I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie. I only rented it because I used to have a crush on Pierce Brosnan.
The movie’s depressing and seemed to me at the time kind of pointless: a guy messes up his life and dies, the end. Of course, to a young American, that kind of story almost doesn’t make sense, the idea of the underdog triumphing against all obstacles is so deeply embedded in our subconscious and our culture.
Now that I think back on it, the story has different meaning to me – and probably different from what the author intended. From what I remember, here’s how it goes: there’s British people in Africa colonizing and doing various stuff to make money out of the Dark Continent. They’re also trying to teach the primitive Africans about civilized ways. Most of the Africans aren’t interested, but some, like the one who names himself Mister Johnson, are highly enthusiastic about it. He goes around trying to adopt European ways, often to comic effect because he doesn’t fully understand them. It’s not comic in a ridiculous way, but a sympathetic way, feeling for this simple, sincere man who is in a situation which is beyond his ken.
In his zeal to adopt civilized ways and acquire a pretty wife from a local tribe, Mister Johnson ends up turning to white-collar crime. Well, here’s the Wikipedia summary:
His delight is in seeing those around him happy. His mood infects Rudbeck and, when Johnson suggests how the books may be fiddled to support Rudbeck’s road project, the colonial officer is seduced. But Rudbeck’s swindle is uncovered and he returns to England to be with his wife. Johnson now goes to work for Gollup, a retired British sergeant who has married a native woman and runs the local store. Gollup is an abusive drunk given to racist epithets, but he admires Johnson’s good-humored courage in facing up to his words and blows.
Johnson, in turn, enjoys the compliment to his courage and, when Gollup next attacks him, retaliates. Gollup does not take this kind of violence seriously and thinks no less of Johnson, but he cannot have an employee who has struck him in public. Johnson is let go and leaves Fada. Meanwhile, a shortage of political officers means that Rudbeck must return. He immediately recommences his road-building. Rudbeck and his superior work out the extent to which he can finagle road-building funds from the accounts, but the older man warns Rudbeck that another scandal will destroy his career.
The road-building brings Johnson back to Fada. Rudbeck hires him again and Johnson’s infectious enthusiasm makes the road-building successful. But Rudbeck discovers that Johnson has been engaged in petty graft and dismisses him. Johnson turns to theft from the store to support his lifestyle and, when Gollup discovers him, kills the storekeeper. Now Rudbeck must try Johnson for murder. The trial brings Rudbeck to the breaking point. Johnson is found guilty and begs Rudbeck to keep him from the gallows by killing him. Rudbeck follows his heart rather than the rules and does so, though the act will destroy his career and possibly have other ramifications, legal and personal, that lie beyond the close of the novel.
It could be argued that this novel is what happens when white people try to teach civilized ways too quickly to savages. The savage can’t understand the ways properly, is intoxicated by the possibilities he sees in the dignity and wealth of the white men and so gets himself in way over his head in his efforts to equal them, and winds up dead.