Director Jonathan Demme's 'Beloved': A Literal Masterpiece

If all goes well, 2011 will be the year in which Dave Eggers' modest (as in, the author is not a character!) Hurricane Katrina biography Zeitoun lights up the screen. Literary purists ought to rejoice at the news that Jonathan Demme is running the show: The director is blessed with an obsession for source material, an asset appreciated only in retrospect after Ridley Scott's motley “Silence of the Lambs” follow-up enraged Thomas Harris fans in 2001 – key Hannibal subplots were smothered, and Scott replaced the book's notorious dreamlike ending with an outcome that somehow seemed even less plausible.

By then the dust had already settled on Demme's Beloved, for which he'd re-created Toni Morrison's characters and deliberately serpentine story structure down to the finest detail. The film languished in theaters, criminally underappreciated. Though critics raved and Oprah practically jumped on her own couch promoting it, her fan base balked at the idea of a three-hour metaphysical bloodbath, and the weirdos who would have loved it were turned off by the aggressive Oprah™ branding. The irony was cruel – a director at the height of his powers with acres of financial and creative freedom, a fearless (bordering on fanatical) cast, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning story, all buried forever under a blanket of bad salesmanship.

However, Demme's passion for literalism created a film that was borderline inaccessible to anyone who hadn't already read the book. Did he go too far? Perhaps, but for a book lover, recognizing these moments produces a lovely cinematic Where's Waldo effect. Here are a few choice examples, with video so you can follow along.

1. "They were not holding hands, but their shadows were." We can all imagine the way this might work in theory; it's simply in the angle of the sun. But that's not the image that Team Beloved has created here. This is a decidedly surrealist indulgence that anyone might miss entirely on the first pass – but once you notice it, you can't see anything else. As it immediately preempts the entrance of the undead Beloved character (Thandie Newton, slavering for the Oscar nom that would never come), it could easily be interpreted as a warning that the laws of time and space as we know them are about to become permanently bent out of shape.

2.  "The water she voided was endless.” (00:45) In the book, Sethe's sudden incontinence is immediately tied to her memory of her water breaking, and she mentally refers back to it later when she finally recognizes Beloved as her slain daughter. In the movie, no such luck – it's merely the moment when one of the richest women in the world inexplicably takes an enormous piss onscreen, and never looks back.

3.  “That tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be.” (01:06) When filming a scene in which an infant's ghost uses magical ghost powers to seduce her mother's boyfriend (Danny Glover), there's nothing wrong with evoking primordial confusion. But Glover's chant of "Red heart, red heart" during the act itself will have even close readers of the novel scratching their heads. The metaphor is never explained or revisited in the rest of the film, and the sex scene flows straight into a brief fugue where Demme has inserted a strange non sequitur from the book, in which Beloved wants to know whether there are "flowers in the dark."

Are inessential moments like these what make adaptations unique among other films, or are they sandbags that keep them from fully taking flight? And what does it augur for films like Zeitoun? Start underlining your meaningful passages now – we'll all play bingo on opening night.

  • Brian

    I still think the film adaptation of Beloved is one of the best treatments a novel has received. It certainly did require you to have read the book, but after seeing it I couldn't really imagine anyone else but the actors as the characters. The forest sermon by Baby Suggs Holy by itself is worth the price of the film.

    • This film haunts me to this day . So powerful that I sat stunned and unable to move for quite sometime afterward .
      I had read the novel and agree it is essential to any appreciation of the film . It remains one of my favorite novels and the film likewise---tho know of few folk who would share my feeling

  • Tom

    Thanks Brian, I actually totally agree. I've seen this film SO MANY TIMES.

    In the spirit of enjoying exercises in literalism, here is an entire blog full of literally captioned New Yorker cartoons:

  • Akua

    Always loved this move. Funny until I read your piece I always thought he was saying Beloved. Never new it was "red heart" he was saying. Thanks for explaining a few things though. I think I will watch this movie once more.

  • As a fan of the book, I was initially a bit underwhelmed when I saw Beloved in theaters. But in the intervening years, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind and, scene by scene, it has grown on me like a benevolent fungus. Thandie Newton might have been the weakest link, but even so, she did a decent job with a character that was hard to make believable and watchable on screen. And Brian is right--the forest sermon alone was worth the price of admission.

  • Tom

    I don't have a lot to add other than agreement with what everyone is saying here. (Except for the part about Thandie being the weak link. No one else could have wielded that fire-poker with such conviction! Also she put an entire baby chick in her mouth.)

    So instead, I will just mention that I saw this movie for the first time ON A DATE. A first date, to be exact. I actually don't remember anything else about the date other than being dumbfounded by this movie. And no, our shadows did not hold hands.