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Summary Article: The Color Purple
from American Literature on Stage and Screen: 525 Works and Their Adaptations

A novel by Alice Walker (1982)

FILM: The Color Purple (Amblin/Warner 1985). Adaptation by Menno Meyjes. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Whoopi Goldberg (Celie), Danny Glover (Mister), Margaret Avery (Shug), Oprah Winfrey (Sofia), Willard E. Pugh (Harpo), Akosua Busia (Nettie), Adolph Caesar, Desreta Jackson, Rae Dawn Chong.

THEATRE: The Color Purple (Broadway 2005). Adaptation by Marsha Norman (book), Brenda Russell, Alee Willis, Stephen Bray (music, lyrics). Director: Gary Griffin. Cast: LaChanze (Celie), Kingsley Leggs (Mister), Elisabeth Withers-Mendes (Shug), Felicia P. Fields (Sofia), Brandon Victor Dixon (Harpo), Reneé Elise Goldsberry (Nettie), Krisha Narcano, James Brown III.

Epic in scope but very personal in its narrative, Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple tells a long and complex story through a series of letters the protagonist writes to God and her faraway sister. Celie is a poor African American teenager living in Georgia in the Depression. Uneducated and called ugly by everyone but her devoted sister Nettie, Celie gives birth twice to babies conceived by her stepfather who immediately sends them away. Celie is forced to marry Mister who abuses her physically and mentally, but she finds encouragement from such different people as the willful Sophia, her step-son Harpo, and the sexy singer Shug Avery whom Celie falls in love with. Over the years her relationships with these people, and the comfort she gets from writing to Nettie who is a missionary in Africa, give Celie the strength to break away from Mister, start her own business making pants for women, and becoming self-sufficient. Nettie returns from Africa with two adults who are Celie's lost babies and with this added strength she finally feels complete. Because the tale is told through letters, all the events are presented from Celie's uneducated yet astute and even wise observation. The Color Purple was widely praised, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was very popular, though it remains a controversial book for many because of its explicitly frank treatment of violence and sex. Much of this was muted or left out of the 1985 screen version, particularly the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, and some of the characters lost their complexity and became mere types. The male characters suffered in particular and there were many complaints about the depiction of African American men as violent and/or stupid. Yet the acting throughout the movie is excellent with stellar performances by several actors, in particular Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, both making their her screen debut. Some credit for this must be given to director Steven Spielberg, though many felt the picture-postcard depiction of the South he imposed was inappropriate. The Color Purple was a box office success and encouraged many viewers to read the book; yet there are many fans of the novel who still feel the screen version is lacking. The Broadway musical version of The Color Purple (2005) was often celebratory and jubilant, turning the book's most grim scenes into theatrical moments of discovery. Most of the plot was retained and a few of the letters were effectively turned into songs. Also, the script (which retained the lesbian relationship) by Marsha Norman created a group of church ladies who sang and commented on the action, helping to tie the long story together. Critics differed in their opinions of the script and score but applauded the fine cast, particularly LaChanze as Celie. The show took a while to catch on with audiences but under the shrewd promotion of co-producer Winfrey it eventually was embraced by the public and ran nearly three years. A radio version of The Color Purple was broadcast in Great Britain in 2008 as part of a program called The Woman's Hour. Since the novel is a series of letters, the BBC-radio production was very effective and won some awards.

© 2012 McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

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