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Reading Outside My Genre is... Hard: If Beale Street Could Talk

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A few weeks ago, I walked into Shakespeare and Company, an English bookstore in Paris. I had no intention of buying anything. I was in the middle of three physical novels, and one audiobook. But as I walked through the crowded store, I saw a slim book with a title I recognized. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

I only knew the title because the movie was out. I was seeing posters everywhere. Mostly due to all the Oscar buzz around it, I wanted to see it. When I saw that it was only 175-pages I thought, why not read it too.

I can bang through this, I told myself. And I purchased the book.

Well GAWD DAYUM, nothing happens in this story.

We are literally just watching someone walk through their life… I walk through my life every day! I mean stuff happens but it’s just… life.

Written in 1974, If Beale Street Could Talk follows the story of Tish, a 19-year-old girl, growing up in New York, as she navigates the racialized world around her. Tish and Fonny are in love. She is pregnant. He has been accused of rape, and is in jail. Tish and her family do everything they can to track down the accuser and get her to recant.

So, I guess stuff happens, but it’s pretty slow.    

 

The Book  

Though quick, this book was not an easy read. And perhaps not for the reason you would think.

Yes, the subject matter of a young black couple being torn apart by a racialized society is tough. James Baldwin did a very good job of making me feel throughout this novel. But for me, the writing style was challenging.  

But this book was a bit of a personal challenge. That was kind of the point. To read outside my usual genre. To read off a page. You know… trying to grow and learn and self-improvement, and all that boring stuff… 

So, there I was, reading this prolific black writer, and feeling like I was becoming a better person... or something.  

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The story is written as a stream of consciousness. This was an interesting way to tell the story, but at times, it was tough to stay engaged.

The book opens with Tish visiting Fonny in jail, and telling him that she is pregnant. It then follows her as she tells her family, and then his, about the pregnancy. We see her meet with his lawyer. We follow as Tish’s mother tries and find the woman who has accused Fonny of rape.

 As Tish is experiencing all this, she remembers events that act as back story to the reader. Her and Fonny growing up together, going out on dates, looking for apartments, ect.

It is through these flashback/memories that we learn about Fonny’s dysfunctional family. We meet his God-fearing mother and sisters who simultaneously think Tish is not good enough for Fonny, and Fonny is not good enough for them.

 Unfortunately, it is also here that we see how Tish views other women. It is not favourably. With the exception of her own mother and sister, I don’t know if Tish ever says anything positive about another woman.

 Tish is not a very good feminist. But for that conversation, I’d have to read the book again.

 This shift between the present and past is done seamlessly by the writer. That said, I didn’t like it. Mostly because this book is so different from anything else I have ever read.

For one, there are no chapters. NONE. Part One and Part two. That’s about it. For another, there is very little dialogue and the sentences are long… so, so long.

If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I love me some dialogue, and I love me a short sentence. In fact, one of the things I do in my editing process is Ctrl+f the word ‘and’. Every time I see one, I ask myself, can this be two sentences. If it can, bye-bye ‘and’, hello period.

I did not find If Beale Street Could Talk a particularly enjoyable read, but it did make me feel. That, I think, shows how well written it was.

It’s just not my style.

 

The Movie

 You know… Sometimes I don’t get art.

HannaH, it doesn’t have to make sense, they tell me.

HannaH, it’s not about you getting it, they say.

But HannaH, does it make you feel?

Yeah… yeah it does… it makes me feel confusion!

I felt that confusion while watching If Beale Street Could Talk. One of Fonny’s characteristics was, he’s a sculptor. This is something he takes great pride in and I guess that why we circled one of Fonny’s half-finished sculptures for ten seconds.

 What am I looking at here? I asked myself. Am I missing something? Is this important? Why is this important? Just cause Fonny loves his work? I don’t get it...

Totally took me out of the movie.

 At its core, If Beale Street Could Talk is about love and hate.

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The love that Fonny and Tish share, and the hate of a white officer who separates them. The love of Tish’s family, both for Tish and Fonny, and the hate that exists within Fonny’s own family.

 This really came through in the film. Not only was this one of the most stylistically beautiful movies I have ever seen, the relationships displayed carry that beauty throughout the film. The framing and colour bring the relationships on the page to life in a way I’ve not seen before.

 I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again, but DANG if each shot couldn’t be a painting! This film was visually spectacular.

 

The Adaptation

 This was the single best adaptation of a book to screen I have ever seen. It’s accuracy to the source material was jaw dropping, as were the emotions conveyed.

 Tish narrated the film. Many book-to-movie adaptations, where there is a first-person point of view, has a narrator. This is one of my biggest pet peeves.

 Why why WHY are you reading me words that are on the screen?

 Why why WHY are you telling me what I’m looking at??

I didn’t come to the theatre to stare at the floor!

But here, in this adaptation, it is impeccable. Tish’s narration filled in blanks. It gave us new information and background on what we’re seeing.

One that comes to mind is Fonny reconnecting with his childhood friend Daniel. We see the pair embrace as Tish gives us their history as a voice over. Perfect.

I can only imagine that If Beale Street Could Talk, at 175-pages, with its limited dialogue, was much easier to adapt than let’s say Harry Potter 7. But even with a short book, you can’t put everything on the screen.

I’m always so curious as to the discussion in the writer’s room when the decisions of what to cut get made. I can imagine that Tish and Fonny as children was entirely cut out for time’ sake. I get that. But other moments left out, I don’t get.

For example, a heart-wrenching scene from the novel between Fonny and Daniel was changed. I want to know why.

The two friends are talking, and Tish overhears Daniel telling Fonny that he has been in jail for the last three years for stealing a car. Daniel can’t drive and had never seen the car in question, but was found with weed on him and was bullied into pleading guilty to the theft of the vehicle.

Daniel tells Fonny how hard life in prison was. Fonny tries to console him, but there’s nothing for it. Daniel breaks down and Fonny holds him while he cries.

This was a moment I was really looking forward to seeing on screen. It is so devastating as we the reader know that the Fonny holding Daniel as he cries, will soon be in jail, also for a crime he didn’t commit. Also for being black.

But alas, no. In the film, the scene still exists, but Daniel doesn’t break down. He doesn’t cry in the arms of his friend.

And I have to ask why? Why was this emotional moment, so cruel in its irony, taken out of such a powerful movie?

I can only hope that it was not because of societal views on masculinity. I can only hope there was another, more palatable reason.

 

Keeping in mind that I think I have read almost every urban fantasy novel on the face of GODS (I’m an atheist) GREEN (is it still green with all this climate change?) EARTH (slight over exaggeration), no… I didn’t particularly like reading this book. And no, I didn’t like watching the movie.

I did, however, appreciate and enjoy the overall experience of stepping outside my genre, outside my lane, to read and watch something new.

Try it sometime.

HannaH Sunley-Paisley