Reaching Beyond Chickdom

| May 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

Check out the annals of adapted novels, and seek out the women’s work that has made it to film.  Most of it — please don’t mistake the word most for the word all — is pretty superficial stuff, easily translated into slick, pabulum-y entertainments that require little intellectual engagement on the part of the audience.  It’s not an accident that females writers’ work has been so easily reduced.  There have been precious few female authors who have modeled great writing, and few of those have held themselves to any rigors of cerebral analysis because in order to be heard, they have lived up to expectations.

Like the proverbial chick flicks their books become, women’s writing has too often been about sex and fashion, about willing subservience to the will of men, about subjects with little depth. Too often, women’s books are written without investigative reason, failing to pierce the surface of appearance.  As though women are afraid to plumb the layers of meaning in the human comedy, their books glide over issues and content themselves with hollow characters built on stereotypes.

Some of the women who have achieved “stardom” as writers have had moments of brilliance, but rare is the woman with the fearlessness of a Russell Banks or Philip Roth or William Faulkner; they are not likely to flex intellectual musculature for any length of time, fearing that their readers might be repelled.  Recently, I have found that superstars Alice Walker, Erica Jong, Faye Kellerman and Edwidge Danticat have achieved moments of true, seering brilliance, but each of them has stopped short of digging even deeper — though, admittedly, they are all still writing, talent doesn’t die, and Danticat is impossibly young .  There is one writer who never disappoints me, however, even when I don’t particularly like a book she has written: Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison (AP)

Margaret Garner, the woman whose life and photograph inspired Toni Morrison to write Beloved

Morrison is an academic, yet her work is never inaccessible.  Nor does it seek the lowest common denominator.  She has resisted film adaptations, knowing that films can degrade the integrity of the original work; when Beloved became an Oprah Winfrey vehicle that failed, she blamed the medium itself.  In fact, speaking with Boris Kachka in New York Magazine, Morrison admitted ambivalence toward the very idea of Oprah’s involvement with the book.  “She told friend she didn’t want Beloved to be a film,” reports Kachka.

 I admit it.  Morrison is in many ways a god in my mind.  She achieves what I can only dream of as a writer, the creation of books that require that her reader work a bit in order to be fed and of characters who speak with distinctive, unforgettable voices.  She is a narrator you want to believe even when you know she’s fabricating worlds, seeing things no one can see; she can lead because she is authentic.

Morrison, in NY Magazine, 7 May 2012

And because I love her work, I want to emulate it in my writing, though I doubt I’ll ever get near her level of execution.  I also want to believe it is adaptable to the screen, that film need not degrade great work.  Good film has, on occasion, elevated the source material (Shawshank Redemption) or at least created a new work inspired by the original that finds its own place in the pantheon of creation(One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  It’s not yet happened with works as complex as Morrison’s, but it has to be possible.  The possibilities, especially now with the money being invested in PBS and Premium Cable productions, are endless; a high-quality, impeccable series could emanate from Morrison’s work, a series even she might get excited over.

An adaptation devoutly to be wished.  Especially if ‘t were written, produced and directed by women.

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Category: Features