In light of the success of The Color Purple, Alice Walker was approached about Hollywood’s making a film out of her novel. At first she did not like the idea of somebody else telling her story, but she eventually was persuaded by Quincy Jones. Walker also was aware that a larger African American audience would watch the film than read the novel. Steven Spielberg was called in to direct.
The major difference between the film and the novel is, unsurprisingly, the alteration of the narrative structure. In the novel, we learn Celie's story through the letters she writes to God. In the film, there are no such letters, and a different connection with God is created. Walker has commented, “Though it hurt to see in Spielberg’s film that Celie ceases to be a writer, which she is to her very soul, when I had sat down to recreate her, it bored me to make her a writer, and so I thought of something else” (Walker 1996, p. 35). The film excludes Celie’s relationship with God, which sidelines her journey of self-reflection. Thus it is difficult to understand how Celie has fought her way through life without the cathartic and educating experience of the way she tells her story. We are left unsure about why Celie evolves, and it is a shame to see the expulsion of this very important key spiritual dimension, particularly since the title refers to a scene where God’s good creation is invoked.
Shug is also rather different in the film. Throughout it, she tries to please her father, who is a preacher, unhappy with the choices his daughter has made. This really does change the novel, for Shug was the very independent and autonomous female who did what she wanted. Her relationship with Celie is also made less explicit. There is no scene where Shug educates Celie about sex. Walker herself admits that “In the movie, all the women kiss each other, making the kiss between Celie and Shug less significant” (Walker 1996, p.168).
Criticism of the film from the public has been similar to the criticism received by the novel. Many African Americans have believed that the film attacks the black community because of the negative portrayals of several characters and of significant elements in Celie’s society. Rather than educating America about the troubling issues it raises, these critics have focused on the idea that the film would cause hatred towards blacks and black community more generally.
Walker has said different things at different times when asked about the film. One response that perhaps sums up her feelings is that “I was able to critique the film rather for its virtues than its flaws. Sometimes I would simply say, ‘I love the film.’ Other times I would say, ‘I have mixed feelings.’ Occasionally I would say, ‘It is a child with at least three parents: it looks like all of them.’ Most frequently I said, ‘Remember, the movie is not the book’” (Walker 1996, pp. 21-22).