When the Medium is the Message: Some Brief Thoughts on the Movie Adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved

In light of Toni Morrison’s recent passing, I finally decided to pick up one of her novels (having been collecting them at garage and library book sales for years, putting them on the “to-read” shelf). I figured I would go ahead and start with the most critically acclaimed, her Nobel-prize-wining Beloved. It’s a brilliant and complex novel, one that in my opinion is well deserving of its many accolades. The novel shifts between time and perspectives, weaving the spiritual and corporeal together until they are nearly indistinguishable. It’s the kind of book you could read over and over and find something new every time (consequently it’s now on my “definitely-read-again-in-a-few-years” shelf).

As I was reading, I had it in the back of my mind that this book had been adapted into a film, and by none other than Oprah, the media queen herself. But as my reading progressed, the more I wondered, “How in the hell would you make this book into a film?” So of course, I had to go and see for myself. Luckily, I live in the age of streaming, so it was easy to find on Amazon even though it came out twenty years ago.

And uh… well.

It is not the masterpiece the source material is. But it is not by any means a bad movie, and some of the directorial choices are absolutely fantastic. It’s rare to see a rape scene shot from the point of view of the victim. All too often, a scene like that would be shot like trauma porn, sensationalizing the event or worse, shot from the perspective of the attacker in a way that objectifies the victim. But in this film, the viewer sees the abusers and Sethe’s body the way she would have seen it, putting the viewer in Sethe’s head and centering her perspective of the event. It’s unfortunate that the body in question is very obviously a dummy set up for the shot, but I appreciate the fact that Demme went for it anyway, instead of falling back on convention.

But overall, the film struggles to really convey the psychological depth of the book. Morrison’s novel consists in large part of the internal thoughts and memories of each character. This is part of how time seems to shift, with the past seeping into the present, even when the characters are trying to push the past back. But the movie can’t show all this inner turmoil, it can only give us the suggestion of it in visual terms. Consequently, much of the movie is oddly silent, without dialogue, and when people do speak, we don’t get the train of thought we do in the novel, so their choice of words seems kind of random at times.

Other actions are similarly difficult to follow where the motivations are explicit in the novel but vague or ambiguous on-screen. For example, Paul D is disquieted by Beloved from the beginning, including reading a certain amount of sensuality into the way she acts. This is not there at all in the film, in fact she’s almost infant-like in her demeanor. I read her as airier and creepier in the novel, leaving the possibility that Paul D reading her as aroused by love (or lust) “shining” as he puts it, more believable. The child-like, mentally handicapped, way she is portrayed in the film would really make Paul thinking like this disturbing. It doesn’t come up in the film, but without it we are also left wondering why Paul D seems to dislike her so much. It also makes the scene where she approaches him for sex way weirder. In the book, it seemed like Paul was giving in to her advances, because the attraction was already there, even though he hated himself for it. In the movie, it comes off less like a sinister seduction and more like she assaults him. (Although the psycho-sexual callback to imagery of the turtles and Beloved’s body language showing her neck scar is morbidly fascinating.)

And then of course, there is this scene, which has become a bit of joke. In both the book and the movie the scene occurs immediately after they discover Beloved on the stump. In the book, this deluge of piss explicitly reminds Sethe of her water-breaking during childbirth, specifically, while giving birth to Denver on a leaky boat. Morrison consistently uses water as a metaphor as a passage that leads both ways, between the past and present, between death and life, and between slavery and freedom. There is a distinct metaphorical purpose to this scene in the book, which is almost impossibly vague when depicted on screen, to the extent that it seems totally random if you aren’t familiar with the source material. I cannot imagine why they chose to keep this scene–it does not work on film. It just really doesn’t.

On the other hand, the movie occasionally does some great work by taking internal thoughts and corporealizing them. Denver’s motivations for leaving the house, for example are personified by Baby Suggs appearing before Denver as a ghost or embodied memory, giving her the courage to leave the house and look for help. In addition, the moment when Denver finally steps out of the house on her own is beautifully shot, with the sunlight coming down on Denver and music swelling as she steps out of the isolation of her mother’s trauma and history into her own agency as a person, entering both adulthood and the community at the same time. It was only watching this visual representation in the film that it clicked for me how much of this moment was about Denver gaining her own freedom. It’s also there in the text, but it’s more gradual and less explicit.

I also have to say that the climax of the women coming to sing and pray in front of the house is absolutely stunning visually, and the music is powerful. Unfortunately, this is where the movie also decides to land on certain concrete visual representations of Beloved literally fading into thin air before Mr. Bodwin’s eyes. In the book, it’s much more vague, and leaves the reader wondering if she really was a ghost or some poor deranged girl who was mistaken for a lost child through the lens of a guilt-ridden, grieving mother. I think I would have preferred it if Beloved had just disappeared from the frame in the confusion of trying to keep Sethe from attacking Bodwin with the ice pick, rather than the fade out.

But then on the other hand, up to that point, the movie has made Beloved much more concretely human. It eliminates a scene in the book where Sethe appears to be choked by invisible hands while Beloved watches—this sort of thing would have re-introduced the supernatural element to the story after Beloved enters the house, which is largely lacking otherwise. For the most part, the film really makes it seem like she might just be some poor girl who has no mental problems and no where else to go.

That’s ultimately the difficulty with the adaptation—the psychology and internal struggles of the characters which are palpable and explicit in the novel become ambiguous when viewed through the lens. Meanwhile, the physical space the characters inhabit (the melding of flesh and spirit) is ambiguous in the text, but necessarily concrete on screen. The movie does its absolute best to remain faithful to the novel, but that creates problems which detract from the movie as a work of art in and of itself. A story is not just about what is said, but also what isn’t said, so the limitations of adapting from one medium to another needs to consider not only how a medium can show things but also how it can not show things. What is allowed to remain in the fuzzy periphery of the reader’s or viewer’s perception is inherently different in written media than it is in audiovisual media. Considerations and adjustments must be made in light of this when crafting an adaptation.

Morrison’s Beloved is a masterpiece of literary fiction. When she wrote it, she intended it to be art made of text—it took the indomitable Oprah of all people, to convince her to sell the movie rights. But whereas Morrison embraced the nature of her medium, Oprah and Demme’s faithful adherence to the source material makes the movie less than what it could be (although overall, it’s a decent movie).

You know, as someone who generally reads (and writes) more genre fiction than literary fiction I think there’s really something here to be learned in terms of learning to appreciate the medium of literature the way the greats like Morrison do. I’ve noticed in a lot of genre fiction that many scenes read more like descriptions of movie shots rather than scenes out of a novel, and they tend to fall flat. I know I’ve written scenes like that, where I have a clear image in my head about what the scene should look like. And I’m never pleased with the result. Perhaps it’s better to embrace the medium I’m working in, and rather than trying to mimic the movie in my head, find a way to tell the story in ways that only words can.

In the meantime, I’ll be adding more literary fiction to my reading queue, including more works by Toni Morrison. She’s heavy, I didn’t even really touch any of the major themes in this work (slavery, spirituality, inter-generational trauma, race) that she examines. Beloved’s not a light book, but it’s well worth the read—and maybe a watch while you’re at it.

2 thoughts on “When the Medium is the Message: Some Brief Thoughts on the Movie Adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved

  1. Toni Morrison will definitely be missed, a storyteller who went outside the box; used supernatural tones to explain the complex. I discovered her when I read The Bluest Eye and fell in love. Picked up Beloved after that, once I read it and found out they were doing a movie, I had to watch. My husband wasn’t a fan; the imagery of Beloved freaked him out😏

    I agree Morrison’s complex thoughts and imagery of the characters was hard to convey on screen (but maybe not so much, maybe could’ve used a different director- I’m biased but DuVernay could’ve did it, but we weren’t ready for her yet😏).


    1. It’s true, I wouldn’t mind seeing someone else take this work on again. I also think there are new effects/techniques available that could combine the past and present in interesting ways. DuVernay would definitely be a good choice.

      Although oddly, I found myself thinking of a recent live production of Frankenstein, which occurred on a thrust stage. The characters’ memories glided across the back of the stage, sometimes breaking away and interacting with the present. It was fascinating and I think if someone took that kind of approach with Beloved it could be great as live theatre too.

      I was sad the movie left out so much of Beloved’s perspective in the film, that stream-of-consciousness section that evoked the slave ship imagery was powerful. I had to read through it a few times before I could move on. The book is fantastic.

      Liked by 1 person

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