By Laura Denby
When Malorie Blackman’s award-winning dystopian novel was brought to life as a BBC drama, there were a few notable differences between the book and the series right from the beginning.
Set in a fictional present day London where African people (known as Crosses) rule over White Europeans (Noughts, also branded ‘blankers’ as a derogatory term), Noughts + Crosses tells the story of Callum McGregor (Jack Rowan) of the underclass, and Persephone ‘Sephy’ Hadley (Masali Baduza) a member of the ruling class. In the book, the characters are younger and maintain a secret friendship through their teens; whilst the adapted version sees them as adults who fall in love after they meet for the first time in years.
With interracial relationships illegal, navigating a future together looks to be impossible. But as the story reaches a conclusion six episodes later, there is more hope than originally expected – something which wasn’t present at the end of the novel.
In the book, Callum is sentenced to death after the discovery of his romance with Sephy, and her subsequent pregnancy. Although she insists their union was consensual, no one believes her and the couple refuse to terminate the pregnancy, even when given the chance of sparing Callum’s life. They declare their love before he is publicly hanged, in a tragic ending in keeping with the theme of injustice.
In retelling the story for television, however, the BBC delivered an alternative ending that was still able to stay true to the story.
After joining the Noughts’ rebellion with the Liberation Militia and helping them kidnap Sephy, Callum discovers that she is expecting his baby. His brother Jude (Josh Dylan) fights off armed ringleader Jack Dorn (Shaun Dingwall) to help them escape and a gunshot rings out, leaving Jude’s fate unknown to viewers. Sephy’s politician father Kamal (Paterson Joseph) aims his own gun at Callum, but Sephy stands in his way and the couple run away hand in hand.
In the final scene, Callum makes a call to his mother Meggie (Helen Baxendale) from a woodland. Although he doesn’t disclose where they are, Meggie notes that she can hear birds singing and this seems to bring her some peace. It’s a poignant moment which gives the finale some necessary closure despite the circumstances.
Together, the young lovers continue on their way, and it certainly isn’t a case of ‘happy ever after‘ as they face an unstable and dangerous future on the run. But the decision to keep Callum and Sephy together felt like it was earned – especially after a powerful love story with great chemistry between the characters.
With such strong and captivating performances from lead actors Jack Rowan and Masali Baduza throughout the series, this was a satisfying ending. Leaving it open meant we could choose to imagine that Sephy and Callum would make it to safety. The beauty of that choice is that there will always be those viewers who want to see love conquer all – and this is what the television drama achieved, without compromising the seriousness of Blackman’s message.
The uplifting closing moments of the finale were a welcome change, given just how bleak things became as the series progressed. To reignite the cause against the Crosses, Dorn kills a young Nought man who had been critically injured by a Cross policeman. Later, Jude leaves a bomb at the hospital which claims three lives. Their father Ryan (Ian Hart) takes the blame and is convicted after an impassioned speech about the ordeal of the underclass in court, only to be murdered in prison. Sephy’s troubled mother Jasmine (Bonnie Mbuli) takes an overdose while her deceitful husband Kamal continues to scheme and hide his own secrets.
With their world remaining in such a state of unrest, it was important that Noughts + Crosses didn’t attempt to simplify things for Callum and Sephy. Giving them a carefree, easy way out would have strayed too far away from the plot; but sending them into the unknown mirrored the chaos going on around them perfectly. It was a fitting and realistic way to leave the characters, striking just the right balance between light and darkness.
Noughts + Crosses airs at 9pm on Thursdays on BBC One, and is available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer