Adapting a story from the page to the screen is its own kind of art — a balancing act between which of the original details to keep, loosely incorporate, or cut out. It’s why we have so many cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare plays and novels, like Pride & Prejudice and Little Women. How closely each adaptation sticks to the text will almost certainly be a point of discussion, if the ongoing arguments over the Harry Potter books versus movies are any indication. Still, some adapted work can transcend its origins and stand on its own merits, like the film versions of To Kill a Mockingbird or The Godfather, becoming a beloved pop culture staple separate from the literary source.
Until now, James Baldwin’s books had not been adapted into a feature film in English. There is one French adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk and excerpts from other books appear elsewhere, but the new If Beale Street Could Talk is the first full Baldwin book to be reimagined by an American director. After his Oscar-winning hit Moonlight, Barry Jenkins took on the ambitious project of turning Baldwin’s novel about a passionate couple torn apart by an unjust system into a screenplay. Jenkins told IndieWire about the adaptation process: “While it was the first time Baldwin has been adapted for an English-language feature film, and there was some pressure to keep as much of it the same as possible, what it ultimately comes down to is: the book is the book, and the movie is the movie.”
Tish (KiKi Layne) leads the reader through If Beale Street Can Talk as the story’s narrator. She visits Fonny (Stephan James), her fiancé, in jail, where he’s serving time for a false accusation of rape. They’re expecting their first baby while Fonny is still behind bars. In voiceover, Tish narrates her thoughts, pregnancy pains, fears and hopes, as she recounts childhood memories and the struggle to exonerate the accused.
For the sake of the movie’s runtime, not every single one of Tish’s lines or Fonny’s anecdotes about his parents make it into Jenkins’s version of If Beale Street Could Talk. For instance, in the book, Tish goes into greater detail about how she and Fonny met as kids and the fight that brought them together. This does not make it into the movie, but it’s hinted at in reoccurring shots of Fonny and Tish as children playing in a bathtub together. The kids play with big, foamy bubbles, showing the childlike sweetness as the foundation of their friendship and as a testimony of Fonny’s innocence.
Other writers have pointed out what was left out in the adaptation process, but I’m fascinated by the visual richness Jenkins brings to the story. Like Moonlight and Jenkins’s first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, If Beale Street Could Talk has a distinct color palette — this time of warm, earth tones rich in green, red, yellow, and brown — and an intimate style of filming. One of the many memorable shots from Beale Street happens at the beginning of the movie as Fonny and Tish are walking in a park. The camera closes in on the couple’s faces as they look at each other, swimming in each other’s eyes and deeply in love. The audience gets a sense of the strength of their connection without Baldwin’s words telling them so. The movie repeats this close-up in the various jailhouse scenes, reflecting on the tension building in their relationship as Tish’s pregnancy progresses and Fonny remains stuck behind the thick glass that separates them.
Jenkins’s tender filmmaking style accentuates the emotional undertones in Baldwin’s words. Jenkins may have left out other details and background for the sake of not making his feature film into a mini-series, but he enriches what’s already on the pages of Baldwin’s soul-stirring book. An adaptation doesn’t have to stay true to every word to work, it just has to tell that story using its own language.
If Beale Street Could Talk by Barry Jenkins is screening at theaters nationwide.