Critical Essays Beloved, the Film


Released in 1998, the film version of Beloved received mixed critical reviews. Those who had read the book generally appreciated the film more than those who hadn't. Anyone who has read the book can understand the challenge involved in translating Morrison's multi-layered story onto the screen. How does one handle the fluid narrative, which in the book slips effortlessly back and forth between past and present? How does one convey the atmosphere of the house or the internal lives of the various characters?

While the film addresses these issues, its success at reproducing the style, mood, and characters of the book is uneven. At points, the filmmakers capture Morrison's vision perfectly; at other times, important concepts are lost and the flow of the story becomes confused. For instance, the film beautifully depicts Baby Suggs's revival meetings in which she calls forth the children, the men, and the women. Beah Richards is spectacular as Baby, radiating the love and power on screen that you feel in the pages of the book. The scene in which the people gather, the children laugh, the men dance, and the women weep is potent in its activity and noise, and it conveys the importance of healing, community, and love even better than the book does.

On the other hand, the movie passes over some important character points, causing the narrative to possibly become confusing for those who have not read the book. For example, very little is revealed about Paul D's past or about his idea that all of his bad memories are locked in a tin where his heart should be. As a result, Paul D is a less complex character than he is in the book. Additionally, when Beloved seduces him and he calls out "Red heart, red heart!", without having a context for "red heart," the viewer is left wondering what he is talking about and perhaps sees his coupling with Beloved as a weakness rather than something he could not control.

Even with rough spots such as that one, however, Beloved as a whole remains faithful to the book. The dialogue is almost identical to that in the book, and the characters are portrayed nearly perfectly. Oprah Winfrey is Sethe, with her iron will tempered by sorrow and longing. As Paul D, Danny Glover conveys a friendly, personable man who possesses both intelligence and depth. Denver and Beloved are also well done, played by Kimberly Elise and Thandie Newton. Elise's Denver maintains the right balance of selfishness, craving love, and budding maturity, while Newton's Beloved can transform from a vacant beauty to an angry fiend and back again, giving us a sense that she is much more than a reincarnated two-year-old.