Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Read the Book/See the Movie: Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston (audio)

When I first signed up for the Read the Book/See the Movie Challenge, hosted by my friend James (Ready When You Are, C.B.), I came up with a list of potentials to complete the required four movie/book minimum. I have yet to make good on any of them. See, I get drawn into an unplanned read, am blown away by the book, then realize there's a movie that goes with it. Voila! This is what happened with Fingersmith, Shutter Island, and the latest inspiration, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

My curiosity got the best of me. Folks are quite proud of Zora Neale Hurston down here in Central Florida. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, (just north of Orlando) the first all black town incorporated in the US, and is heralded as a great African American folklorist during the Harlem Rennaisance. Every year in Eatonville, they have a huge festival celebrating Zora's life. It was only proper that I appreciated her contributions to the literary world.

The story is narrated by Janie Starks, a woman with a reputation around town. She's beautiful and elusive, and has been widowed twice in her young life, which inspires the townsfolk, sitting on their front porches, to speculate and envy the woman. Having just returned from the Everglades to her home in Eatonville, she tells her story to her friend Phoebe. Through her eyes, we see the development of Eatonville in the early 1920's...the establishment of the town store, the town's first street lamp, the town's first mayor. We witness the famous flooding of the Lake Okeechobee as a result of a hurricane in 1928. Jamie make not always make the wisest decisions when it comes to men, but we witness her finding love and finding herself.

I found the story compelling in the hands of Hurston. Florida's fascinating black history came to life - history of the area in which I live to which I was clueless. Janie, her husbands, and the townsfolk, were vivid, entertaining characters. The men dominating over their wives, the "porch drama", the love of baseball, life in a farm camp in the Everglades, and the immigrant Bahamian music. But the main attraction above and beyond all is Hurston's writing. It is rich and poetic, and oh so beautiful. This woman had some MAD writing skillz! It nearly put me into a trance, sort of like the intoxicating smell of night jasmine or gardenia.

There is quite a bit of dialect, and it took a little while to get used to listening to it. I'm not sure how easy or difficult it would be to read in print. In the care of the narrator, Ruby Dee (who was also in the movie) it was like watching a movie with my ears. It was breathtaking. This sets some pretty high standards for the movie, but I had to give it a go.

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They filmed part of the movie in Orlando and in the Everglades, which caused a stir at the time. In fact, my parents, who had a home in a fish camp in the Everglades back then, had a Seminole Indian friend who had a bit part (the Indian who warned Janie and Teacake about the coming hurricane). Everyone down here was talking about the movie. We even taped it, but I never ended up watching it.

It was a made-for-TV movie (by Oprah), so who knew what we were going to get. On the other hand, the beautiful Halle Berry starred as Jamie, with her almond eyes, high cheekbones and long curly hair. She was the perfect Janie! I found the movie to be generally similar to the plot of the book, but it took much of the emotional, jagged parts of the novel and smoothed it over. Like the translation of book to film in Fingersmith, there is just no way the poetic beauty of the words can translate. This was Zora-Lite.

Besides Halle Berry, there are also cameo parts played by Terrance Howard and Ruby Dee. These are not parts that would ever gain your attention, but it does signify the support of this film by the African-American acting community.

Is the movie worth seeing? Yes, absolutely. But don't expect it to even come close to the masterpiece of the novel.

Book: 5 out of 5 stars
Movie: 2.5 out of 5 stars


22 comments:

Melody said...

I didn't know there's a movie on this, though I've heard lots of great reviews on the book. After reading your review, I think I'll have to check out the book first!

Susan said...

This is my MIL's favorite book, and she has read it more than once. I tried once, but as you said, the dialect kind of did me in. I think listening to it being narrated by the wonderful Miss Dee would be much better. I'll give it another go. I don't think my MIL thought much of the movie either. Too glossed over.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have not read the book but I think from your report the audio version sounds wonderful. I love when there are dialects that are tackled by the narrator (instead of me!)

farmlanebooks said...

I hadn't heard of this book until a few months ago, but it does sound amazing. I'm already on the look out for a copy so I'm sure it won't be too long before I have one. I don't think I'll bother watching the movie though :-)

Anna said...

This is one of those books I've always been meaning to read. I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy at some point. There was a woman on the train reading this book last year, and another woman asked her about it, and she said she was re-reading it for the umpteenth time. I figured it must be good!

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Beth F said...

I really love Hurston -- and I bet this was great on audio. I had no desire to see the movie, and I'm glad now that I didn't.

caite said...

the translation of a favorite book to the silver screen is a scary thing...which often does not work. As I said in a post yesterday, it can happen...To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of a success. But much more often, a movie just can not capture the beauty of a book.

Andreea said...

Never heard of the book or the movie. I will check out the book, rather than the movie. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Jeane said...

I just read this book recently, myself. Didn't know there was a movie version. I had a hard time with the dialect in print, at first, but once I got into the story it just added to the flavor.

bermudaonion said...

What's so funny is the people of Alabama are proud of Hurston too, since she was born in Notasulga. I know I really need to read Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The Bumbles said...

I'm with Jeane - dialect is something, once you are patient with, that becomes as vibrant a part of the story as the descriptive passages allowing you to smell the gardenia. Dialect allows you to hear the characters as the author intended them. For those who find dialect difficult to overcome in reading - your audio suggestion is a great idea.

I just nominated this book for a group classics discussion on Goodreads. I hope it wins because more than just reading a good book, I love to have people to discuss it with at the same time.

JoAnn said...

"watching a movie with my ears"

Yes! That's exactly what my experience with this audio was, too! I loved it. Not sure I'll be watching the movie any time soon though.

Kathleen said...

I've got the book on my shelves and will plan to read it first and then see the movie!

Chelle said...

I love this book. It's in my top ten. The writing is beautiful and story so compelling. The dialiect only increased the authenticity for me. Ah, gush. I'm glad you liked it! The movie was a disapointment to me. I'm glad I read the book first cuz the film would have ruined my reading expericne.

Nymeth said...

I'm happy to hear you loved the book too, Sandy! But what a pity that the movie doesn't come close. Then again, it would be difficult to get it just right, since so much depends on Hurston's fantastic writing.

Darlene said...

I've never read the book but I have seen the movie. I do remember liking it. I'm going to see if the library has this on audio. I bet it would be great to listen to.

reviewsbylola said...

I read this book in college and LOVED it! I didn't even know there was a movie and doubt I will bother to see it. I am not a big movie person and rarely does the movie compare to the book anyway.

Trisha said...

I adored the book and so I have been putting off watching the movie - even though I actually own the sucker. Pitiful I know. I may just have to give it a try after this though! Thanks for the review.

Zibilee said...

I definitely want to do the book/movie combo with this one, but I will remember your comments that the book is much better than the movie. I have always wanted to read Hurston, and from your description it sounds like a wonderful book! So glad that you liked it, and the fact that the language is so beautiful is also a huge plus for me. Wonderful review, Sandy!

Iliana said...

I really should read this book again because unfortunately when I read it I just don't think I really paid enough attention and you are right, the dialect does take a bit of getting used to. Sounds like the audio was fantastic and maybe I should give that a listen to!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I love Zora Neal Hurston. If you get the chance you should really check out some of her short stories. They are fab, and this from someone usually underwhelmed by them.

Avid Reader said...

I just read this and had no idea there was a movie version. Thanks for the heads up. I'll have to check it out. Though it's never as good as the book, sometimes it's interesting to see the story brought to life in that way.