Demme and Winfrey’s reading of Morrison’s difficult to adapt Beloved adequate but unsubtle

Literary adaptation has always been a problem in film. A screenwriter takes a primary source – a novel, in most cases – and decides either to rework (or butcher) it into a truly workable screenplay (because, as the good ones know, movies and novels are completely different in narrative structure) or remain completely and stubbornly faithful to the novel, keeping the chronology and poetic flair of the novel intact so as to make the most “respectable” adaptation possible. The former sometimes works; the latter usually does not.

It must have been a bit scary to adapt Beloved, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of ex-slaves in post-Civil War Ohio. The book is exceptionally complex, weaving in and out of the past, with the kind of dizzying and meticulous skill that made Faulkner such a hero/villain for English scholars everywhere. Morrison’s poetry is so thick and vivid in Beloved – the novel embraces the abject, the dirt, the fluids that should remain inside, with extraordinarily memorable images – that one might think that a big-screen adaptation is not only possible but suitable.

However, something goes a bit wrong in the novel’s translation to celluloid. The screenwriters – Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks – take the faithful route, and the result ends up being more of an ambitious project than a great film. At times, the complex flashback structure of the book – stories upon stories upon stories – lends itself to a rare intimacy between stars Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and Kimberly Elise. The movie actually dares to tell a long, complicated story, which few movies still bother to do, but its dense packing of detail ends up being too obvious, especially for those who have read the novel.

The director Jonathan Demme, whose Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs is one of the most successful and riveting faithful adaptations ever produced for the screen, does a good job with fusing the dripping layers of Beloved into a watchable and at times compelling film, but the script and length keep it down.

But, accepting the movie as a true adaptation, this is probably the best movie one could get. Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), who is a longtime collaborator with Demme, compliments the film beautifully with his unique in-your-face cinematography. The characters look directly into the camera, and we are forced to take them at a literal face-value, no matter what kind of awful past they have. But he slips a bit in the flashback sequences. The color in these key sequences is indeed bleak and washed-out, but too obvious and stylized, making the characters’ histories look a bit cheap.

This period in history has always been difficult to accurately photograph. No one has yet been able to find color film that can perfectly mimic the grainy black-and-white daguerreotype photography of that period. The color of Beloved is beautiful (especially with Demme and Fujimoto’s creepy addition of swarms of ladybugs and butterflies), but it is not dirty enough.

Oprah Winfrey, who produced Beloved, is solid as the film’s proud, torn heroine Sethe. Her voice is virtually unrecognizable after years in the talk-show spotlight. However, the film’s portrayal (and possibly the book’s, as well) of Sethe is strangely one-dimensional. She is essentially a story-teller who has gone through so much hell that she has lost all of her defining characteristics. Danny Glover, as Paul D the male visitor, is golden and charming in the role, but almost too much so. The screenplay leaves out Paul D’s tattered history, leaving him without any edge whatsoever. He comes off as basically just a nice man, which is a flawed interpretation. Thandie Newton’s Beloved is also somewhat flawed. She is completely spastic, disgusting, and childish.

Jonathan Demme seems to have a soft spot in his heart for this kind of obvious, messy beauty, but this interpretation lacks all subtlety. The most refreshing performance is given by newcomer Kimberly Elise as Sethe’s daughter Denver. She expresses pent-up misery with an amazing amount of electricity. Her Denver is always thinking about something else far away, because she has to.

Beloved is a good film based on a great book. About half-way through watching the film, it occurred to me that this might just be one of those novels that cannot be made into a great film, that perhaps a faithful success is impossible. It’s simply the wrong book to adapt.

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