Transformation of fiction into film necessitates deformations. Some transformations may enhance a flawed story, but they frequently cheapen the nuances of strong fiction. Viewers who have not read the source may logically think the film is excellent. Readers who move from the source to the film may have a quite different opinion, for they know that the probable intentions of the fiction writer have been murdered.
Such is the case with the television film of Richard Wright’s novella “Long Black Song.” Sarah’s husband Silas is figuratively castrated by the film; his agency to extract a cuckold’s revenge is erased by magnifying his submissiveness to a white merchant and to his wife’s imperatives. Wright’s intentions are spun 180 degrees. His purposeful depiction of Silas’s act of violence and resolve to die bravely for his beliefs are minimized for the comfort of genteel television viewers.
A screening and discussion of the film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” at the 2013 Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration shed light once again on transformative reduction. First, the fictive editor of Miss Jane’s oral autobiography, her neo-slave narrative, is not the novel’s teacher of history but the film’s magazine journalist. This gesture dislocates the educational context for reading Gaines’s novel and obligates us to use a magazine’s context for viewing the film. In the film, the folkloric richness of Miss Jane’s clairvoyance about the death of her husband Joe Pittman isn’t balanced by her refusal to use hoo-doo to ensure that Albert Cluveau dies in extreme agony for murdering her “adopted son” Ned. His death is as erased from the film as is the relationship the “brothers – half-brothers,” the black Timmy and the white Tee Bob. Absent too are Miss Jane’s keen remarks about Creoles. Tee Bob’s passionate love for the Creole teacher Mary Agnes LeFabre, his rape of Mary Agnes, and his subsequent suicide never appear on the screen. The added scene of Miss Jane’s drinking from the “White Only” water fountain in Bayonne robs us of the exercise of imagination Gaines demanded from readers of the novel.
Transformation of African American fiction into film is a ripe subject for a monograph or a master’s thesis. We have to account for additions and omissions. We have good reasons for exploring the reductive politics of entertainment.