Film vs Book: The Colo(u)r Purple

Now this is something a little more experimental that I want to try out. I’m not sure how good this is going to be but I hope you all enjoy.

This is probably my longest post yet, so I have to warn you that spoilers lie ahead.

I am relieved to say that I have finally won the battle with my coughing fits. It’s nice to be able to breathe again without wheezing exhaustively on the ground every five seconds.

Let’s get to the point: I read The Color Purple over a year ago, getting through quite a bit of the way until stopping due to other commitments. But it was at Christmas that I found between the vinyl-record tea-coasters and a headphone beanie the film The Color Purple which had been gifted to me… and it went onto a shelf of films until this Friday…

I had come back from my camping trip from Pembroke to find an empty house and a text informing me that the rest of my family were stuck in traffic at Kent.

I went upstairs to unpack. It was when I was taking out wet, grassy sock from my bag when the shelf above my bed decided I was spring-cleaning and proceeded to drop unceremoniously onto my head. I would be lying to say The Color Purple DVD fell to my feet like a sign from God, but it did catch my attention by the fact it had left a large bruise on my chest.

After I had cleaned up the mess and used my very dubious DIY skills, I finally watched the old thing. It was actually longer than expected, and gave my family a chance to travel back from their own little holiday as I watched the closing sequence.

It was then that it hit me. A double blog post! Brilliant! I spent the weekend composing this, so I hope you enjoy!

The story of The Color Purple (which my British spirit screams to spell with a ‘u’) bases itself around Celie’s life and her sister, Nettie, in 1930s southern United States. Celie is trapped in an abusive relationship, but finds comfort in a woman called Shug Avery, her husband’s previous lover. Celie writes letters to God, and then soon to her sister as she learns how to love and stand up for herself.

The book is an epistolary novel aside from the beginning lines: You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy. I love this challenge Walker took. The letters are believable, if confusing at times. There were times is wasn’t clear who was talking when and there were some slip ups, like saying Nettie’s name in letters addressed to Nettie herself. It’s easy to forget that we are reading the letters of these people, not observing the people themselves.

The 1985 film is directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Whoopi Goldberg (playing Celie), Danny Glover (Mister) and Oprah Winfrey (Sophia). While the film is less subtle than the book, the film doesn’t focus on the letters so much. That’s not a bad thing. Celie does quote the book at parts, but Spielberg prefers to show the motifs through the cinematography than the language, but that’s what creative adaptation and artistic licence is.

The plot takes an epic-style scope, spanning years of Celie’s life. The book doesn’t go into the physical changes of the characters all too much, leaving it to your imagination to the passage of time. It was only when Celie mentions the years that I realised how long it’d been. With the film, it’s more defined visually, but they cheated slightly with the use of captions of dates. However, the ageing of props cleverly showed time passing.

I see Spielberg wanted to include everything that the book did. What was good was that I wasn’t bored that can happen from films based on books like The Golden Compass or The Da Vinci Code. It kept at a nice pace which didn’t fly by any important details. The book most certainly did not bore me either. There was something going on in every letter, and each one had a subtext that helped me engage with the letters. You have to look behind Celie’s broken writings to find the sad truth or freeing revelation.

I found the book to be more serious and hard-hitting than the film. The book puts a lot of focus on such themes as religion, something that the film slightly overlooked. This ties in with the meaning behind the colour purple, but you might as well call the film The Life of Celie Harris. The film also adds comedy to the mix, which was amusing, but not apt for the story. While light-hearted relief doesn’t hurt, it was incorporated into scenes that should have been serious, like Sofia’s arrest.

I think I got more involved with the book’s characters rather than the film. We get most of the book’s story from Celie’s point of view, and that helps us relate to her plights. Walker instantly grips you in the first page with an extremely gritty imagery, all coming from the confused and naive voice of Celie. Whoopi Goldberg has a difficult role to play but was extremely convincing. However, Celie’s portrayal and transformation in the book was a little more magical.

In the film, young Celie’s and Nettie’s bond appeared stronger, and you do feel saddened by their separation, which seemed too quick in the book. Oprah Winfrey does an amazing job as Sofia, who brings the racism theme into the story. She envisioned the character perfectly. Danny Glover was the victim of bad writing in my opinion. Comedy was again a problem, and I found the marriage deviated in how realistic it was.

And this is the scene that is best to compare the two: the table scene.

Here, Celie finally finds the courage to speak out and leave her husband, finding that he has been keeping letters from her written by Nettie. In the book, the character’s dialogue is stated to you in Celie’s usual punctuation-free writing, but this was completely different. I was excited and drawn to this scene. I could envision everyone’s movements, thoughts, and feelings perfectly. It is absolute genius. I wanted to throw the book in the air and dance on a table. I did not do that, however, as I am a self-respecting individual. I was also in the middle of a café at the time.

The film gives us a good crescendo into the scene. It slowly builds up everyone’s emotions, using a lot of dialogue from the book to drive the point home that Celie is beginning to be set free. There is a certain power that Whoopi creates in this scene, and this is where she crossed the border from great to fantastic. I was at home this time, so I could dance to my heart’s content… but lightening doesn’t strike twice. The book had already blown me away.

I could go on and on and on, but I have said enough to make a decision: the book, hands down. The film was more theatrical, but didn’t portray America’s Deep South with the gritty realism it deserves. It was like Spielberg didn’t want to get his hands too dirty. The book portrays Celie in genius subtly and gives us the realism that we need. It manages to show great emotion and power through a very limited writing style that is what makes this book so outstanding.

While I recommend the film for its excellent cinematography, truly heart-felt moments and satisfying conclusion, the book will always stay a level above what any adaptation could ever be.

Finally done. I’m not entirely happy, but I can say I am content with the outcome of this post. I’ll see you all next week.