    • Samad's right hand isn't paralysed, presumably because of the difficulty of realising it onscreen.
    • We don't see any of events between 1985 and 1990 that centre on Millat and Irie, likely because of the difficulty of consistently portraying them over the course of their early teenage years.
  • Recycled Premise: A number of moments that aren’t adapted in their original form are used in other ways such as the burning of Millat’s secular possessions (see Adaptational Villainy).
  • Skewed Priorities: See Major Injury Underreaction.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel we are only given a hypothetical endgame for Archie, and where the bullet hit him is never mentioned. In the TV adaptation, he definitively survives thanks to a coin acting as a Pocket Protector.
  • Time Skip: More prominent than in the novels by cutting the briefly shown events of Millat, Magid, and Irie’s early teenage years and jumping from 1985 straight to 1990 when they are fifteen years old and their story begins in earnest.