Trackers, the uniquely South African crime series based on the book by Deon Meyer, premiered on M-Net 101, DStv Now and Showmax on Sunday, October 27 2019. Following the two-hour pilot, there will be four weekly one-hour episodes. Produced by M-Net, Cinemax and German public broadcaster ZDF, Trackers was filmed in locations around South Africa, and the cast includes Thapelo Mokoena, Rolanda Marais, Brendan Daniels, Sandi Schultz, James Gracie, Sisanda Henna, Jill Middelkop, Trix Vivier, Emmanuel Castis, Jerry Mofokeng, Grace Olifant, Albert Maritz and Ed Stoppard.
Whenever a popular book – fiction or non-fiction – is adapted for the big or small screen, there is always the timeless debate on which is better.
“I’ve learnt over the years that it is impossible to please everybody, and there will undoubtedly be readers who love the adaptation, and those who won’t,” says Meyer. “But we kept reminding ourselves that we were making the series for the perhaps hundred thousand people in South Africa who read the book, and the millions of DStv subscribers who haven’t. So, the first priority was to produce a show that worked for television.”
The book is full of tension, suspense, twists and turns, and this is maintained in the series, with a few surprises – shocks even – along the way that readers don’t expect. If you’ve watched the first episode, you’ll already have an inkling. And with such a complex tapestry of interwoven stories, the source material – including characters – had to compromise to create the series.
“Condensing an entire novel into a few hours of TV is tricky,” says Meyer. “You don’t want to disappoint those who loved the book, but you need to make it work on screen. And you have to be aware of budget, which I never really consider when I write a book. My main hope was to retain the spirit of the story and the personality of the characters, which I’m confident we managed.”
Meyer unfailingly creates a wonderful sense of place and location in his books, and his characters are wholly relatable. When I read the book, I was amazed at how well he tapped into the mind of a 40-something housewife and how she deals with the extreme circumstances life throws at her. In the series, Milla is played by Rolanda Marais. Meyer says he created her through “imagination, research, and long hours of wrestling with words, sentences and paragraphs.”
He adds that he doesn’t have a distinct preference for writing male or female characters. “Both sexes come with a set of pros and cons. I find male characters a little easier to create, but I love the extra challenge of creating a credible female character.”
Bringing a character into existence with words on paper (or more likely a computer screen) is one thing; what about in real life? Benny Griessel is the lead in several of Meyer’s books (including his latest, The Last Hunt/Prooi), and one cannot help but wonder if the semi-autobiographical line is ever crossed.
“The only things Benny and I share are a love of the blues, and good bass guitar players. Yes, I’ll get along very well with him. I have a soft spot for the underdog,” says Meyer.
To say Trackers is A Big Deal for local television is a bit of an understatement, with HBO affiliate Cinemax picking up the international rights to this series. “I was absolutely delighted that such a big name saw the potential of the series,” says Meyer. “But that increases the pressure to deliver a product of international quality, of course.”
Judging by the first episode, it doesn’t look like there should be too much concern in that area, and it’s an indicator of where SA-produced content can and will go in the future. Meyer is restrained in his response to this: “I think that would depend on the viewer reaction. If the show is really successful, it could pave the way for many more. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Meyer writes in Afrikaans, and his books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Trackers is mainly in English, with subtitles for the Afrikaans. “Story is a universal language. As is character humanity. If we manage to get that right, nothing gets lost in translation,” he says. “ZDF in Germany will dub the show for their audience, and I don’t think it will make any difference.
“For me, the highlight is always seeing the final product, the culmination of so much talent from so many people. It is always so much more than I envisioned.”
Meyer is not only an author; he has directed a movie, produced a few, and written some – not all of them crime stories. Rather than seeing this as different sides of storytelling, he says it’s more a case of different story ideas demanding different applications. “Some concepts are perfect for a novel, others fit a short story, feature film, or TV series. I just follow the story and try to have fun.”
Writing anything is a life-long learning process, says Meyer. “There are unique challenges in everything, but the basics of a good story never change.”
What is Meyer watching?