Movie vs Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God
The Movie's Focus
I recently re-watched Oprah Winfrey’s made for TV movie adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and was very disappointed. I admire Ms. Winfrey immensely because of her inspirational rise to fame due to her persistent pursuit of excellence and because of her desire to leave something positive for the world, so I hesitate to be critical of her pet project. However, her version of this most profound and uplifting novel fell short of capturing Ms. Hurston’s excellence.
The movie focused almost entirely on the love story between reformed playboy, Verigible Woods (aka, Tea Cake) and Janie. However there were so many more layers to the novel, including studies in developmental psychology and cultural anthropology.
The Book's Focus
On a psychological level, we see the main character, Janie Crawford, grow through four of the five stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Personal Development (depending on which version you read). Janie starts out in survival mode, or at least Nannie, her guardian- grandmother, is on that level since she is the one who makes major personal and financial sacrifices in order to make Janie’s life better than hers or Leafy's, Janie’s absent mother’s was. But even though life is pretty good for Janie, she has no sense of who she is. When she begins to tell her story, her first memory is having no personal identity (no stable name), no social identity (she is rejected by her Black peers for living in the White folks’ back yard), no family identity (she does not know her mother or her father), and no racial identity (she is startled to learn that she is Black). Because she is moving zombie-like through her life, Janie gives all her power away, first to her grandmother who forces her to marry at age sixteen, an older man, Logan Killicks, whom she barely knows and to whom she is not the least bit attracted, then later to her second husband, Joe Starks.
Because of Nannie, Janie remains on the second level of personal development, Safety and Security, for Nannie’s major concern when she catches Janie innocently kissing Johnny Taylor at their gate post is that Janie not end up used and abused like she and Leafy were. Logan has land and money and can provide that financial security, but their marriage only lasts a year. In that time, Janie at least begins to think about her life and longs for it to be better. She sees Joe Starks as a means to adventure, something new and different, if not love. Joe, who succeeds in fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a “big voice” by being elected mayor of the newly developing town of Eatonville, Florida, actually smothers Janie’s search for adventure and her need to feel connected to a world outside of her hometown. Janie mistakenly shifts her dream of adventure to her former dream of feeling loved, so she tells herself that what she and Joe (aka Jody) share is love. But she longs for romance and Joe does not have time for that. When he becomes abusive, Janie “learns to hush” and begins a psychological self-analysis that is revealed when Joe is on his death-bed. She recognizes that she has lived her life for everyone else and now that she is about to be free for the first time in her life, she is determined to live for herself.
Because Joe Starks, like Logan Killicks, provided Janie with the creature comforts, that meant she did not have to focus her energies on “security”; she could direct her attention to the social part of her personality, her desire to be a part of the community. But Joe refused to let her. He kept her socially isolated, set her apart, leaving her lonely and unfulfilled. Without that sense of belonging, Janie could not find the voice she had been lacking for so long, the voice that could stand up to Joe Starks and demand respect as a human being separate from his and the town’s vision of her as Mrs. Mayor.
Once Janie is single again (at age 37) she begins her true growth spurt. She starts to have experiences that teach her who she is. She learns to hunt, fish, and play checkers. She goes to dances, the movies, picnics, and any other function that brings her delight. This is where the love story comes in. She shares most of these experiences with Tea Cake. Her association with Tea Cake moves her up to the third level of the developmental hierarchy, Belongingness and Love. When Tea Cake came along, he gave her the most significant piece of advice of the whole book: “Have the nerve to say what you mean.” This freed Janie to speak her mind, to tell stories, to interact with the “porch sitters” and any other people from the community. When she and Tea Cake marry, their home becomes a people magnet, and Janie can finally feel a part of a community; she finds a place within the group that fits.
Ironically, the person who helped Janie earn her footing on Belongingness and Love also forces her to test herself at the next level of Identity Achievement. When Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog during a hurricane, he turns violent against Janie, and she must weigh the value of her life against that of the man she loves. Janie chooses herself. She is now strong enough within herself to recognize that Tea Cake is no longer himself and if she lets him take her life, they will both be gone. Janie has to do that which would have destroyed her had she not been identity-achieved.
The Major Point
Janie’s life with Tea Cake lasts only about a year and a half. But the movie made it seem as though the relationship lasted much longer. Though it was the most significant relationship of her life, for through it Janie gains the voice (identity) that has been squelched for her previous 37 years and through that voice saves herself from prison, the love story overshadows the character development. And in essence, that’s what the novel is, a study in character and personal development. Hurston uses Janie's relationships as the vehicle for her growth, but those relationships serve to show Janie to herself as well as to her readers. Through Janie, we readers can evaluate ourselves, and thus, work to achieve our own identities.
Though the movie, Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Hallie Berry as Janie, did a plausible job of conveying the love between Tea Cake and Janie, it, like most movies that try to capture the essence of a great work, misses on the deeper levels.