Spielberg: The Color Purple

Now I read Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple around the same time I saw the film for the first time. I was familiar both, knowing that the Book had won awards, and that the film was up for many an Oscar – so was expecting nothing short of the best from both.

The book is written in a very crude diary form, which adds to the complexity of character as well as giving the book a technical side to its writing. It didn’t pull any punches in this drama of a black woman living under the thumb of a very abusive husband she has been married off to at a young age – who she eventually manages to escape towards the end of the novel.

There are heavy moments of domestic abuse and violence. There is also a heavy dose of homosexuality later in the book for those academics who like to read into such things. And oh boy did the lecturers at my school, and later college and then University just love anything homoerotic in any novel. Frankenstein was another example of apparently every male character just gagging to leap into the sack with each other, even those that never meet! I’m pretty sure that if we were studying a Thomas the Tank Engine pop-up book they would have found something homoerotic about that too. Now that I think about it, perhaps Thomas the Tank Engine isn’t the best example to use in my sarcasm?

Spielberg’s film waters all of this down heavily. Was this the right thing to do – well that depends on your view point. The film is perhaps a gateway for more light hearted viewers into this world. And if it intrigues you, then you have the book to tackle afterwards which is, as said before, much heavier. I personally subscribe to the rule of “Watch the film, then read the book”.  Books as we all know do tend to be better than the film adaptations. So why not watch the film first – if the story grasps you then you know that the book will be better (And it isn’t hard to tell your brain NOT to think of the film as you read it as many people claim they can’t do. Let the words do the driving). Many people don’t want to tackle books after films as they know the plot and the story, but isn’t that also true of reading a book then watching a film… the plot essentially is spoiled? So I think my argument for reversing the process is better for the consumer as a whole, so long as they are interested in putting in the hours afterwards.  Either way the plot is spoiled, but at least you’re experience is pretty much going to be more positive than the common way of doing it – which is the other way around.  And it is very true of this book as it is much more detailed, and well told.

Spielberg still had too much fluffiness to his story telling back then. But there are also signs of his darker edges coming through in this story.  There are perfect examples of both here. For the darker side look at the scene where Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) is about to shave her husband “Mister” (Danny Glover). He grabs her arm and looks at her intently and threatens that is she cuts him, he will kill her. It’s a very intense and unexpected moment. It gets across his position in the home, and how fearful she is of him.

Now if the rest of this relationship maintained this tone we might have something worthy of all those award nominations. Instead we also get poorly conceived scenes where he chases her about outside intent on beating her. Hang on? Isn’t that quite a serious thing you say? Well it would be if it wasn’t done to the tune of very light-hearted, and almost comedic music. Almost as if it’s turned into a Wacky Banjo Race round the garden. It’s a real copout and lets the audience off the hook a bit too much.  I personally didn’t find much in the book about a man beating his wife comedic. So the film sways both ways – and even at the end we are letting the man off the hook a little bit too much in his effort to reunite Celie with her family. Aww isn’t he not such a bad guy after all. He just let the power and control go to his head, and now he’s learnt his lesson and learnt to provide joy from someone else for a change. Aww, Look at him smile.

To be fair this is also in the book (not quite as cheesy) – which I suppose opens us to the idea that everyone despite their faults deserves some redemption through guilt; although somehow I doubt Spielberg would grant such permissions of Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler’s List.

So it was probably fair that Spielberg had a few lighter moments in the film so that we accept this ending with tears of joy – But I think he just picked the wrong moments in which to show the funny side of things.

The film does look beautiful, and the acting is top notch. It gave Whoopi a career, and even presented Oprah in what may have been a spellbinding alternative career if she had stuck with it full time.

Otherwise – in today’s day and age this drama is far too light and would have been much more brutally told in modern cinema. And with that thought in mind, perhaps a second go at the material is really what this story needs.

Steven Hurst

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