The four women who compose the Sisterhood of Intelligent Mothers Fellowshipping book club were channeling the same anxieties as they settled in for a recent showing of “Precious” at the Regal Brooklyn Center Stadium 20.
They had all read “Push,” by Sapphire (Vintage, 1996), the novel on which the movie is based, and they couldn’t fathom how director Lee Daniels would handle its shocking themes of incest, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, obesity and poverty. To allow one’s own imagination to form images (or not) based on words in a book is one thing; to have someone else’s translation of them thrust in front of you on the big screen is quite another.
The author herself had worried about what would happen in any book-to-movie interpretation, and for that reason refused all film offers for years. “I had taken some very sensitive material … and portrayed it as sensitively as I could,” Sapphire told CBS-TV’s Katie Couric in an interview in October. “Women who had read the book came to me and said, ‘Thank you.’ And I didn’t want them to go see a movie and feel ashamed. I didn’t want heavyset black women to see a movie image of someone like Precious and feel ashamed.” She changed her mind after seeing Daniels’ “Monster’s Ball,” and was persuaded that he could preserve her main character, portray the “grit and the pain” of Precious’ life and elicit empathy rather than pity from the audience.
Did Daniels succeed? Book club members Latrese, Jaquinetta, Monshari and Teena all agreed that he handled difficult scenes “tastefully” without losing any of the novel’s power.
“It wasn’t too much,” said Monshari. “But I don’t think I could sit through it again, because it was so raw, so deep.”
Their night out
The four women, all young mothers and professionals from north Minneapolis, decamped to a nearby Applebee’s after the movie to compare notes, completely undaunted by the restaurant’s Friday night din. This was their night out, their once-a-month chance to talk about books, mostly, but also about kids, boyfriends, husbands and “make-ups and break-ups.”
It’s always hard to embrace a movie after imprinting on a book. But it’s fun, anyway, to parse the differences, and the fellowshippers did not hold back:
• Actress Gabby Sidibe was perfect for the role of Precious; she was just as they had imagined her. Even better, in real life she’s nothing like Precious: She’s a college student, an animated conversationalist, and now a prize-winning actress.
• Mo’Nique, who plays Mary Jones, Precious’ abusive mother, was too much in character for the women’s comfort — too convincing as a sofa-dwelling, pimple-popping, unbathed, unshaved, cigarette-sucking parasite. Just the thought of her got book club member Latrese out of her seat to do a perfect imitation of an especially disgusting scene in which Mary Jones gyrates in front of the always-on TV set in her dingy living room. (The Applebee’s patrons were entertained, but perhaps not fully aware of what they were witnessing.)
• Some of the richness of Precious’ internal dialogue in the novel did not translate to the screen. “It was too random,” one book club member said.
• Daniels worked more with symbolism (the color red, to convey trouble, and yellow, to convey hope).
• Sapphire did a brilliant job of showing the path from illiteracy to literacy.
• In the movie, Lenny Kravitz as obstetric Nurse John is to die for; in the novel, Nurse Butter is to be despised for failing in her duty to report sexual abuse.
And so it went, as drinks and dinner were served. The novel is more subtle, to be sure, the women agreed. But the movie, they thought, offers something that the book does not: the real promise of a brighter future for Precious. Is it too much to ask that the story of an illiterate, obese Harlem teen who has been impregnated twice by her father, sexually and psychologically abused by her mother, abandoned by the school system, and then, to top it off, diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, offer some relief? In the women’s opinion, the movie, though flawed, did a better job at this than did the novel.
Latrese, Jaquinetta, Monshari and Teena know that the story of Precious is borne out every day in the news. Monshari said she just kept telling herself, “I have to read this. I have to read this. Somebody is experiencing this right now.” But the movie’s ending “just soared,” said Latrese. So it was hard not to hold on to it for dear life.
(By the way, the ladies would like to know: Parents, what were you thinking bringing your 4- and 5-year-olds to that movie? “Only at the Regal,” Teena said.)
Next month’s book has not yet been chosen. The fellowshippers, who are celebrating their one-year anniversary as a book club, have learned how hard it is to keep commitments through the December holidays. So they’ll hold off until January to meet again.
They have their favorites: “Zane’s Sex Chronicles,” by Zane (Atria, 2008), a collection of erotic short stories, was a real icebreaker. “Thank you for introducing me to that chocolate-flavored literacy,” Jaquinetta told her friends.
Another favorite, important for its “spirituality,” was “The Shack,” by William P. Young (Windblown Media, 2007), a self-published runaway best-seller that upset conservative evangelicals for its “heresy” and even got the attention of New York Times books reporter Motoko Rich. The novel tells the story of a man whose daughter has been kidnapped and killed and who is invited back to the shack where her bloody dress was found. There, he meets God in the form of a black woman.
The women said the book led them into a discussion of the differences between “expectancy” and “expectations” in all relationships.
It’s clear that the friends greet each other in the spirit of the former, and not the latter.
“I love these ladies,” said Teena.
Sarah T. Williams is a former books editor at the Star Tribune, where she worked as a news editor and reporter for 27 years. She lives in St. Paul with her husband, writer Jim Heynen.