Upon watching the movie Their Eyes Were Watching God, based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston, I could get a sense of the vision that the director had for the film. This movie was released in 2005 by Harpo Films and was directed by Darnell Martin. Production of the movie was heavily assisted by Oprah Winfrey, the African-American media icon that championed this movie’s production. While most of the dialogue and plot details were taken directly from the book by Hurston, the teleplay was accommodated for the viewing audience with the help of Suzan-Lori Parks, Misan Sagay and Bobby Smith Jr. The main characters in the movie were Janie Crawford (Halle Berry) and Tea Cake (Michael Ealy) (Their Eyes Were Watching God). My initial impression of the movie was that it was a strong and well-budgeted attempt to make a high school curriculum book into a popular movie. The actors did a wonderful job of relating their character to the historical context of the novel, while still making it interesting for a post-modern audience. However, much of the film did focus on the love story between the two characters rather than the story of female triumph.
The plot of the film resembled the original novel in many ways. An African-American woman that was born to a slave mother went about her life in search of love, success, and financial independence. The novel heavily resembled the early description given by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times: “Hurston's novel, frankly, is homework - and Ms. Winfrey has always had an uncanny way of getting people to do their homework” (Heffernan). Surely, there were many themes of racism, feminism and the struggle to succeed. After Janie left to move to Eatonville with a mate, she learned quickly that finding the right man is a formidable challenge. Throughout her heinous experiences, she comes to the conclusion that “in spite of her circumstances, Janie stubbornly believes that she deserves to be rich, happy and sexually satisfied” (Heffernan). The movie showcased numerous scenes where she attempts to find the right man but eventually lands on Tea Cake, an individual that has his own flaws yet still makes Janie happy to a certain degree. Janie is used as a means for being showcased as a great wife by the men that she meets. However, she constantly sought to secure her own financial future by trying to make it further in life.
Despite the movie’s great and talented characters, the film fell short of truly portraying Janie’s character development while focusing on the love story aspect. Early in the novel, Hurston cited that “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom were in the branches” (Hurston 12). This set the theme of the novel as a personal journey of development. Cyrena Pondrom, in The Role of Myth in Hurston’s Their Eyes, Were Watching God, remarked that the original novel contained many distinct clues that pointed to her continuous character development (Pondorom). For instance, the book focused heavily on the personal and aggressive nature of Janie, while the movie was focused on the love aspect of “a dirt-poor Floridian, the granddaughter of a former slave who raises her; though she defies the censorious old Nanny (Ruby Dee) in matters of the heart, she manages to marry well three times” (Heffernan). The growth of the character is overshadowed by the fact that Janie is portrayed as a sexual being that sought to find live and fulfillment through finding the right male counterpart in her journey. Tea Cake is a much closer depiction of the book’s portrayal, however. His character (in the movie) is closely rooted in his desire for impressing Janie and forcing her to go through and endure his jealous episodes.
The film techniques and music worked very well for the movie. The setting used was accurate for the historical context and accurately depicted what life was like in that time period. Many of the scenes depicted how dirty, hard and troublesome life was at that time. The characters dressed and spoke with respect to the time period as well. The movie did not utilize many special effects but did have interesting ways of portraying rural black life in the area. Eatonville was surely a wonderful setting that met the initial description that Hurston outlined. Even the farmhouses and stores were exemplary in defining how life was like. Music was used in the context of the scenes. For instance, the major passionate love scenes, like when Janie and Stark were in the newly built shop (26:11), had music that made the setting much more climatic and sensual. Ultimately, the movie’s effects and music were done very well with respect to the scenes. The only criticism is that the movie may have overdressed the characters to fit into their roles. For example, character roles were indicative of their style of dress with respect to social class. The only clear indicator of the class was how everyone was dressed. Other than that, it seemed a bit forced as Janie’s dressing style and character did not reflect the deep psychological changes the character went through in the book.
Many of the literary devices and symbolic ideals of the movie were not carried over from the novel. For instance, the major theme of feminism and female power (such as in Guerilla Girls) was downplayed in the movie. While scholars like Pondrom remarked that the book was an “apologia for traditional sex roles and praised as one of the earliest and clearest black feminist novels,” the movie helped solidify sexual roles through its depiction of Janie (Pondrom 181). The symbolism of Janie’s growth through her different life stages was also not carried over well. The character development and accumulation of wealth through her life was severely downplayed as Janie was constantly being portrayed as a beautiful woman that was merely being used for her looks. Ultimately, the film represented only half of the book’s real depth into the psyche of Janie. Much of the love story overshadowed the real motif that Janie had in life, succeeding and being independent financially.
On the whole, I would recommend anyone to see the movie after they have read the book. The book gave great insight into the real historical context of the era, while the movie portrayed it in real life. However, viewers should keep in mind that there were many important elements that were left behind. A viewer should carefully relate the major themes to the character of Janie. For instance, many movie scenes focused on Janie being almost a slave to her passion for love and finding the right mate in life. Alternatively, the depth in which the characters were developed were not up to par with the book. Consequently, the movie would be a great addition to any learning module or course curriculum. Students would surely get a lot of value from doing a literary comparison of the film and book. Also, the movie offered exceptional entertainment value. For instance, the focus on the love story is captivating for any audience, especially women. The story of finding love in the face of troubled times resembles many popular culture movies of the time, only with the caveat that it is based on a great piece of literature. Winfrey and her cast surely did a wonderful job of captivating the audience. Finally, seeing Berry’s portrayal of Janie was refreshing because it was in line with the actresses desire to fit the role of a strong black woman.
Heffernan, Virginia. "TV Review - 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' - A Woman on a Quest, via Hurston and Oprah" The New York Times. 4 Mar. 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/arts/television/04heff.html?_r=0.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: Perennial Library, 1990.
Their Eyes Were Watching God. Directed by Darnell Martin, Performances by Halle Berry, Michael Ealy. ABC, Harpo Films, 2006.
Pondrom, Cyrena. "The Role of Myth in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." American Literature, vol. 58, no. 2, 1986, pp. 181-202.