As adaptations go, Barry Jenkins’ film version of James Baldwin’s classic novel If Beale Street Could Talk remains very faithful to the source material. The most significant departures are in the handling of a key character and the ending, so let that be your spoiler warning: I will be discussing key plot points and the ending of this book and movie.
Beale Street is a love story at heart, but it also deals with the persistent racial injustice in America and the multiple institutional levels that enforce it. The story follows Tish and Fonny, who grew up together in Harlem and in the story’s present (1974), they have begun an intimate relationship. Although the romance itself is a fairly new development, given their history together and the way they’ve felt about each other under the surface all that time, Tish and Fonny are deeply in love. They look for apartments in the Lower East Side but aren’t having much luck because landlords just aren’t willing to consider black tenants.
Things have really gone south when both the book and the movie open because Fonny has been imprisoned after a false rape accusation orchestrated by corrupt police officers, and Tish finds herself pregnant with his baby. It’s up to Tish to try to navigate the racist and corrupt systems police department and the indifferent legal system.
Showing vs. Telling
Right away we see a difference in stylistic approach because director Barry Jenkins opens the movie with a quote from author James Baldwin in which he explains that Beale Street in New Orleans was a vibrant center of African American life in this country, and he adds that every city in America has its own Beale Street. This is not a quote that appears anywhere in the book. Baldwin leaves it to his reader to decipher any meaning in the title, and while Jenkins doesn’t spell it out for his audience, he definitely points them in the right direction.
Jenkins also opens and closes the movie with photographs of police officers either arresting or inflicting violence upon black men during the time the story is set. This almost gives the movie a documentary feeling as it begins and ends. Jenkins seems to be specifically telling the audience that although this particular story is fiction, the type of story was all too common in real life. Baldwin instead trusts his readers to understand the urgency behind the story without him spelling it out for them.
I don’t think either method is necessarily wrong as executed, but it is a drastically different approach to how the audience takes in this story.
The Cutting Room Floor
Because they’re so similar, most of the differences between the book and the movie are things in the book that are left out of the movie for timing purposes. For example, in the beginning of the book Tish returns home knowing that now that the father has been informed of her pregnancy, she needs to tell her family. She first tells her mother, Sharon, after Sharon gets home first. Although it’s a brief scene, it’s one of my favorite moments in the book–and it only halfway makes it into the movie.
In the movie, Sharon gets home and Tish tells her she needs to tell her something–and then we quickly cut to later that evening as the family is finishing dinner and Sharon helps Tish make the announcement to her father and sister. I’m sure this was done first for timing and second to avoid having four successive scenes of Tish announcing her pregnancy (since the first thing her family does is invite Fonny’s family over to break the news to them).
I do think in the context of the movie it works, but because I loved that moment between Sharon and Tish so much, I couldn’t help but miss it. Thankfully, the movie does have several other similar moments to attest to the strength of the relationship–especially since love and relationships are a huge part of Baldwin’s themes.
What the movie has that the book does not is a scene reflecting the relationship between Tish and her father. In the book, you know how deeply he cares for Tish because his words and actions show it: when they need money for legal fees, he begins stealing from his employer to do some hustling on the side and encourages Fonny’s father, Frank, to do the same. We just don’t see them interacting with each other one on one as we do with Tish and Sharon. In the movie, Jenkins gives us a scene late in the film where Tish is very pregnant, sick and in pain all the time, and despairing because things aren’t going well getting Fonny out of prison. She has been in the bathroom throwing up, and when she emerges she finds that her father has made her tea and he invites her to sit next to him and rest her head on his chest while he whispers soothing words to her. It’s a remarkably tender, sweet scene that adds so much to the character of the father and to the father/daughter dynamic. And since so much of Beale Street is about love and relationships, it adds a whole new level that I really appreciated.
Fonny’s family also ends up largely on the cutting room floor except for his father, Frank. Fonny’s mother and sisters only show up in the movie for the scene where they are informed about Tish’s pregnancy. To be fair, they don’t show up much in the book, but Baldwin does give them a notable presence–almost like specters haunting the story. Because Baldwin spends more time explaining the family dynamic and how Fonny grew up, which explains how he came to be the man we see in the story’s present. That family dynamic also adds deeper layers to the story. Fonny’s mother is deeply religious, which we see in the movie, but in the book we also get to see how her religion can be flawed and hypocritical. We also see that her disapproval of Fonny has in many ways shaped him as he’s grown.
In the book, Frank’s relationship with his wife and daughters is also significantly more complicated and layered. We also see that at least one of his daughters actually loves him deeply, but doesn’t feel that Frank loves or respects her back because she reminds him of her mother so much.
Had I not read the book, I might not have even suspected that these things were missing from the story, but since I did read the book I kept looking for them.
A Mother’s Journey
The movie also takes pruning shears to the background behind Sharon’s trip to Puerto Rico. The movie only explains that someone needs to go talk to Victoria, the woman who accused Fonny of raping her, and quickly reveals that it will be Sharon making the trip. But it doesn’t explain why it had to be Sharon or the dangerous circumstances behind her making the trip in the first place. Not only is Sharon a black woman venturing out into the world on her own, she doesn’t speak Spanish and she can’t drive a car. Going to Puerto Rico, Sharon will literally be at the mercy of the strangers she meets there. It’s as though she doesn’t know how to swim but dove headlong into the middle of the ocean in order to help her daughter.
When you know those details, it adds so much to the story and to the character of Sharon. It also gives the trip a greater sense of urgency and suspense as it gets underway.
How to Handle the Accuser
That is where the differences between the book and the movie really speed up because it brings us to Victoria, Fonny’s accuser. In both formats, it is understood that Victoria was actually raped but that a corrupt police officer orchestrated Fonny’s arrest and manipulated (at best) Victoria into identifying him in the line-up. The DA’s office then paid Victoria off and sent her back to Puerto Rico for vague reasons having to do with making sure her testimony doesn’t change.
Now, while the book does have sympathy for Victoria and what she went through, the characters don’t have a whole lot of compassion for her. I do think Baldwin does a lot to indicate that Victoria has been traumatized by what happened to her, but the focus is more on her as an obstacle to Fonny’s freedom. We understand that she’s been manipulated by a corrupt police department, but she’s still something to be overcome.
That’s true in the movie as well, but the script is very careful to extend more empathy to Victoria. Naturally, the handling of this character in the script is largely due to a more modern understanding of how to treat victims of sexual assault, but the #TimesUp movement definitely would have helped further this along. I saw an interview with Barry Jenkins where he said that he approached his female cast members and asked them how to handle the plot line with Victoria, and the actresses unanimously said they had to believe that Victoria was not lying about being raped and they had to be compassionate for the trauma she endured as a result, or else there’s no way they could do it. So at least twice, the movie has a character explicitly say that they believe Victoria was raped and suffering for it.
As such, Sharon’s meeting with Victoria happens under very different circumstances in the book and the movie. In the book, Sharon attempts to have a man in Puerto Rico put her in touch with Victoria, but he refuses. So Sharon finds out where Victoria is living and manages to find her, confronting Victoria in her apartment. In the movie, the man Sharon meets agrees to facilitate a meeting, which takes place in a neutral location—a courtyard outside of where Victoria is living.
So in the book, Sharon is forcing herself on Victoria in a way—going so far as to penetrate her safe place (her home) in order to speak with her. Perhaps inevitably, this triggers Victoria’s trauma. The movie makes Sharon much less of an aggressor by making the meeting consensual—and in a way, I hate using words like penetrate or consent in order to describe the meeting, but I think those connotations are exactly why the movie alters the situation so drastically.
Victoria’s trauma does get triggered in the movie as well, but it’s from the conversation with Sharon causing feelings and memories to bubble back to the surface in a way that makes it arguable that Sharon is blameless for the breakdown.
That confrontation has very different outcomes in the book and in the movie. The book ends with Victoria losing her baby and her mind following the meeting with Sharon and her subsequent breakdown. Since she can’t testify or travel, Fonny’s trial is postponed. Things look bleaker than ever because if Fonny ever had a hope of earning sympathy from a jury, it’s gone now that the accuser’s baby has been lost. We do not see the outcome of the trial, but we do see Fonny harden himself to the reality that prison is his life now. It’s not temporary. And that hardening is tough to read about; he is placed in solitary confinement for refusing to be raped, he almost loses an eye and is beaten badly. It’s awful. The book ends with Tish being notified that Fonny’s father, Frank, committed suicide. Yeah. It’s bleak. Basically, Frank was fired by his employer after he was caught stealing in order to pay Fonny’s legal expenses and he feels like a failure for being unable to get his son out of prison. The news of Frank’s suicide is how the novel ends.
In the movie, Victoria’s breakdown does happen, but it’s not as violent as the one portrayed in the book. There is also no mention of a pregnancy in the movie, so there’s no baby for her to lose. Instead, Victoria just disappears, which leads to Fonny’s trial getting postponed. Fonny appears to accept that he will go to prison but the violence and horror of his new life is only tangentially indicated. We don’t get the book’s hard look at what his life in prison is going to be like. We then see Tish giving birth to her baby before flashing forward five years to show Tish and her son visiting Fonny in prison (explaining that he took a plea deal as his best option). While it’s not perfect, we see that Tish and Fonny are trying to make their family work in light of their circumstances. There is no suicide in the movie—or if there is, it happens off camera and is not mentioned.
So even though the movie pivots back to photos of black men being mistreated by policemen from there, it has a decidedly more romantic conclusion than the brutal, despairing punch the book leaves you with.
Which is Better?
The book, hands down. I like a lot of the deeper details and layers the book gives us, and the more somber tone feels more appropriate. The movie is more romantic, and as such, it feels more hopeful. That’s fine, but it’s a very different choice. I do recommend both, but if that’s the route you want to take, I recommend seeing the movie first. Having read the book first, I was very aware of what had been left out and the difference in tone—and although I understand why the movie made the omissions and changes it did, I found myself longing for Baldwin’s writing. Watching the movie and then reading the book is like finding bonus material–as long as you are aware that the tone will be different. But in the end, I do think I prefer the book.