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After the Storm

They called her a traitor and a liar. But Alice Walker has weathered the criticism of 'The Color Purple.' Her new book takes on the critics.

February 06, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alice Walker began by writing the book for her mother.

By the end, "The Color Purple" had won a Pulitzer Prize, the world's grace and 11 Oscar nominations for its film incarnation. But Walker failed to entice her mother, queen of her singular and ironic constituency--people who don't read much. The Southern-born novelist wooed her with the musical lilt of black folk speech, but her mother closed the book after five pages.

"My mother was very ill, focused very much on her illness as she would have to be, trying very hard to recover," Walker says. "She was raised as a devout Christian, so I think for her any kind of distasteful speech, as she would think of it, would really be hard. And [Walker used such a word] on the first page of 'The Color Purple,' where Celie is talking about being raped. . . .

"My mother would never have used it. The word [she used] was 'possible.' And the way you got to that word was that when you were little and you were told to take a bath and to wash yourself, you washed down as far as possible, and you washed up as far as possible and then you washed possible. So we're talking about very repressed people for whom sex was definitely not discussed. And yet I thought that if she saw it, she would just be swept away by the visuals."

For Walker, 51, Steven Spielberg's offer to direct the 1985 film was in part a blessing, translating her landmark work into a medium her mother could accept and understand. But it also unleashed a tirade of criticism. Walker was called a whore, a liar and a traitor for linking up with an outsider, for tarring black men with the scalding brush of domestic violence and woman-hating.

And now, a decade later, the soft-spoken writer has deciphered the experience and she's answering the question she was pummeled with at the time: So what do you think of the movie?

Ambiguous in the heat of the fray, she also finally answers her critics in her new book, "The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult" (Scribner), although Walker says that wasn't her intention. Instead, she says, she cobbled together the pastiche of prose, letters, interviews, diary entries and her original screenplay (which wasn't used) to illuminate the journey taken.

"I'm trying to give the experience that one gains by going through a rite of passage in terms of one's creativity," Walker says, curled up in soft black pants and shirt in her room at an airport hotel. "I mean, how do you withstand a great deal of severe criticism, bashing, trashing, and also encounter the difficulties in your personal life and continue--continue as yourself, continue with your work, and without rancor?"

In typical Walker fashion, "The Same River Twice" has whetted critics' pens, which have branded the book a "nerve-grating . . . writerly whine" and chastened her for "insistence on her own saintliness." Also typically, she is lauded elsewhere for being "engaging" and "intimate."

The film furor played out against Walker's grim personal life. A stroke had left her mother largely paralyzed during the last decade of her life, which ended in September 1993. Walker thought she was also dying, due to the undiagnosed rigors of Lyme disease.

Meanwhile, Walker's longtime partner, Mills College professor Robert Allen, confessed to an affair, envious of her acclaim and resentful of her preoccupation with work.

Indeed, the great American dream was knocking on her door in the form of producer Peter Guber, who had recruited Quincy Jones to write the music for the film and found himself with a line producer as well. It was Jones who suggested Spielberg as director. What's more, she notes, Spielberg was the only director who anted up.

"I think Quincy probably had worked on many projects with a lot of people who had a little less money than they should have had, a little less time, a little less expertise," Walker says. "And he's seen the finished creation is a lot less than it should be. And he didn't want to waste his time. And I agree with that."

Spielberg gets mixed reviews in the book. He ultimately went with a script penned by Menno Meyjes, a Dutch-born screenwriter who had caught the director's eye with his screenplay for "Lionheart." Meyjes' script downplayed the lesbian relationship of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), who, beaten down by her incestuous stepfather and her abusive husband, Mister (Danny Glover), finds redemption in the arms of the earthy Shug (Margaret Avery), her husband's lover. And while the novel traces Mister's evolution from a beast to a well-ripened man capable of love, the film never prods the character much beyond a brute.

Walker, who was a consultant on the film, says she never expected the film to mirror the book.

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