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Made for TV: Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Deborah Wilchek
Richard Montgomery High School
Rockville, Maryland

The Simple Math (Addition/Subtraction) of Oprah Winfrey's Made-for-TV Version
Whenever a novel gets translated to film, the range of reactions is predictable. Some fear that a beloved book will be trivialized by the popular medium of film. Others hope for an exact rendering of the novel to the screen. Still others see film versions as a chance to redeem the flaws of a book. The fundamental assumption, for the most part, is that the book is somehow superior to film and that each individual reader's imagined version of character and setting, voice and action -- of all the pieces of the novel -- must be fully realized by the movie. This is obviously an impossible task.

In addition to these concerns, Oprah Winfrey's recent production of Their Eyes Were Watching God tackles an even greater challenge: putting Hurston's much-loved, frequently taught novel to film -- not for the big screen and neighborhood multiplex cinemas, but for television. Yes, TV, that much-maligned, far-from-art form that flickers into every household in America. If a film version of a literary classic might raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction of a made-for-TV film.

So why did the powerful and influential Oprah Winfrey choose television for Hurston's text? On Oprah.com, the Oprah Winfrey Show's Web site, Winfrey states, "I love, love, love this book... Other than The Color Purple, I don't think I've ever loved a book so much." Armed with her belief that Hurston is a "neglected master," Winfrey hopes that her film and the medium of television "will introduce the book to a public that probably never knew it existed." Winfrey is after the broad exposure to a mass audience that only TV can provide and the traditional increase in book sales that is often the result of films based on novels. (According to the Washington Post, Winfrey was successful in achieving the mass audience she wanted, garnering nearly 25 million viewers.) Even in Winfrey's introduction at the beginning of the film, she signals her feelings about Hurston's novel, stating, "It was one of the most beautiful, poignant love stories I've ever read... this is the story about a woman allowing herself to be a full woman."

Even more logical for Winfrey's selection of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the connection between Winfrey and Hurston as women who understand, encourage, and invigorate the talk of women. The porch talk and intimate exchanges between Janie Crawford and Phoebey Watson parallel the very types of interior and honest conversation that Winfrey's own talk show promotes (Johnson 2005, 3).

Will the Film Work in the Classroom?
So how might a teacher use this made-for-TV film in the classroom? Just as the book explores one woman's search for love on her own terms and her quest for self-actualization and independence, so does the film. While the novel depends on the power of words to render its story, the film counts on visual imagery and sound. While some aspects of the novel simply cannot be translated to the screen, film transforms the art of the page from conceptual to perceptual. Most importantly, rather than ask why the film doesn't match their own sense of the novel, teachers need to guide their students into understanding how the film differs and why these differences occur. This kind of critical viewing and reflection opens the door to both a deeper understanding of film and a sharper insight into the text on which the film is based.

What's Added to the Movie, and Why
A simple question to ask students about Winfrey's version of Their Eyes Were Watching God is, What is added to the film, and how do these additions affect the viewer? This kind of examination offers the opportunity to use film vocabulary with understanding and perception.

A good starting point for examining additions to the film is the opening sequences of shots. While many films start with long shots or establishing shots (just as novelists use descriptions of setting to clarify place and time), Their Eyes Were Watching God breaks with this expectation and opens with a close-up, slow-motion shot. Essentially a close-up shot changes our perception of the scale of the object, and this film begins with a shot of Janie's feet. Instead of Hurston's metaphoric opening paragraph about "ships at a distance" and her comparison of the life of men and women, the film opens with an eye-level view of the road and Janie's foot, blistered and dirty, moving (in slow motion) down the road. The camera moves from Janie's feet to a medium shot of Janie staggering down the road, barely able to walk, followed by two additional close-up shots of Janie's face, drenched with sweat, and another of the sign marking the entrance to Eatonville -- "the first incorporated colored town in America."

A lively discussion can emerge from just viewing the first minutes of this film. Why do the filmmakers use a close-up shot as the opening shot? Why begin before Janie arrives in Eatonville (and essentially before the novel begins)? What do these visual images convey to the viewer? How effective is this opening sequence?

Other examples that would generate further discussion about the impact of this type of shot occur later. For example, when Janie first returns to her house and sits at the piano, there is a close-up shot of a photograph (Janie and Joe Stark). Or consider the blossoming pear tree and the close-up of the bee in the blossom during Janie's flashback memory of life with Nanny, a visual image that parallels Hurston's description in chapter 2.

Another close-up shot that I found particularly powerful was the shot of the welts on Janie's back after Joe unhooks the expensive, corseted dress that he purchased for Janie to wear during the ceremony/celebration of the incorporation of Eatonville. This image of the welts and the cut to Janie's face as she begins to realize just how much control Joe Stark wants over her signals the end of the love and affection she once felt for him. The images here vividly illustrate Hurston's words, "He wanted her submission and he'd keep on fighting until he felt he had it" (Hurston: Harper and Row, 1990, 67).

Another discussion-worthy addition the film makes to the methods of the book is the use of the voice-over technique. Before I viewed the film, I wondered how the filmmakers would capture the conversation that seems so vital to the novel. How could they capture the rich dialect and the intimate confession of Janie's story to Phoebey? How could the film make the viewer as much of a listener as Phoebey? How could it show the blend of the omniscient narrative voice of Hurston's novel, the external voice of Janie, and the traditional voices of black culture that Hurston celebrates?

One of the answers to these questions occurs again in the opening scenes with the introduction of the voice-over technique. As an exhausted and bedraggled Janie journeys down the road, the first voice-over is heard. Janie says, "There's two things everybody got to find out for theirselves. They got to find out about love, and they got to find out about living. Now, love is like the sea. It's a moving thing, and it's different on every shore. And living, well, I just come back from burying the dead." Ask students what Janie's voice-over during this sequence adds to the opening of the film.

Many scenes in Their Eyes Were Watching God use the voice-over technique: in the pear tree episode, after Janie marries Logan, early in the establishment of Eatonville (Joe is "wrapped up in dignity," while Janie helps the other women carry logs), after Janie wraps her hair, after Joe hits Janie, at Joe's funeral, as Janie and Tea Cake arrive in the Everglades, and in the final scene of the movie. An effective discussion of these voice-over scenes involves replaying the scenes and asking students why the voice-over technique is used in those scenes. Is the voice-over effective? Are there any commonalities among these scenes? Would any of the scenes have been more effective without the voice-over? How does it contribute to the movement of the narrative? Does it capture the narrative voices in Hurston's novel?

One final addition to the film that I think deserves some discussion is the use of music. An early clip of the film that I viewed online used a song from contemporary singer/songwriter Alicia Keys. While the music in this clip underscored a love scene between Tea Cake and Janie, I was somewhat dismayed at the use of contemporary music to bring to life a period novel. I was relieved when I viewed the film, however, to see that the musical choices were much different and quite fascinating. The film uses music not only to reinforce the dramatic and narrative elements on the screen but also to provide a historical overview of the idiom of African American music.

Consider the following: After Janie marries Logan, the viewer sees her on the porch, picking up an inchworm and letting it crawl up her nose. The background song is a soulful, a capella blues song ("Blue"). When Joe acquires the extra land, and construction begins in earnest in Eatonville, the background music selection is the kind of clap and chant that field workers might have used. Later at the Eatonville celebration, two musical selections stand out: The early part of the celebration shows a band in uniform playing a Dixieland jazz selection. Then, as Joe gives his speech and the light posts are lit, the community begins to sing a hymnlike version of "I'm Gonna Let It Shine."

When Tea Cake enters Janie's life after Joe's death, music enters also. Not only does Tea Cake play the harmonica, piano, and guitar, but the background music heats up with jazzy, twangy, blues guitar selections. When Janie leaves town, a triumphant jazz big band plays in the background. Even the most sexually charged scene of the film, between Tea Cake and Janie, is punctuated by juke-joint/nightclub jazzy blues.

Every student I know slips on earphones and turns up the I-Pod or radio or CD every chance he or she can get. A discussion of the music in Their Eyes Were Watching God, an obvious addition to the novel as it is on the page, invites students to share their expertise and expand their appreciation of the ways that music underscores narrative elements and character development.

What's Not in the Film, and Why
The antithesis of examining addition in this film is to look at what is subtracted from Their Eyes Were Watching God when the novel is transformed to film. Subtraction is often a disappointment for viewers who expect the film to include all the elements of the novel, but I believe a discussion of the deletion of details can bring about thoughtful understanding of both film and novel.

Perhaps the most interesting subtraction in Their Eyes Were Watching God occurs in the Everglades scenes at the end of the film. A number of elements are left out. The film does not evoke the sense of community and camaraderie that Janie and Tea Cake develop with their fellow migrant workers in the novel. The characters of Sop-de-Bottom, Boetyny, Motor Boat, and Stew Beef are not introduced. Nor does the film explore the racism of Mrs. Turner, who admires Janie's Caucasian characteristics and abhors Tea Cake's darker skin. Also absent from the film is the beating that Tea Cake gives Janie, his "brainstorm" that "relieves the awful fear inside him" (Hurston 1990, 140).

The subtracted episodes that I find most interesting are the shooting and trial and courtroom scenes that occur at the conclusion of chapter 19 of the novel. The film depicts Tea Cake's descent into a madness caused by the bite from a rabid dog and Janie's growing fear of Tea Cake. The film also effectively uses subtraction in the shooting scene by not showing Janie's killing of Tea Cake. The camera, instead, takes the viewer outside the shack; we only hear the shots, followed by Janie's wails. This is a wonderful example of how what is not shown and what is left to the viewer's imagination can often be more powerful and dramatic than what is shown.

Furthermore, the complete absence of the courtroom/jail scenes from the film gives teachers an opportunity to introduce one of the more controversial critical views of Hurston's novel, the view that Robert Stepto of Yale University presented at the MLA Convention of 1979. Stepto suggested that the courtroom scene, told in Hurston's omniscient narrative voice, challenges the view that Janie is a woman who has found her voice. Alice Walker, present during Stepto's talk, responded by representing a feminist reading of the text, claiming that the courtroom scene illustrates a woman's understanding of when to use her voice and when not to use her voice (Hurston 1990, from the foreword by Mary Washington). These divergent views of the scene in the novel become even more intriguing when teachers encourage students to discuss their understanding of why these scenes were omitted from the film.

The film version of Their Eyes Were Watching God touches on many areas worthy of discussion. By examining what is added and subtracted in the translation from novel to film, teachers can engage students in a critical discussion and a deeper understanding of both text and film.

Works Cited and Consulted
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1990. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New foreword by Mary Helen Washington. New York: Harper and Row Publishers. (Orig. pub. 1937.)

Johnson, Sharon D. 2005. "Watching Zora." Barnard Magazine, Winter.
  Watching Zora

"Oprah Winfrey; A True TV Pioneer!" 600.org.
  Oprah Winfrey; A True TV Pioneer!

"Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God." 2005. Oprah.com.
  Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Deborah Wilchek has been a classroom teacher since 1973, and the English Department chairperson at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, since 1985. She has taught all grades, from kindergarten to adult education/college. In addition, she co-authored a book for the NCTE High School Literature series, Amy Tan in the Classroom: The Art of Invisible Strength, which will be published in the fall of 2005.

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