Friday, October 17, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees

For several years now, I've been teaching The Secret Life of Bees in my 1A and 1AX classes. Student reaction to the book has been almost uniformly positive, from international students and American students, from white students and black students, and somewhat from men, as well as women. Several times over the semesters, students have wanted to see the movie, but there wasn't a movie. I imagined what a good movie it might make, and when I heard that Dakota Fanning was going to play the lead (at least 2 years ago an internet rumor), I was surprised because she seemed too young.

But she grew up, and the movie was finally made and was released this weekend. Sam and I went to see it this afternoon. (Thanks, Sam! It's not really your kind of movie, but I appreciated your presence.) One of the first things I noticed was that an 11:30 am movie on Friday in south Torrance was quite full, and a substantial portion of the audience was African-American women and couples. Later I read that there is some concern that if it is perceived as a "black film" it won't play to white audiences. I am not too concerned about that. Millions of white women have read and loved the book. In fact, i was more concerned whether black people would accept the movie. There is some controversy about the fact that a white woman wrote a book that some (few) see as co-opting or stealing cultural icons that rightly belong to the black community. Here's hoping that, as in politics, so too in daily life, we can all appreciate a story that involves both black and white people in all their separate and intertwined glory. (Incidently the director and several of the producers, as well as the majority of the actors, of course, are black. But the lead is a white girl, and it's her story.)

So how was the movie? It's hard for me to say, in a way, because I have so internalized and memorized the plot that I can't really see how well the movie stands on its own. The movie stuck quite closely to the book, putting many of the most memorable lines directly into the actors' mouths. And almost miraculously, to me, the feel and tone of the movie seemed close to that of the book. But, as is almost inevitable, some of the depth is lost. A few of the cuts seemed regrettable to me. I have imagined so vividly so many times the scene when Lily and Rosaleen bathe in the creek after a disagreement that it *feels* as if I've seen it. But that scene, with its strong baptism imagery, was not included. Also, the scene when they stop to rest at Lily's church and steal a fan was omitted, as were any details about how Lily springs Rosaleen from the hospital (a much simpler scenario, that the young sheriff was busy flirting when the two walked out) was perhaps more believable, but it took away some of the charm of Lily's personality.

Also, it was more explicit from the beginning that Lily had held the gun that killed her mother, and so the pivotal scene at the end, when Lily runs after T. Ray to ask who really did it is necessarily changed to her asking if her mother had really come back to get her or not. Perhaps that works better, since it makes her quest not one to find out if she did it, but to find out if her mother loved her or not, which is a deeper and more universal quest.

The most significant plot change actually seemed to improve upon the plot of the book: the issue that got Zach in trouble and led to May's suicide. Rather than a fight between young black boys and older white guys over a rumor about Jack Palance bringing a black woman to the theater (though, oddly, the mention of that is left in), what happens is that Zach and Lily themselves sit together in the "colored" section of the movie, and the white guys storm in and abduct Zach. Again somewhat miraculously, he escapes with only a black eye and a few bruises, but is gone long enough to move the plot forward. And also nicely, Zach's mother is one of the Daughter's of Mary, and May learns of Zach's abduction when his mother slips into the house to pray before Our Lady of Chains.

The acting was mostly really good. Dakota Fanning was just right as a barely adolescent girl with a quick mind and a wounded spirit. (She reminds me very much of my niece Hannah.) I couldn't quite see Queen Latifah as August in my mind, but she plays the part well. Perhaps the best jobs were done by the guy who played T. Ray, as a believable angry redneck, whose wounded heart is conveyed with subtlety. I think I was most impressed with the character of May. I could never quite picture someone singing Oh Susannah as therapy, but she hummed it very lightly before dissolving into tears, and her cock-eyed smile and intensity was better than I could have imagined. The weakest character, for me, was June. I had difficulty, first of all, with her appearance and clothing style, since I certainly never pictured June in tight jeans and a form-fitting NAACP t-shirt (nor did I find that believable for the time period.) I also didn't feel that her anger and resentment came across as anything more than simple nastiness.

I wished there had been more period touches, more of a 1964 feel to it. Sam also felt that it didn't feel like he remembers 1964, or even like I remember Auburn, Alabama in 1973. A bit more of the music, and more of African-American culture and the feel of the Civil Rights movement would have made me really feel that I had time-traveled to South Carolina in 1964.

But my final judgment? Better than I expected. And a story I still love.

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