*On The Color Purple and Beloved film adaptations…

I remember when The Color Purple movie came out in 1986. To have a beautiful and serious movie, that was not about Blacks killing each other or acting stupid but truly featured the story and amazing acting, was a big event. Oprah Winfrey was already a sort of star, and the other actors were people we knew as well.  I imagine the excitement was like when The Color Purple opened to fanfare on Broadway, where so many people got dressed up and flew into New York City just to see that on a stage.

I feel like I couldn’t be a Black woman if I didn’t rank The Color Purple as one of my favorite films. It is the Michael Jackson of Black film. I know little children who know that movie, and they were not even born when it came out.

Celie in The Color Purple

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

However, shortly after the movie started airing on HBO, my mother’s mother picked up the novel that had been re-issued for the movie’s release. Whoopi Goldberg was on the front, sitting on the porch, reading Oliver Twist like she did in the movie. I started to try to read the book. I recognized the first few lines: a girl writing to God. By a few pages in, I was lost. I did not understand how what I read matched up to the movie. This went on and on. Once in a blue moon, a moment or character or speech would pop up that I remembered. However, for the most part, I hated the book: a million long letters about Africa; Celie and Shug have much more than one kiss; and, Celie and Mister actually get along. I felt like I was being cheated by reading it.

As a matter of fact, most people who saw the movie complained about the book. This was in my small town of Illinois, not at a highbrow university English and M.F.A. program, or in the Manhattan publishing world. But whenever that movie comes on, I and everyone I know will sit to watch it, even though we’ve seen it a million times. We know all the words. We know all the parts. But, really, we did not at all know the novel.

Later, I saw or heard or detected more and more that Alice Walker felt about the movie the way we felt about the book. This hurt me, because I loved Spielberg’s movies. As a child, I knew him better than Ms. Walker. I maybe heard of Ms. Walker or saw her picture in school, during Black History Month. But, I would have never known her name and face like that without The Color Purple movie.

I stopped celebrating Alice Walker. I felt like if someone makes your story into a movie and people love it, then what is the problem? I did not explore much of her other work for this reason: I held an image of her as “mean.”

Then, I went off and “got ejumicated.” And I re-read The Color Purple as a budding young woman.  Finally, it made perfect sense to me why Ms. Walker would have some problems with the film adaptation of her book.

Despite the fact he made her much better known than she would have been without that adaptation, I later wondered if Spielberg even liked her, her characters or her story. I think he saw cinematic value and potential of her landscape, but pitied the characters in a way different from our love.

According to the movie I loved, against the book I came to accept, everything is changed except little plot points and some of the more brilliant dialogue. With the exception of a field of flowers, the movie did not even get into the nitty gritty of why Celie loved the color purple so much. The movie is a very white-washed, watered down, “fancy” vision of a very adult story. This does not change my love for it. However, it is sad so many millions of people view the novel as a stepchild to its own story–and I am one.

On the contrary, I knew the book Beloved well before it became a 1998 movie; I loved the movie more for helping me see the story better in the novel–not the other way around.

I am not alone. Director Jonathan Demme adapted Beloved for her, and Ms. Morrison has often sung his praises in public (whereas Ms. Walker won’t even speak of The Color Purple with Oprah Winfrey, and did not attend a reunion Ms. Winfrey staged 25 years later on her talk show). Toni Morrison was onstage just beaming about her movie, however. Roger Ebert called it the best movie of the year.

I agreed. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. Beloved is 3 hours long. I watch it often as background music to chores, and I see or notice something new every time. But, there is no way I would expect too many others to follow me. Most call the movie “crazy” and “confusing,” even “stupid.”

Oprah in Beloved

Image: Buena Vista PicturesIt is a Catch-22. I am grateful The Color Purple film is a treasured and enduring piece of Americana here to change lives, inspire people and even birth geniuses like Lupita N’yongo- who stated publicly that it was seeing that movie on television in Kenya which made her think she could be a movie star. But I can definitely understand how the cinematic sugarcoating would bother its author and readers who loved the novel first. I simply can not imagine Thandie Newton, Beah Richards or Kimberly Elise swaying and clapping a song about slavery in the middle the Beloved film. But, it tanked at the box office.

At the end of the day, we all have to find our own meanings in the best stories, and love them for what they are to us.

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4 thoughts on “*On The Color Purple and Beloved film adaptations…

  1. Maybe i need to go back and re-read the Color Purple because i thought it was an excellent adaption. Recently I watched a PBS the Masters in Alice Walker and I didn’t get the feeling she hated the movie at all. Maybe her view changed as she got older. Now i read the Color Purple quite a few years before the movie came out. Maybe because i read it young even though the movie only suggested a lesbian relationship it wasnt till I was an adult reading ut a second time did i get it from the book. I actually love both and i think Spielberg did an excellent job and the movie was totally robbed at the Oscars


    1. Thank you Shahidah! Yes, I think she came to terms with the film over time. I think it is scary and awkward for any writer to see their invention filtered through someone else’s imagination, and it is up to us readers to love our black women writers either way. The book’s lesbian relationship, over girlish friendship the movie showed, was one of the many strange differences that taught me to read the book of any film! Spielberg’s impression was extraordinary in its own right and I think, next to Beloved, the most robbed black-cast film in Academy Awards history. Blessings and happy writing, Kalisha


  2. I had the exact opposite reaction to the book The Color Purple. I saw the movie when I was very young like 11 maybe but I didn’t read the book until I was 30. After I read it I hated the movie, I was so mad about it and it made me dislike Spielberg. I’ve since backed off and realized I can still like the movie but it’s lost a bit it’s luster. I do think that reading it at the age I did had a lot to do with it. I was able to really take it in. I wonder what the movie could have been if a Black woman had been at the helm.


    1. Thanks for reading Ginger! Yes the differences between the movie and book are just startling. I think that, today and in these times, a closer rendition to Ms. Walker’s book could be made. Back then, the world just was not ready. If it had not been so commercialized in almost every form now I think it would have been nice to see a Black woman remake it. Peace and Blessings, Kalisha

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