‘Tis the season to head to the movie theatre, and that’s exactly what I did on Xmas day. I finally saw Precious, and won’t give a long, detailed review but will say a few things I’ve noticed lately about the writing profession. I’ve felt this way for a while now, really, but every so often something comes up and I feel the need to go off. A few weeks ago, an illustrator friend of mine shared an exciting experience she’d had with an artistic director; after seeing a stunning image in her portfolio, the AD encouraged my illustrator friend to write a story and turn the image into a picture book. Sadly, instead of getting excited for my friend, I started to growl (sorry, friend). Why? Because that would NEVER happen to a writer. A writer could never show an editor a couple of lines of text and have the editor say, “That looks great–now make a few illustrations and we’ll turn it into a book!” It would never happen that way because illustration is something generally believed to require a level of training and expertise. If I had an interesting idea, I would likely be encouraged to finish writing as soon as possible so that the editor could begin searching for the right illustrator to hire for the project. Now, there are some illustrators who are good writers. But writing has its own special quality—good writing also takes talent and training and expertise. I often find that it is assumed that any ole body can write a story or book. But no one assumes that about other art forms. And I’m all for the idea of “art for everybody”—you don’t have to have an MFA to paint a picture or make a film. In fact, I just ordered a Flip camera and hope to start making short films soon. And I accept that what I produce probably won’t be as good as the films of a trained filmmaker. But why do trained filmmakers assume they can write a good script?
I saw Medicine for Melancholy last week, and had high hopes; last year I taught a film course around representations of “black love,” and this was an independent film I told the students to look out for. But within the first twenty minutes, I was watching the clock, wondering how I’d ever make it through the full 90 minutes. The story sounded promising: after a drunken one-night fling, two black 20-somethings spend a day together in San Francisco and realize they share a meaningful connection. Except the writing wasn’t meaningful, and I didn’t connect with either of the characters. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the film quietly meanders through the city, capturing local landmarks and neighborhoods experiencing rapid gentrification. In fact, that’s a subplot of the film, and when the two lovers walk past the open door of a community meeting, the viewer winds up observing about five to ten minutes of actual (white) activists hashing out the future of rent stabilization. Really? I can forgive the female lead her perfectly pressed hair (isn’t San Fran foggy?) and her flawless look/lipstick holding up whether she’s hung over, stoned, having sex, or riding her bike up and down those SF hills. I like Wyatt Cenac, and bought his performance as a spacey (yet socially conscious) Indie dude. But I can’t stand bad writing, and I wonder why the filmmaker didn’t hire a *professional* writer to go over the script. Then there’s Precious, which was adapted for the screen by Geoffrey Fletcher, a Harvard-educated guy who went on to study film at NYU. Now, we all know a man (Lee Daniels) directed the film; why would he approach this particular filmmaker to adapt a novel that’s about the lives of several traumatized women? Being male doesn’t make him a bad writer, but it does explain for me some of the bizarre choices made in the adaptation process. Here’s what one article said:
Fletcher altered other things, including expanding the role of a male nurse (played by rocker Lenny Kravitz). In the novel, the character is only mentioned in a sentence or two.
“I thought it would be great to have him be a significant part of the story, for a few reasons,” Fletcher says. “The only male characters in it are her father, who was a horrible memory of the past, and a young man who exists in her fantasies. But to have a man who is kind, intelligent and caring in her current reality, I thought, was very important because: A) those men do exist; B) as she is shaping her world view and realigning her perspective, he is an important character to have in her reality.”
Lenny Kravitz’s character was one of the worst decisions made in this film, I thought—and he was NOT intelligent and kind; I believe he called Precious’ trophy “dumb and tacky”? Right before trying to get Precious to help him make a move on her lesbian teacher. The rest of that interview with the screenwriter explains a few other things—like why there was so much emphasis on Precious’ fantasy life: apparently the audience needed a break from the trauma, and these pseudo-music videos did the trick. At the beginning of the film, Precious is shown looking into the mirror and seeing a stereotypical white girl as her reflection; I have no problem with that so long as you FOLLOW IT UP with some kind of analysis…in the book, this moment comes when Precious attends an incest-survivor group and meets a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who’s gone through the same type of abuse she herself endured. Precious is then able to see that she wasn’t raped *because* she was heavy and dark-skinned—she’s able to see the abuse as something external. Film adaptations always have to reshape the book, but for me, this film lacked a narrative core and opted to focus on a highly dysfunctional mother rather than Precious’ journey toward literacy and self-awareness. We meet the girls in her class, but mostly they goof around or diss each other; in the book, we hear *their* stories and understand how they came to be illiterate and “at risk” (was this removed b/c it painted men in too negative a light?). When I wrote about Push for my master’s thesis on urban narratives, I focused on how Precious sees herself reflected in the degraded urban landscape—that’s one of the first things she writes about. And most importantly, the MAN in her life is Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. HE is her role model, and she’s sucked into his patriarchal black nationalist fantasy UNTIL she learns that Miz Rain is a lesbian. And that’s when the homophobic rhetoric loses its hold on Precious. I’m glad they allowed Blu Rain to remain a lesbian in the film, but Paula Patton’s light skin and “good hair” really put me off. She seems tired of her job and these troubled girls from the very beginning, and that’s not what I recall of Miz Rain from the book. She dressed conservatively, seems bourgie, and just generally seemed out of place. Mariah Carey surprised me by being *very* good in her role as a social worker, and Monique did give an outstanding (if over the top) performance. I don’t recall Precious having a TV hurled at her after the fight with her mother. Did that happen in the book? If not, why was it necessary? Writers take liberties with the truth, and I understand that this was Fletcher’s interpretation of the narrative. But I think I only heard the word “push” once in this film, and that tells me these male filmmakers missed the point…