The Color Purple: Novel and Film Tropes
The Color Purple (1985) is a film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the 1982 novel by American author Alice Walker. It tells the heart-wrenching tale of the main protagonist, Celie Harris, who was a teenage African-American girl that lived in rural Georgia. Celie had lived through many waves of abuse and mistreatments such as domestic violence, pedophilia, incest, racism, and sexism in order to protect her sister, Nettie.
Even though she did her best in protecting her little sister, they were still separated by Celie’s husband who was called by the name “Mister” or “Albert”. They spent the entire book and film longing to finally see each other once again but weren’t able to communicate after the separation due to Celie’s husband hiding Nettie’s letters from Celie.
As the story progressed, Celie slowly but surely finds her self-worth which eventually led to the ending scene of being reunited with her sister as well as her two children that was taken away from her after their birth. When you look closely at both the book and film, you will see that there are some tropes that are commonly used in the entertainment industry. To name a few there are abusive parents, domestic abuse, Disney death, foreshadowing, not worth killing, parental incest, token black friend, and you’re not my mother.
In this reaction paper, I will be discussing how Spielberg linked various tropes and issues that are depicted in the book through the film, specifically the example of successfully translated trope and the not-successfully translated trope.
There are certain tropes and issues of the book that were successfully adopted in the film. I think what they did very well was the horrific portrayal of parental abuse, incest, and pedophilia. In the book, Celie explicitly told her experiences with Pa, her father, through narration. A terrifying line that was very shocking to me as a viewer was when Pa told Celie that she had to do what her mother failed to do which implicitly indicated that she had the role of satisfying his sexual urges. Pa went as far as forcing Celie to give birth to two children and then taking them away from her right after their birth.
It would be far too horrific if Spielberg were to show those sights on film while being narrated by Celie. So, at the beginning of the film where Celie was giving birth, Spielberg decided on using the line “hurry up” from the book to subtly depict Pa’s shortcomings. Spielberg continued the trope with Pa setting his sights on Celie’s sister, Nettie who tried her best on keeping his pedophilic actions as far away as possible. The fact that Pa did things quite subtly such as “playfully” blocking Nettie’s way out of the porch seemed to foreshadow a horrific fate that might hit Nettie in the future.
Nothing happened between them in the film and book but I felt that Spielberg managed to portray Pa’s creepiness to the fullest which, though not explicitly shown, also gave the audience’s ideas about what Celie had to go through prior when the story took place. It was one of the most horrific storylines that I had to watch and read through because of the lingering connotation that hung in the air due to the subtleness of Pa’s actions.
However, I was thoroughly disappointed to find out that the film’s portrayal of Celie and Shug Avery’s relationship, which made the book infamous, was absent. Spielberg’s decision to almost completely take out the lesbian aspect contributed to the trope of hide your lesbians which is still evident in today’s pop culture. This trope reflects on the action of scrapping lesbian themes from the book which happens with the portrayal of Celie and Shug’s relationship.
“It offers frank portrayals of bisexual, lesbian, and heterosexual relationships amidst situations that penetrate the core of female spiritual and emotional development” (Wikantayu, 2009).
This statement describes my exact sentiment towards Celie and Shug’s relationship as portrayed in the book because their interactions were leaking with their raw emotions, raw intimacy, as well as honesty. Spielberg stated in an interview with Advocate,
“I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that.”
I agree that people may not be comfortable with directing very intimate scenes especially back in the 1980s when the LGBTQ+ community was not as open as it is today but as a viewer and reader, the relationship between Celie and Shug in the film was very awkward.
“The Color Purple is a feminist manifesto, in favor of sexual liberation, female agency, and a calling for an inclusive and heterogeneous community” (Pérez Gutiérrez, 2018).
In my opinion, the film did not reflect the statement of sexual liberation like it had been given for the book. The scene where Shug kissed Celie was very out of the blue because the moments that lead up to the exposure of Shug’s feelings were almost non-existent. It felts as if they were just gal pals up until the point where they shared a few kisses.
In the book, however, you see Celie’s thought process about Shug. She shows heavy signs of curiosity as well as attraction just from seeing Shug’s pictures and hearing stories from Mister. Celie got to experience sexual liberation through her scenes with Shug in the book. But Spielberg’s decision sadly took a turn for the worst as it “degenerates into cheap sentimentality” (Chase, 1986)
Some tropes and issues were successfully depicted in the film adaptation of The Color Purple but some received criticism for not being faithful to the book. I for one think that the film did a good job at adapting the book into a film. The depictions of relevant tropes and issues were successfully adapted into film as much as they can be but it was rather disappointing to see that some critical contexts of the book were taken out due to creative differences and decisions by Spielberg.
Chase, J. (1986). The Color Too Purple. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1986/1/31/the-color-too-purple-pithe-color/#:~:text=One%20major%20difference%20between%20the,poignant%20part%20of%20Walker's%20novel.
Kinser, J. (2011). Steven Spielberg says he softened lesbian sex in the color purple. ADVOCATE. Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://www.advocate.com/news/daily-news/2011/12/05/steven-spielberg-says-he-softened-lesbian-sex-color-purple.
Pérez Gutiérrez, C. (2018). Truckdriver Gladiator Mules: Female Vulnerability in The Color Purple (1982) and The Women of Brewster Place (1982). Universitat De Barcelona
Wikantayu, A. F. (2009). The Motivation of The Main Character’s Homosexual Relationship as Seen in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Sanata Dharma University.