Thursday, June 8, 2017
June 8, 2017: The Pulitzers at 100: The Color Purple
[The first Pulitzer Prizes were given out 100 years ago, on June 5, 1917. So to celebrate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying five Pulitzer-winning works of fiction, leading up to a special weekend post on the most recent winner!]
On what the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel couldn’t include, what it could have but didn’t, and why it’s still an important complement to the book.
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Color Purple (1983) is also one of the relatively small number of recent books that utilize a literary structure through which the novel significantly developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries: the epistolary form, also known as the novel of letters. Walker uses that longstanding literary form in a partly traditional and partly postmodern way, having her protagonist Celie both exchange letters with her younger sister Nettie and write letters to God; the novel is constructed out of the back and forth between these different types of letters and the distinct perspectives and frames they provide. No analysis of Walker’s novel could leave aside this crucial narrative and structural choice and all the ways it frames such topics as voice and perspective, audience and response, and character arcs and relationships; but at the same time, I think it’s fair to say that no film adaptation of the novel could have successfully mirrored its use of the epistolary form, and certainly Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation did not try to do so. Letters can be used briefly within a film to great effect (Cloud Atlas stands out in that regard), but I don’t believe they could work as a film’s entire narrative or voiceover structure.
That wasn’t the only aspect of Walker’s novel that Spielberg’s film changed, however. To quote the great New York Times critic Janet Maslin: “Mr. Spielberg has looked on the sunny side of Miss Walker's novel, fashioning a grand, multi-hanky entertainment that is as pretty and lavish as the book is plain. If the book is set in the harsh, impoverished atmosphere of rural Georgia, the movie unfolds in a cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland.” The very choice of Spielberg, then as now, and for better or for worse, a filmmaker consistently dedicated to entertainment and sentimentality (full disclosure: I’m not a fan, but your mileage may vary of course), to direct the adaptation likely made such changes in tone inevitable and even expected or intended. But for any viewer familiar with the novel, those tonal changes from page to screen remain quite jarring, and to my mind shift the film’s style much further away from Walker’s than does the likely necessary decision to abandon the epistolary structure. To quote Maslin again, “the combination of [Spielberg’s] sensibilities and Miss Walker's amounts to a colossal mismatch.”
Yet Maslin ends that sentence by arguing that the film “manages to have momentum, warmth and staying power all the same,” and I would agree and add that it offers a compelling complement to Walker’s novel. Thanks in large part to Walker’s use of the epistolary form, her book focuses in many ways on characterization, and in particular on capturing the voices, perspectives, and identities of her central female characters with depth and nuance (her male characters, not so much, as many before me have noted). If Spielberg’s film is understandably and perhaps inevitably unable to do the same, it does depict setting in a more multi-layered way; there I would in fact disagree with Maslin, as I believe the film includes both the harshness and the beauty of its Georgia world, multiple sides to that setting that the move away from using Celie’s perspective as a sole or dominant lens allows the film to feature more fully. The world’s beauties should not and do not mask or minimize its horrors; but the beauties are there nonetheless, and if Spielberg’s sentimentality can at times over-emphasize them, we as viewers can instead recognize a story that offers glimpses of both the worst and the best of our communities and experiences. Taken together, Walker’s novel and Spielberg’s film certainly present those multiple layers to a single story.
Last Pulitzer post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on other prize-winning (or –worthy) books?