Six Damn Fine Degrees #9: Beloved

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Of all the novels that the vast majority might deem unfilmable, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, released in 1987, would make their top ten. There are movie versions of so-called difficult texts such as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, but not yet of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, although the rights have been sold long ago, so there might not be any unfilmable text anymore. And I have seen theatre students turn Shakespeare sonnets into short plays, so there. I am certain that Beloved would have made my list when I read it for the first time. And yet the movie exists.

There are renowned directors such as Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Undine) who claim that you can never ever film a novel because a novel transports something into the reader’s mind that a movie cannot. You can, at the utmost, telegraph the plot from the printed page to the screen. Any other aspect, such as atmosphere, or a character’s psychological make-up, might not make it to the screen, or at least not the way the filmmaker wants it to. Some of this is down to how text and image talk to us in very different ways. So why is there a movie version of Beloved?

The answer could very well be Oprah Winfrey. It is possible, even likely, that she read the novel, loved it, got the green light from the author to film it, and then got to work. She could have recruited Jonathan Demme to direct, and she might have given herself the main role of Sethe in the process, which was a big risk for her to take, but if you believe that novels can be turned into films, then Beloved is more of a success than the box office would have you believe.

The novel is essentially a blood-drenched examination of slavery and its aftermath on a family of women, with Beah Richards as the grandmother, Winfrey’s Sethe as the matriarch and Kimberly Elise as Denver, Sethe’s only child still living in the house. And although there are Danny Glover as Paul D and Jason Robarts as the white slave-owner, this is a movie about women. And there is the strange addition of a young woman who is not entirely human but not entirely unwelcome in the family either. She might be a reincarnation of Sethe’s dead youngest daughter, but it is more complicated than that – a fact that a novel can play out in a much more nuanced way than movie ever could. That being is called Beloved and is played by Thandie Newton, who was an unknown newcomer back then, but makes the most of a role that should have suffered a lot more from being translated into a graphic medium such as film. And in a strange twist, Thandiwe, Newton’s birth name, means Beloved.

Of course I have no clue if Winfrey made the movie happen, but there is a strange relief that, yes, the movie has something going for it, even if they left out quite a lot from the novel, but since this is such a painful and violent story, we should be glad that not every plot point finds itself on screen.

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