Review: Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” comes to life in film

By Stephanie Butzer

Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in 1937, but the 2005 film, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, still embraces the novel’s traditional themes and message.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2005 film

Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2005 film

The film adaptation of Hurston’s novel played in the upper level of the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Elon University’s campus Tuesday evening to commemorate the 75th anniversary celebration of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Richard Wright’s “Blueprint for the Negro.”

Janie Crawford, the main character of Hurston’s novel, was a growing woman who tried to touch love with a handful of men. Halle Berry, actress and former model, plays Janie’s character and was nominated for an Emmy for the performance.

Berry embraced Janie’s wild emotions, gentleness and independence. The viewer sees how Janie changes throughout the film. She transforms from a reckless, free-spirited teenager to a woman full of love and worldly comprehension. She has three relationships throughout the film and each one teaches her something new that she brings across to the next.

It is not an easy road though. As a young, black woman in the 1920s, Janie must deal with racism and sexism. She is scolded for enjoying the company of new neighbors and friends. She is told she is not smart enough to give a speech for the community. One of her husbands orders her to keep her hair up and covered with a scarf – a clear symbolism for female limitations.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, novel

Their Eyes Were Watching God, novel

The novel differs greatly from the film. Hurston focuses on Janie’s racial confusion and the community’s overall disapproval for darker African Americans. A reader can discover symbolism and echoing metaphors in between the pages.

In a movie, a viewer can obviously read expressions and hear tone to decipher what is actually happening. Winfrey’s adaptation of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” sticks to the overall plot, but focuses on Janie and her relationships rather than the core message. A movie may be a faster way to understand the novel, but it does not reveal everything the original text intends.

Hurston centers her novel on individuality, growing and maturing. Berry had to examine and analyze Janie in the novel and her struggle to become a woman in the day’s hard times. Of course her relationship with the three men are vital and each one helps her grow, but there were many other scenes when she had to develop within herself.

Most movies are forced to cut scenes in order to fit a time restriction. There aren’t too many people who will watch a film for hours on end. This 113-minute film pushes the boundary, but still does not include some of the important points in Hurston’s novel.

However, as a film intended for entertainment, it forced the viewer to question maturity in an age much different than the one we live in.

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