For those poor souls who haven’t read or heard of Jamaican novelist Marlon James’ 2014 opus, “Seven Killings” is a sprawling crime epic that pivots around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s and the political and social turmoil that both spawned and came out of that event. The book blends historical insight and facts while creating compelling and vibrant biographies and incidents for the would-be killers of the musician and other people who were in the country at the time, ranging from a CIA agent to a Rolling Stones reporter to a one-night love interest for Marley.
If this sounds like material tailor-made for TV, HBO agrees. It’s been reported by various news sites that the prestigious network has acquired the rights to the book. James himself would write the script, which would be supervised and possibly co-written by Eric Roth, whose past credits include “Forrest Gump” (for which he won an Oscar), “The Insider” and “Munich.”
Can you say hell yes? “Seven Killings” leaps off the page with its intoxicating rhythms and colorful language, which is often spoken in thick Jamaican patois. Personalities have a grand flair and baroque cinematic presence that Scorsese or Tarantino would appreciate. Stray passages and particularly vivid images float to the forefront of your mind the way a song lyric might — a ruthless gangster storming a housing project, a young, expendable hoodlum being buried alive, the ghost of a politician haunting his killer. Marley himself is treated almost like a specter, referred to only as “the Singer,” whose presence is mostly in the air or on the radio. James also strongly suggests that American intelligence had more than a hand in the political schisms and violence plaguing 1970s Jamaica and the crack wars that traveled across waters into New York City in the ‘80s.
This is rich material, and Jamaican culture hasn’t graced a visual medium in a meaningful way since Jimmy Cliff brought reggae to America with 1972’s influential “The Harder They Come.” That film’s crime narrative and swirling ganja smoke is kin to “Seven Killings,” but is minor in scope. HBO has an opportunity here to make a Caribbean counterpart to “The Wire’s” study of the American city. And with such a chance, one does not want to see those involved flounder it.
The casting is key. HBO would do well to follow the example of “The Wire” creator David Simon. For his Baltimore-set show, Simon populated the inner and outer margins of his panoramic vision with locals and real-life cops and politicians from the city.
“Seven Killings” would not benefit from a British invasion of performers to fake a Jamaican dialect. That Patois should be born and bred like Cliff. It should sing with the same authenticity of Marley. The main characters — the ruthless Josey Wales, the aging crimelord Papa Lo, the identity-shifting Nina Burgess — deserve performers who know their world well, or can at least channel it through their own experiences. “Seven Killings” is an opportunity to make some genuine finds in the acting world.
Of course, James includes a few key white characters in his narrative: Rolling Stones journalist Alex Pierce, a gay hitman, the CIA operative. Their presence ensures viewers won’t always have to put on the subtitles when a character speaks, and it makes the material more promotable to white TV producers.
Nevertheless, in an age of the colossal success of Fox’s “Empire,” that might not matter as much. Perhaps TV is ready for a black “Sopranos.” Certainly a characters like Josey Wales, who can kill women and children but is wholly faithful to his wife and likes Clint Eastwood movies, is as fascinating and multi-layered a protagonist as Tony Soprano, and the rich music of the era (not just Marley, but Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc) will help “Seven Killings” match any violent beatdown or emotional epiphany that “Sopranos” creator David Chase shot to a soundtrack.
More than anything, “Seven Killings,” is a chance to fill in the blanks on our television map. American dramas still have trouble expanding beyond the east coast or Southern California, and those worlds are somehow still very white. Not in Jamaica, ya’ll. A ticket to the Caribbean is just what prestige programming could use right now. Consider my flight booked.