Revisiting a tale of sisterhood in “The Color Purple”

Published 11:40 am Tuesday, January 30, 2024

This week at Tryon Theatre we have a deeply sentimental film, “The Color Purple.” This film is an adaptation of the identically titled stage musical (on Broadway from 2005 to 2008), breathing new life into its songs and act structure. 

The majority of potential viewers may be familiar with the acclaimed 1985 film of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg. However, preceding any of these adaptations is the source material, the beloved and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, written by Alice Walker. As each adaptation brings its own unique interpretations of characters and events, it is important to appreciate that this film, in its fidelity of translation, is attempting to adapt the stage musical, rather than directly adapt the novel.

With the national attention received by the original novel and subsequent adaptations, it is safe to assume that a prospective audience is familiar with the characters and narrative arcs of the story. However, for those uninitiated in the depth and intricacy of “The Color Purple,” we will endeavor to provide a cursory introduction to its characters and themes, without delving too deeply into the intricacies of the heavily layered plot and character dynamics. 

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At its core, “The Color Purple” is about sisterhood, both literal and figurative. The focal point of the narrative is a young woman named Cellie, whose life is followed from her teenage years, into adulthood, throughout the course of the film. Cellie’s concept of sisterhood begins with her younger biological sister, Nettie, her closest friend and confidant, who is a fellow survivor in the callous intensity of their impoverished and traumatic upbringing. They share in enduring a deeply abusive father, and after gaining their hard-won freedom from him they are tragically separated, left to fumble through early adulthood unmoored from their respective emotional bedrocks. As Cellie continues to live and evolve through her life experiences, Nettie remains ever present in her mind, and the absence of her beloved sister finds Cellie forging new bonds of sisterhood with other women who come into her life. 

Throughout Cellie’s life she, and her fellow “sisters,” find themselves routinely under the thumb and jealous imposition of the men in their lives, the majority of whom are part of these womens’ lives by way of decisions and machinations in which the women themselves had no agency. And while these women are not necessarily constant allies, they nonetheless all grow and benefit from the common ground they share in their struggle. Moreover, through the music of this adaptation, the film is able to effectively express the exuberance of these characters in their moments of catharsis. 

“The Color Purple”, by nature of being musical, is not as solemn as the novel, nor the prior film adaptation, but nonetheless gives great respect to the narrative’s deeper moments. This film will surely satisfy those viewers who loved those more serious interpretations of the novel and Spielberg’s film, and through its celebratory charm of overcoming adversity, will surely capture the hearts of new viewers!