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The Story Behind 'The Color Purple' : THE SAME RIVER TWICE: Honoring the Difficult, By Alice Walker (Scribner: $24: 302 pp.

February 04, 1996|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review

Ernest Hemingway's advice for novelists dealing with Hollywood was to stop on the east bank of the Colorado River, hold your nose, toss your screenplay over the state line, take the money and skedaddle.

A gentler soul, Alice Walker had a more charitable view of Steven Spielberg when he and musician Quincy Jones approached her in 1984 about making a movie of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple."

True, Spielberg was white. True, he was male. True, his films up to that point ("Jaws," "E.T.," among others) had been skilled but facile entertainments. True, Hollywood's previous portrayals of African Americans had hardly been reassuring.

But Walker instinctively felt that Spielberg and Jones were worthy of trust. She saw their offer as "the knock at the door"--a chance to get her message out to a wider audience, including the illiterate, even if it meant the disruption of her reclusive life.

The title of "The Same River Twice" refers to their effort to recast "The Color Purple" into another medium, as a collective rather than an individual project, and also to her reliving, 10 years later, of an experience that was both exhilarating and painful.

The book consists of entries from Walker's journal; letters to and from family, friends, Spielberg, Jones and cast members such as Danny Glover; her previously unpublished screenplay for "The Color Purple" (which Spielberg rejected in favor of one by Dutch writer Menno Meyjes); and a sampling of the journalism the controversial film provoked.

"It was said that I hated men, black men in particular; that my work was injurious to black male and female relationships; that my ideas of equality and tolerance were harmful, even destructive to the black community," Walker recalls. "I was 'accused' of being a lesbian"--she is bisexual--"as if respecting and honoring women automatically discredited anything a woman might say."

Meanwhile, Walker was suffering from undiagnosed Lyme disease. A stroke nearly killed her mother, who was bedridden for the remaining decade of her life. Walker's relationship with her longtime companion, Robert Allen, was beginning to fray even as they set up a new home in Mendocino County.

The screenplay is striking--grimmer and closer to the novel than Meyjes', without the comic relief. The sexual relationship between Shug (Margaret Avery) and Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) is more explicit.

Would it have made a better movie? Maybe. A less popular movie? Maybe that, too.

In a book cluttered with ill-written polemics by Walker's fans and detractors, what stands out is the sensibility of Walker herself, both fierce and forgiving.

When she first saw the movie, she thought it "terrible . . . slick, sanitized and apolitical." Later, though, she was able to see it, and let go of the scenes that were not there." Her respect for Spielberg and the actors was undimmed: "I saw how hard they worked. How earnestly they tried to do it right."

She praises Glover for his portrayal of Mister, Celie's abusive husband, a character based on her grandfather, Henry Clay Walker, who chased her grandmother through the fields "shooting at her; missing only because he was drunk."

"I adored my grandfather," she says, "and over the years I've struggled with this conflict: how to love someone who could destroy another human being. For years I repressed my love, almost as a duty [to my grandmother]. . . . The last of the conflict was washed away by your acting. . . . Unless that had happened, the parts of me that are like him may well have died."

Some fierceness lingers, though, when it comes to Warner Bros., with whom Walker signed a contract for 3% of gross revenues above the movie's break-even point. Despite the worldwide success of "The Color Purple," Walker received "only a fraction" of the money she thought was due her.

"Naturally, I assumed there would be, in fact, a break-even point," she says wryly.

Hemingway could have told her.

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