Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a story about a young African American woman’s search for herself through different relationships. The compelling nature of the story struck Oprah Winfrey so much that she decided to turn it into a movie, but as is common, the film leaves out some key points. In Winfrey’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the sexualization of Janie’s character and her relationship with Tea Cake, and the minimization of relationships and African American community cause the film to lose meaning.
The idea of a community is essential to Hurston’s novel, and she portrays Janie’s relationships very intensely. As Janie is growing up in the African American community, Hurston makes sure to portray that throughout her novel. In both the novel and the movie, it is obvious that Janie is heavily influenced by those around her. From her grandmother raising her to her multiple husbands, she is not alone in her journey. For example, in the novel after Janie’s grandmother sees her kissing Johnny Taylor, she slaps her then hugs her as she is “suffering and loving and weeping internally for the both of them” (Hurston 14).
After they finishing hugging, Janie’s grandmother tells her to “sit in her lap lak used ta” (Hurston 14). In the film, however, after her grandmother slaps her, the two just hug for a while. Although the long hug depicts some sense of closeness, it pales in comparison to the dialogue offered by her grandmother. Hurston illustrates the compassion her grandmother feels toward Janie in what seems to be a beautiful portrayal of tough love. Similarly, her grandmother begins to shed wisdom on Janie by telling her, “de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out” (Hurston 14).
She also tells her that black women are “de mules us de world” (Hurston 14). This wisdom from her grandmother reveals to Janie and the reader the hardships that she has been through as an African American woman. She loves Janie, and because of that wants to raise her in a way where she will not be disappointed. Janie’s grandmother furthers the idea of tough love in this conversation by telling Janie the truth instead of hiding her from it. However, the films cuts this scene out. Because the film seems to target an audience wanting a romantic film, this idea by the grandmother loses its importance.
Furthermore, in both the novel and the film, when Janie returns to Eatonville, Pheoby welcomes her home. In the novel, Pheoby and Janie sit on the porch out in the open, as Janie tells her story regarding her and Tea Cake. However, in the film, they are inside of the house, isolated from everyone else. Although, it is obvious that the neighbors disapproves of Janie’s decision and may not welcome her back with open arms, Hurston embraces that notion with the idea of openness. Their being on the porch represents the strength of the African American community and its ability to withstand anything.
In the film however, this idea seems to be lost. While Pheoby’s welcoming of Janie remains a very powerful notion, the movie’s depiction loses the very core of the African American community ideal. Throughout both the book and the movie, the characters are always playing games or talking on the porch, so the film’s decision to hold that scene inside rather than outside loses a sense of community. Not only does the loss of community alter the novel’s meaning, but also the depiction of Janie’s character.
Hurston’s novel tells the story of Janie’s search for her identity, and in that search come her multiple relationships. Although Hurston alludes to Janie’s looks by saying she possesses “firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore hole in her shirt,” that seems to be the extent in which she illustrates Janie’s beauty (Hurston 2). The film, however, takes more liberty upon stressing Janie’s good looks.
The casting of beautiful Halle Berry as the lead seems to be a great choose when considering potential viewers of the movie, and she does a beautiful job as well. However, it seems the director takes liberty with Berry’s sexual appeal and turns some scenes into more sexual scenes than needed. For example, in the book when Tea Cake and Janie are going inside to eat pound cake, “Tea Cake went out to the lemon tree at the corner of the kitchen and picked some lemons and squeezed them for her” (Hurston 102).
In the movie, however, Tea Cake cuts a lemon from a tree and rubs it on her lips in a very sexual way. Whereas this scene is supposed to be very innocent, the director takes liberty and portrays it with sexual tension for the sake of the viewers. Moreover, although her relationships are a big part of her journey, the focus remains on Janie’s search for herself. Winfrey’s film, however, heavily romanticizes Janie and her relationship with Tea Cake.
The film seems to take on the role as a romance film rather than Hurston’s intended purpose. Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship only lasts a year a half, and although it is very significant in Janie’s journey, she learns valuable lessons which contribute to her search as well. Winfrey’s film heavily focuses on their relationship and depicts it as if it lasts much longer than a year and a half. The film’s heavy focus on the romance between Janie and Tea Cake takes away from the theme of self-searching which Hurston clearly conveys.
Through all outlets of Janie’s journey, she heads toward finding fulfillment in herself alone, and the movie takes away from the idea of Janie finding herself. Both Hurston’s and Winfrey’s version of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” depict Janie’s growing up and figuring out who she really is as well as what she really wants in life. However, because of the inaccurate portrayal of Janie and Tea Cake and the minimization of other relationships and community in the novel, the film does not seem to do the book justice.
Hurston’s novel implicitly evokes the reader to question his or her fulfillment and where it lies. Throughout all of Janie’s relationships and stops, one can identify and ponder one’s life in accordance to Janie’s, which is what makes Hurston such a great writer and her novel such a wonderful story. Winfrey’s film is very entertaining and the chemistry between Janie and Tea Cake is undeniable, but it fails to evoke one’s own self-reflection and desire to find oneself as Hurston so beautifully does.