Movie vs Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God
I recently re-watched Oprah Winfrey’s made for TV movie adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and was very disappointed. I admire Ms. Winfrey immensely because of her inspirational rise to fame due to her persistent pursuit of excellence and because of her desire to leave something positive for the world, so I hesitate to be critical of her pet project. However, her version of this most profound and uplifting novel fell short of capturing Ms. Hurston’s excellence.
The Movie's Focus
The movie focuses almost entirely on the love story between reformed playboy, Verigible Woods (aka, Tea Cake) and Janie. However, there are so many more layers to the novel, including studies in developmental psychology and cultural anthropology.
The Book's Focus (in Five Parts)
On a psychological level, we see the main character, Janie Crawford, grow through four of the five stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Personal Development (depending on which version you read). This growth happens over the course of four of Janie's relationships (the last being a relationship with herself). A diagram of Maslow's hierarchy has been provided for reference below.
This brief discussion of the novel will cover the following topics and their corresponding levels on Maslow's hierarchy:
- Janie's lack of personal identity
- Janie's first relationship (with Logan Killicks)
- Janie's second relationship (with Joe Starks)
- Janie's third relationship (with Tea Cake)
- Janie's fourth relationship (with herself)
1. Janie—A Woman With No Personal Identity
Janie starts out in survival mode, or at least Nannie, her grandmother and guardian, does since she is the one who makes major personal and financial sacrifices in order to make Janie’s life better than hers or Leafy's, Janie’s absent mother, was. But even though life is pretty good for Janie, she has no sense of who she is.
When Janie begins to tell her story, her first memory is of having no personal identity. For her, this meant:
- No stable name
- No social identity (she is rejected by her Black peers for living in the White folks’ backyard)
- No family identity (she does not know her mother or her father)
- No racial identity (she is startled to learn that she is Black)
Due to this lack of personal identity, she moves zombie-like through her life and gives all her power away—first at age 16 to her grandmother, who forces her to marry Logan Killicks, an older man whom she barely knows and to whom she is not the least bit attracted; then later to her second husband, Joe Starks.
2. Janie's First Relationship (Logan Killicks)
Because of Nannie, Janie remains on the second level of personal development—Safety and Security—for a long time. Nannie’s major concern when she catches Janie innocently kissing Johnny Taylor at their gate post is that Janie will end up used and abused like she and Leafy were. For this reason, Nannie marries Janie off to Logan, who has land and money and can provide financial security, but their marriage only lasts a year.
In that time, Janie begins to think about her life and longs for it to be better, a small but crucial step in her personal growth. She sees Joe Starks as a means to adventure, something new and different, if not love. Joe, who succeeds in fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a “big voice” by being elected mayor of the newly developing town of Eatonville, Florida, actually smothers Janie’s search for adventure and her need to feel connected to a world outside of her hometown.
3. Janie's Second Relationship (Joe Starks)
Janie mistakenly shifts her dream of adventure to her former dream of feeling loved and tells herself that what she and Joe (a.k.a. Jody) share is love. But she longs for romance, and Joe does not have time for that. When he becomes abusive, Janie “learns to hush” and begins a psychological self-analysis that is only revealed when Joe is on his death-bed. She recognizes that she has lived her life for everyone else and that now that she is about to be free for the first time in her life, she is determined to live for herself.
Because Joe Starks, like Logan Killicks, provided Janie with the creature comforts, that meant she did not have to focus her energies on “security;” instead, she could direct her attention to the social part of her personality, her desire to be a part of the community. But Joe refused to let her. He kept her socially isolated, setting her apart and leaving her lonely and unfulfilled. Without that sense of social belonging, Janie could not find the voice she had been lacking for so long, the voice that could stand up to Joe Starks and demand respect as a human being separate from his and the town’s vision of her as Mrs. Mayor.
4. Janie's Third Relationship (Tea Cake)
Once Janie is single again (at age 37) she begins her true growth spurt. She starts to have experiences that teach her who she is. She learns to hunt, fish, and play checkers. She goes to dances, the movies, picnics, and any other function that brings her delight. This is where the love story comes in. She shares most of these experiences with a man named Tea Cake.
When Tea Cake comes along, he gives Janie the most significant piece of advice in the whole book: “Have the nerve to say what you mean.” This frees Janie to speak her mind, to tell stories, to interact with the “porch sitters” and any other people from the community. When she and Tea Cake marry, their home becomes a people magnet, and Janie can finally feel like she is part of a community; she finds a place within the group that fits. Her association with Tea Cake moves her up to the third level of the developmental hierarchy—Belongingness and Love.
5. Janie's Fourth Relationship (Herself)
Ironically, the person who helps Janie reach the third level in Maslow's hierarchy also forces her to test herself at the next level—Identity Achievement. When Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog during a hurricane, he turns violent against Janie, and she must weigh the value of her life against that of the man she loves. Janie chooses herself. She is now strong enough to recognize that Tea Cake is no longer himself and if she lets him take her life, they will both be gone. Before, doing this would have destroyed her, but having developed a solid sense of self-esteem and self-worth allows her to make this choice without letting it ruin the rest of her life.
The Film Falls Short of the Mark
Janie’s life with Tea Cake only lasts about a year and a half, but the movie makes it seem as though the relationship lasted much longer. Though it was the most significant relationship of her life—for through it Janie gains the voice (identity) that had been squelched for her previous 37 years and through that voice saves herself from prison—the love story portrayed in the film overshadows the profound character development that takes place in the book. In essence, that’s what the novel is—a study in character and personal development. Hurston uses Janie's relationships as the vehicle for her growth, as those relationships serve to reveal Janie to herself as well as to her readers. Through Janie, we readers can evaluate ourselves, and thus work to achieve our own identities.
Though the movie version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Hallie Berry as Janie, did a plausible job of conveying the love between Tea Cake and Janie, it, like most movies that try to capture the essence of a great work, misses on the deeper levels.