Thursday, September 19, 2019

Toni Morrison: Not so Beloved by Hollywood

Since the death of Toni Morrison on August 5 of this year, I’ve been thinking about the great American novelists, and why the translation of their books into film is always so disappointing. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been filmed five times, but I don’t believe any of these versions truly captures what makes the novel so magical. Hemingway adaptations have their moments, but none of them is totally representative of what Hemingway brought to American fiction. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was indeed made by John Ford into a beloved film, with unforgettable performances by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell as his indomitable mother. Still, the film lacks those great lyric passages that lift Steinbeck’s novel into the realm of the universal. As for Faulkner, I had the misfortune to see in a theatre Hollywood’s attempt at filming The Sound and the Fury. The 1959 film starring Joanne Woodward and (oddly enough) Yul Brynner ditches any attempt at reproducing Faulkner’s experiments with point of view, merely concentrating on the plight of some sad Southern aristocrats. (I actually watched this fiasco as a kid, because it was a double-bill companion to Disney’s The Shaggy Dog. Go figure!)

Most of the authors I’ve mentioned above were winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. (Fitzgerald is the one exception.) Morrison was a Nobel-winner too, and to me there was no American novelist more deserving. Morrison’s range was wide: though she wrote exclusively about African-Americans, she covered many eras and perspectives, and also explored many styles. If one sign of mastery in a novelist is the ability to create and flesh out an entire universe, she achieved true greatness in her eleven full-length works. And then there’s her way with words. Praising  her astonishing third novel, Song of Solomon, the writer Reynolds Price declared that “Morrison’s gifts for observing and transforming a spacious visible world into its matching mirror-world of sound and rhythm had grown to the point of overflow; and Song of Solomon is the first display of a suddenly effortless power that can not only hold us but can promise to spread, not only in the reader’s memory but in the writer’s work to come.”

Price is right to focus on Morrison’s distinctive use of sound and rhythm, which shows up not just in her characters’ dialogue but in the ebb and  flow of the narrative voice. It is this voice – the distinctive use of words by a gifted author – that is so very hard to convey on screen. Which is one good reason why filmmakers have been reluctant to touch Morrison’s novels. The one big exception is the film version of Beloved, released to modest critical acclaim and poor box office in 1998. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, which moves back and forth through time to tell a chilling tale of slavery and its aftermath, had the advantage of a strong commitment from Oprah Winfrey, who owned the screen rights for a decade before managing to pull together a film production with herself and Danny Glover in leading roles. Oprah’s all-in performance is admirably strong, and the film directed by Jonathan Demme is evocatively cast, filmed, and scored. Yet Morrison’s complex and convoluted narrative, with its mysterious supernatural elements, is not easy for a viewer to fathom. Beloved is in many respects a ghost story. But the film is less haunting than confusing, and even someone with Oprah’s gift for generating publicity couldn’t save it. Beloved is an honorable failure as a film. But I suspect there are some page-to-screen projects better left untouched.

No comments:

Post a Comment