How The Color Purple Has Evolved Throughout Its Many Adaptations
When Alice Walker published her groundbreaking novel The Color Purple in 1982, it was revolutionary in its nuanced depiction of sexuality, race, and gender. Centering on 40 years in the life of Celie, a Black woman living in the South in the early 20th century, the novel is a testament to her resilience and the joy she finds in the face of extreme hardships—namely, the horrific sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse she suffers at the hands of both her stepfather and her husband. Touching on themes of spirituality, systemic racism, and interpersonal violence, the novel is ultimately a celebration of the love and intimate relationships shared between women, from Celie's deep relationship with her sister Nettie to her close friendship-turned-tender romance with blues singer Shug Avery.Walker's complex story has become an integral part of the American literary canon and subsequently, the worlds of film and theater with the creation of both a critically acclaimed but controversial 1985 feature film of the same name by Steven Spielberg, a hit 2005 Broadway musical and a much lauded 2015 musical revival. Now, the beloved story will be back on the big screen with a movie adaptation of the musical that releases on Christmas Day. Directed by Black Is King director Blitz Bazawule and adapted for the screen by poet and playwright Marcus Gardley, the latest iteration of The Color Purple is a moving musical affair that features Fantasia Barrino as Celie (reprising the role she played on Broadway from 2007 to 2008), leading a star-studded cast that includes Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Colman Domingo as Mr., and a scene-stealing Danielle Brooks as Celie's daughter-in-law, Sofia (also reprising her role on Broadway, where she played Sofia from 2015 to 2017 in the show's revival.)
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In the 41 years since Walker debuted The Color Purple, the story of Celie has taken on different interpretations, evolving as it changed mediums and creative leadership, attracting both accolades and critique along the way. Walker's novel was a critical success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 (making her the first Black woman to win the award) and the National Book Award for fiction the same year. But the book's acclaim also came with controversy; it was critiqued for its depiction of Black families and particularly Black men, criticisms that heavily intensified when the book was adapted for the big screen by director Steven Spielberg.
From page to screen to stage
Like Walker's novel, Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation was both critically acclaimed and hugely controversial. Starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Oprah Winfrey as her daughter-in-law Sofia, and Danny Glover as Mr., the film was notably nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but won none, despite being a box office hit (it grossed $94 million domestically in its initial run in 1985, making it the fourth highest grossing film that year). It was also roundly critiqued for having both a white male director (Spielberg) and a white male screenwriter (Menno Meyjes), a denunciation that was even more glaring in light of the contention leveled at the film because of its depiction of Black men, which many people and advocacy groups felt reinforced racist stereotypes of Black masculinity as violent. Another critique of the film that took issue with representation was Spielberg's decision to soften the depiction of the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, a central storyline of the novel. In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg addressed both controversies.
"Most of the criticism came from directors that felt that we had overlooked them, and that it should have been a Black director telling a Black story," he said. "That was the main criticism. The other criticism was that I had softened the book. I have always copped to that. I made the movie I wanted to make from Alice Walker’s book."
"There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were finely detailed in Alice’s book, that I didn’t feel could get a [PG-13] rating," he added. "And I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss."
The 2005 musical adaptation debuted with a greater sense of levity, afforded by the mere fact of its format and the addition of show tunes, which shifted the tone of the story. Thematically, the production, with a book by Marsha Norman and songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, was less focused on Celie's trauma and the abuse she suffered than it was on looking at the steps she took toward her joy and empowerment.
A new adaptation that speaks to the moment
For Gardley, adapting the story of a musical that was inspired by a movie that was based on a book that he first read as a 13-year-old—and still considers to be his favorite book—meant acknowledging that though the film follows in a long legacy of Walker's work, it was going to be a new creation.
"This is not Spielberg's The Color Purple, it's not the musical, it's not the book," Gardley told TIME. "It's an amalgamation of all those things and yet entirely its own thing...the mandate going into this project is that everybody felt like it needed to be The Color Purple 2.0, so audiences who loved all the iterations that came before could have a very nostalgic experience, but we also wanted to make something for a new audience and a younger generation."
In order to create an adaptation of The Color Purple that spoke to the moment, both Gardley and Bazawule went back to the source material. They felt it was integral to preserve the weight the book places on Celie's inner thoughts, which are depicted on the page through her letters to God and her sister. For Bazawule, showing Celie's inner dialogue was essential to bringing Walker's work to life onscreen, something he believes sets his film apart from past iterations.
"I went back and read the book and was very, very curious around how I was going to add to this brilliant canon, and my job was to figure out what was going to be our unique way into the story," says Bazawule. "That's how we really began exploring Celie's headspace and enhancing her imagination, making ways in which the audience can see her work through her pain and trauma." For both Bazawule and Gardley, presenting Celie as a survivor was paramount. It's an approach that informed which parts of Celie's story they showed on-screen—case in point: the dreamy, theatrical sequences that spring from Celie's imagination, like a scene where she daydreams of singing and dancing with Shug on top of a giant Gramophone, a sweet moment that acknowledges their romantic relationship in a way Spielberg's film did not. It points to the power that Celie has to imagine a better future for herself, a refusal to allow her life to be defined by her pain. Like the musical it's based on, the film doesn't linger on the violence Celie experiences, though it does acknowledge the pain she has suffered; instead, it's more concerned with how Celie has triumphed over her struggles.
"I always know that an individual is the freest inside of their head in terms of what they can see and what they can imagine," Bazuwule said. "I took a lot of liberty around how Celie was processing both trauma and joy, but also knowing how to love and who to love and such. A lot of people miscategorize people who have dealt with trauma and abuse as docile and passive, but if we only had access to their headspace, I think we'll know that they're quite actively trying to liberate themselves."
Imbuing the narrative with personal stories
Gardley says that a key part of leaning into the joy and resilience that Celie finds was using the musical numbers to keep a sense of positivity in the film, even when the subject matter was heavy. The dazzling song-and-dance routines, where Bazawule's experience as both a musician and a music video director come in handy, are the high points of the film and key to its emotional core.
"One thing that we were really cognizant of is making sure some of the songs were upbeat," Gardley says. "It changed the temperature and it also helped us understand that characters, true to their own resilience, could pull themselves out and show their strength."
That Bazawule and Gardley are the first Black creatives to helm an adaptation of The Color Purple is not lost on them. Both Spielberg's film and the Broadway musical were led by white artists. For Gardley, working on a project that has been so integral to the Black cultural canon was deeply personal. He remembers his family being drawn to tears watching Spielberg's film at a reunion because it paralleled their family history. Gardley relied on this history, and specifically stories told to him by his great grandmother, while working on the script, something he said Walker personally encouraged him to do.She said, 'it's important that you make the story your own and bring your own self to it,'" he recalls. "It's a huge gift to give an artist and it's what I did—I really did use my own personal history."
And while the film was deeply intimate for him, Gardley also believes that the themes of resilience and strength in The Color Purple, while rooted in the specific experience of Celie, a Black woman, are something that everyone can relate to, which he hopes that their film shows.
"This film is a universal story that depicts the resilience of all of humans, all over the world," Gardley said. "What Alice Walker's story is really about when she talks about the color purple, it's not only that purple is beautiful, but purple is rare and it's also the color of bruises. It's the pain and the perseverance, hand in hand, that she's asking us to both embrace and learn from."