The Secret Life of Bees: from book to film

Last night I watched the 2008 film of The Secret Life of Bees (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood), adapted from Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel of 2002.  I’ve had the DVD a while, but my profound love of the novel has made me reluctant to watch the film, for fear it can only disappoint.  The likely “but that’s not how I imagined this character, this scene, etc.” factor was always going to be high.  I’m well aware that the burgeoning field of ‘adaptation studies’ attempts to address adaptations in more sophisticated ways than these, considering what different media do in their own right to stories, and the DVD is helpful here, offering both the possibility of watching the film with the director’s commentary running, and a short film on adapting the novel to the big screen.  In interviews Sue Monk Kidd has been magnanimous in her response to the adaptation, accepting (rightly, I think) that a novelist in a way has to turn her work over to a director and production team and trust them to keep to the spirit of the original, while also making it into a good film on filmic terms.

Well, every now and then my partner and I did interject phrases such as “was that in the novel?”, “I’m not sure XX said that in the book”, and indeed “that didn’t happen in the novel”, but overall it wasn’t the disappointment I’d feared.  The casting is strong (other than Rosaleen, who is [a] too young, and [b] not nearly feisty enough) and the novel is able to realise certain things — such as how to keep bees — which can of course only be described in the novel.  A key scene that is omitted from the film is when, on Mary Day, the women gather to retell the story of ‘Our Lady of Chains’.  The story is told, earlier on, in a gathering that in part mimics a black pentecostalist-style service, but practically all reference to the chains has gone (don’t upset the punters with any allusion to slavery, huh?).  But the scene in the novel when the women gather and communally rub honey into the black madonna figure, both to protect and nourish her, is charged with a power and eroticism that also, it seems, had to go.  These are the kind of decisions that disappoint in the film.  The other key change in the film is to do with the central question/’mystery’ in the novel of whether or not Lily Owens actually did kill her mother when she was a little girl.  As a very well constructed novel, Monk Kidd leaves this right until the end, and manages to stay on the right side of tipping into sentimentality and easy ways out.  How does the film deal with this?  I won’t say, but you don’t have to get very far into the film for it to be clear that expecting the viewer to live with a degree of uncertainty about this issue all the way through has clearly been regarded as too much for the average viewer.  Hollywood, why don’t you try and imagine some of your viewers have intelligence?  Go on, I dare you.  At the end of the story, when T. Ray finds Lily at the Pink House and comes to take her forcibly home, the film powerfully and convincingly shows Lily as having become the kind of young woman who has learnt that ‘Mary is inside her’ and that that gives her a tremendous strength in the face of injustice and potential violence.  I felt that this came across more clearly in the film than the novel.

Why am I talking about The Secret Life of Bees in a blog on e-learning?   Well, it’s my prerogative to go off topic a bit sometimes, and — more relevantly — I teach the novel on a Level Two undergraduate course on Women’s Writing and Feminist theory at the University of Wolverhampton.  With a seeming light touch, the novel has considerable depths to it, in terms of its engagement with issues of the maternal, mothers and daughters, racial tensions in 1960s America, and the feminine divine.  Anyone who has read other of Sue Monk Kidd’s works will know that she writes of matters of the heart and spirit with great honesty and integrity, and her published accounts of her own spiritual journey have been inspirational and ‘companions on the way’ for many women (and quite possibly a few men too).  The Secret Life of Bees, the novel, can very much be read as a part of Monk Kidd’s spiritual journey, as well as an astonishing first novel in its own right.

I’m also running a weekend event on the novel at Holland House Retreat and Conference Centre, Cropthorne, Worcestershire, in June 2010.  See their events programme for more details , or contact me direct (see About Ms E-Mentor page).