I can remember watching The Color Purple, vaguely, when I was much much younger. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be watching it, and I’m pretty sure it was on post watershed. I do not remember much about watching it then, although watching it again now as an adult much of it seems familiar, particularly the first few scenes.
The Color Purple is this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival Book Club choice, so I thought I would revisit the film after reading the book. I’m glad I did things this way round, as the book has so much more detail and a much more in depth story than the film. If you are new to a recent edition of the book I would also suggest reading Alice Walker’s author prologue after you have read the book – purely to see if you pick up on her intended themes as much as she wanted you to.
So the book – its written from the perspective of the lead protagonist Ceelie’s letters to God in the most part, interspersed with letters to and from Nettie her sister. Ceelie herself mentions that she is uneducated, so the letters are written almost in broken spoken dialect. I do normally struggle a bit with reading anything so strongly not written in my native dialect (my problem, I hugely struggles with Trainspotting for the same reason!), but I found the simplicity of the letters quickly absorbing. Walker takes us on Ceelie’s journey and confronts very painful issues such as child abuse, civil rights, rape, marital discourse and violence, all the way through to love in its purist form, love for a sister, children, a friend, a partner, God. The richness of the book that did not for me translate well into the film was how carefully each character is crafted and introduced to the reader slowly. Walker builds anticipation at finally meeting many of the characters she creates and weaves into the story, but in such a unique fashion, that I felt I knew them already and already disliked, or loved them.
The story is classically wound up and all the loose ends tied neatly at the conclusion of the book, the sins of the past rectified, or buried. I will not spoil the ending for anyone about to embark upon Walker’s masterpiece, but despite a few twists and turns in the tale, everything works out in the end, to a degree.
The film I purchased on DVD after reading the book. It was not really as I remembered, yes some scenes were familiar and I think my childhood memories and my fresh reading of the novel led me to be a little disappointed in the film. Don’t get me wrong, Whoopi Goldberg is beyond stunning in her portrayal of Ceelie. There is a moment when Ceelie and Shrug are together and Shrug is convincing Ceelie she has a beautiful smile, Goldberg’s tentative then beaming smile is my standout moment of the entire film. Goldberg is Ceelie, living and breathing, brought to life, there would be no better actress on earth to play this character.
However, I felt that the violence brought to life in the book so clearly was not terribly well explained, nor was the sudden appearance of Shrug, so carefully introduced over many pages in the book. Nettie’s adventures are largely ignored, when again they are very thoughtfully explained throughout the book, her own, quite separate story of her life given a proper side plot, not a neat finale explanation in the final scene of the film.
Danny Glover is also a standout for his performance as ‘Mister’, his character truly follows the course of the book, ending with a marked softening, perfectly portrayed.
I ultimately have to say I preferred the book to the film. The film, I felt although its direction inspired, and its lead actors stunning, didn’t really enthral me as the book did in its story telling. The book was a hard read in terms of its content, but it was a worthwhile and enjoyable one.
I’m not so sure about some reviewers / critiques options of the theme of feminism running through the book. I’m not so sure if it really is all about men versus women. I think there are some relationships between the sexes that are mutual, and are respectful. There are obviously horrific moments of oppression and violence against women, but violence again men is also considered. The ending also seems to be a release from male oppression, but equally the lead male character is set free in a way, and Ceelie’s son, Adam makes huge sacrifices for his love of Tashi.
If you are keen to read a modern classic, read The Color Purple, and if you are interested in the direction of Spielberg, or where many of our iconic black actors started their careers, watch the film. Both are entertaining, the book far outweighs the film in my humble opinion.