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.
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.”
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.