GOIN’ to SEE the MOVIE? READ the NOVEL FIRST…
For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
Sonny’s Blues 
Goin’ to see a movie? Read the novel first… Regina King, a versatile, talented veteran of Hollywood won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for portraying Sharon Rivers in James Baldwin’s acclaimed, but long-forgotten novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins’s screen adaptation has won forty-seven awards since the film debuted in 2018. Sixteen of those recognitions are for writing and directing.
Movies garner increased interest and attract more viewers as a result of earning accolades and honors. Prizes speak to the quality, substance, and overall performance, in many, but not all instances. Green Book, for example, comes to mind. Adapting a novel for either the small screen or the big one piques curiosity and raises expectations. Will the movie, or mini-series be true to the narrative? The best answer is read the tome before viewing it; read the novel first!
Writing requires imagination. People who read for edification and enjoyment will readily admit a chronicle they find difficult to comprehend gets the boot. It will end up at a friends-of-the-library book sale on the $1 or $2 table; get left behind purposely; or will be hidden on a bookshelf containing forgettable prose, located in a seldom-visited space. Avid readers don’t waste time trying to decipher illegible content. Why does an uninspiring piece of media get thrown away? Usually because it’s dull and dispiriting. Who, I implore you, is so inclined?
Altering a written narrative to fit an allotment of time in which the characters, at least some, are transformed by actors who interpret them and strive to tell their stories in a different environment is a challenge. The success, or failure of the effort depends on a combination of variables including the angle from which the adaptation is to be told; the dialogue, setting, costumes, and direction. Not every novel should become a movie.
James Arthur Baldwin was a prolific writer, an author, essayist, critic, and critical thinker. He was a witty, acerbic literatus who focused his formidable intellectual heft on the reality of being Black in America during his lifetime: August 2, 1924 to December 1, 1987. Baldwin was an expatriate who left the United States as a young man. At the time of his death, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, Regina King was a sixteen-year-old actress playing Brenda Jenkins on the NBC sitcom, 227. Barry Jenkins was eight years old.
If Beale Street Could Talk was published June 17, 1974, approximately six weeks before Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States was forced to resign from office. It is worth noting Regina King was three years old and Barry Jenkins was a twinkle in his mother’s eyes. What message did Baldwin convey in this novel and how effectively was it translated on screen? Goin’ to see the movie? Read the novel first.
Aspiring writers who dream of seeing their work adapted to the big screen, here’s a nugget to ponder on your journey: how much reading do you do and how often? What’s your preferred genre? Who’s your favorite author and why do you find this raconteur’s style so appealing? Do you have a personal library? Writers must read! Inditers must feed their fancy, nurture their fantasy, and enrich “that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude…” [Wordsworth]. One can only speculate on the reaction of the late Mr. Baldwin to the newfound popularity of his novel. His body of work is a testament to the depth and breadth of his erudition.
The question remains, how closely does Jenkins’s screenplay, direction, and King’s portrayal align with the narrative? Forget about The Cliff Notes version or the Wikipedia summary. Does the movie expound on the nuances of 1970s Harlem? Does it do justice to the non-verbal passages depicting time, place, joy, sorrow, anger, vulnerability, outrage, or deceit? Gonna check out the flick? Read the novel first.
Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel, Dracula, was published May 26, 1897. It has generated more than forty movies and musicals adapted from the original novel and many more based on the main character. Have any succeeded in telling the story of the coffin-dwelling, blood-sucking count whose powers of transformation seem truly frightening in the pages of the author’s titillating commentary on sexual repression in Victorian England? Thinking about seeing a movie? Read the novel first.
I was glued to the boob tube when Alex Haley’s Roots was televised as a mini-series on ABC in 1977. I still remember the riveting, unforgettable performances of LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen as Chicken George, Olivia Cole, John Amos, and Madge Sinclair among others. It was Haley’s powerful narrative which drew me in and captured my imagination, hurt my feelings, caused me deep pain, and brought me so much joy. Did the series live up to my expectations? I don’t recall. The action was vivid and well done, but the story Haley wrote is what I know in my spirit.
I loved Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X; but the autobiography written by Malcolm and Alex Haley gave me deeper insight into the man who became el-Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Walter Moseley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, turned Washington into a sex symbol through his depiction of laborer-turned-private-detective, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins who solves crimes in 1940s Los Angeles. Wanna see the movies? Read the narratives first.
Books and movies transport readers and viewers to places they might not otherwise visit. These flights of fancy stay with us for reasons we may or may not be able to elucidate on or even articulate. Digital re-imaginings of chronicles we’ve read usually heighten anticipation. Movies are limited in their capacity to convey emotions and non-verbal aspects of a narrative. Nor can they offer a glimpse of the creator’s thinking through passages which can be read but not acted out. Novice writes, take notice. Your ability to paint textual canvases using persuasive, soaring, unforgettable prose offers a framework for comparison if the chronicle becomes a screenplay or a mini-series. Are James Baldwin’s feelings about being black in the America of his lifetime apparent in Barry Jenkins’s adaptation? Can you tell from merely seeing the movie? Gonna see the show? Read the novel first.
I read The Color Purple before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I saw the movie at least three times and I’ve seen the musical. I’ve enjoyed every interpretation, but it’s the novel I find most meaningful. Celie, Nettie, Mister, Sophia, Harpo, and all the other characters came alive for me through Alice Walker’s brilliant storytelling. Already saw the movie? Read the novel, find out what the author has to say.
I was so moved by Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, I gave copies of the book away as gifts. Ironically several of the recipients confessed to being unable to finish it…which left me scratching my head. I liked the movie; I thought it was a brave effort. When Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was overjoyed. No matter how good a movie is, it can never replace the compelling prose on which it is based. What a meaningful screen, television, or stage adaptation can do is enhance what has already been gained from reading the narrative. It’s the star power of incisively, skillfully employed word power which makes the difference. Goin’ to see the movie? Read the novel first. Find out what the author has to say.
ESPECIALLY FOR YOU
The world of literature is replete with television, stage, and movie adaptations. Following is a brief list compiled for your reading enjoyment. Wanna see the movie? Read the novel first! Find out what the author has to say, and by all means add your choices.
|A Christmas Carol||Charles Dickens|
|Anna Karenina||Leo Tolstoy|
|Dr. Zhivago||Boris Pasternak|
|East of Eden||John Steinbeck|
|Les Miserables||Victor Hugo|
|Lonesome Dove||Larry McMurtry|
|Native Son||Richard Wright|
|Rebecca||Daphne du Maurier|
|The Age of Innocence||Edith Wharton|
|The Grapes of Wrath||John Steinbeck|
|The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood||Howard Pyle|
|The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde||Robert Louis Stevenson|
|The Three Musketeers||Alexandre Dumas|
|The Wedding||Dorothy West|
|The Wonderful Wizard of Oz||Lyman Frank Baum|
|The Women of Brewster Place||Gloria Naylor|
|Their Eyes Were Watching God||Zora Neale Hurston|
©Copyright by Theresa W. Bennett-Wilkes, March 6, 2019. All rights reserved.