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Book-to-Movie Review–Cry, the Beloved Country

Steady Eddie and I are heading out early in the morning to take some kiddos from our church to a Bible quiz competition, and since 4 a.m. is way too early to try to get our girls up and over to their nana’s, they spend the night at nana’s the night before these monthly meets.  To say that it is the most anticipated event in our house would not be an understatement.  I just won’t specify who anticipates it more.  ;  )

Due to this highly anticipated situation, Steady Eddie and I had a chance to watch something besides Little House on the Prairie.  After I read Cry, the Beloved Country, I knew I wanted to watch the movie.    I loved the book, so I was curious to see whether or not the movie could do it justice.  I can answer that now with a qualified yes.

(Warning:  possible spoilers ahead!)

James Earl Jones does a fantastic job as Stephen Kumalo.  Although I really did not have a mental image of the umfundisi, now that I’ve seen the movie, he IS James Earl Jones, and it works.  He brings to the movie a blend of steadfastness and vulnerability that really highlights the pathos of this story.  Of course, his beautiful voice doesn’t hurt one bit.  Richard Harris, who plays Mr. Jarvis, does an equally good job of playing the bereaved father whose son’s life work finally makes inroads into his heart and affects the direction of his life.  I am certainly no film or acting critic, but I thought they both did excellent jobs in their roles.  In fact, I thought all of the acting in the film was top-notch.

Now, let me explain my qualifications to my opinion that this movie does indeed do the book justice.  When I watch a movie based on a book, I expect there to be changes.  After all, it is usually impossible to translate everything that happens in a book to the screen.  I thought that a couple of the changes, though, really had an impact on the overall effect of the story.  The first one is the emphasis on the Jarvises.  The viewers are acquainted with the Jarvises from the beginning of the story; in fact, Mr. Jarvis is at the train station when Rev. Kumalo leaves to go to Johannesburg.  While this does not minimize the importance of Rev. Kumalo to the story, I think that one of the things that I loved so much about the book is how I got to know the umfundisi through his thoughts and actions.  The switching back and forth between him and the Jarvises, ‘though it happens only a few times, did detract from the sense of following Rev. Kumalo through his days in Johannesburg.

The second thing, which is a much larger issue, is the fact that in the movie Arthur Jarvis’s son does not come to visit Rev. Kumalo.  I thought this part of the book was so beautiful and touching, and it really made the story of forgiveness and reconciliation so poignant. Also, Mr. Jarvis is only seen in the movie as the benefactor who purchases a new church building for Rev. Kumalo’s congregation.  No mention is made of the fact that he does so much to help the agricultural situation of the village, etc.  Because of this, some of the sense of community that is so evident in the book is lost in the movie.

Movies rarely, if ever, completely do the books from which they are derived justice.  Sometimes the movie even takes on a life of its own.  Cry, the Beloved Country does not do that; it remains mostly faithful to the story of the book.  However, so much of the beauty of the book is lost because Kumalo’s thoughts, the sermon of the preacher in Johannesburg, Kumalo’s prayers, and Arthur Jarvis’s writings are missing from the movie.  If you have to choose between the two, definitely (always) read the book.  Then, if you can, watch the movie.

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