Precious: Daniels Adapts the Novel for the Screen

red_shoes precious

"Precious," directed by Lee Daniels and starring Gabby Sidibe, is the feature adaptation of the novel "Push," written by Sapphire. The film is released November 6 by Lionsgate.

Please read review: emanuellevy.com/reviews/details.cfm?id=13406

"Precious" is filmmaker Lee Daniels’ second directorial effort, but it is a film he has wanted to make since he first read Sapphire’s novel, which was published in June, 1996.  That summer, Push was ubiquitous on New York subways, its arresting red-and-black cover design instantly identifiable.  Intrigued, Daniels bought a copy. 

The story of Precious Jones, who learns her own value and potential when she learns to read, struck a deep chord.  “From page one, I sat there with my mouth open: this was a world that I knew intimately,” recalls Daniels, who grew up in West Philadelphia.  “I had many relatives who resembled Precious physically, and I had many friends and relatives who didn’t know how to read but somehow got by in life.  My neighbors, my relatives and I, we all know the politics of dealing with the social worker, waiting for her to come and hiding certain things so that she wouldn’t see them.”

The milieu resonated, and so, too, did the voice of Precious, who describes her life in direct, unguarded language that evolves over the course of the book. Precious often misspells the words she is only now learning to write, but her thoughts and emotions are piercingly clear: her pain, anger and yearning for love; her feelings of doubt and worthlessness; her excitement at new discoveries and growing sense of confidence, pride and strength.  “I identified with every syllable on the page,” says Daniels. “Precious’s story is about learning to love yourself, and that is a universal story.”

He continues, “By the end of the book I thought to myself, ‘Wow. How do you bring this to the screen?’  Because people needed to know about this world.”

Daniels was a successful talent manager, but he had not yet made the leap into feature filmmaking.  In any case, the film rights to Push — one of the most acclaimed and highly publicized books of 1996 — were not for sale.  Though the film world came knocking, Sapphire declined to entertain offers.  “The book was doing well and I felt that it needed its own life,” the author explains.  “It was my baby, and I worried that a bad or corny film could do a lot of damage.”

In 2001, Daniels transitioned from talent management to filmmaking with the production of his first film, the Academy Award-winning MONSTER’S BALL.  His company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, changed its focus to production and he ramped up his pursuit of the film rights to Push, determined to give Claireece “Precious” Jones a voice and bring this story to life.

Meanwhile, Sapphire had begun to feel more receptive to a film adaptation — on the condition that the right filmmaker came along.  She admired MONSTER‘S BALL, and agreed to take a first look at Daniels’ directorial debut, the unconventional crime melodrama SHADOWBOXER.  “SHADOWBOXER sealed the deal,” Sapphire acknowledges.  “Lee had a vision for adapting Push, and he also had the ability to put that vision in motion.”

With the long-coveted rights at last acquired, Daniels began seeking financing.  Along the way, Daniels was introduced to Geoffrey Fletcher, a relative of a potential backer.  Fletcher was working as an adjunct professor in film at Columbia and NYU, and was a filmmaker himself.  When Daniels saw one of Fletcher’s short films, he realized he’d completed his search for a screenwriter.  Remembers the director, “I said, ‘Get this, I want you to write this movie.  You’re the one.’”

Fletcher was unfamiliar with Push, which allowed him to come to Sapphire’s novel with few, if any, preconceptions.  “I was told before reading the novel that it was difficult and perhaps a little grim.  But for me the experience wasn’t that way at all.  I thought it was the most luminous thing I’d ever read,” Fletcher says.  “The images were clear to me from the opening quote in the book.  I adored this young woman, Precious, and cared about her and wondered what would happen next.”

Precious’s voice, and her way of seeing and coping with the world, became key elements in translating her story to film.  In the novel, Precious turns to her imagination in traumatic moments; at one point, for example, she visualizes herself as a dancer backing up 80s stars Doug E. Fresh and Al B. Sure! at the Apollo Theatre.  Given the difference between a written description and a visual depiction, Daniels felt that expanding Precious’s flights into fantasy would serve not only the character, but the audience, too.

Fletcher agreed, and Precious’s inner landscape came to include visions of red carpet strolls and photo shoots.  “These fantasy moments felt to me so appropriate and fitting,” Fletcher remarks.  “They throw the viewer an unexpected turn, but one that hopefully works and feels organic.”  Daniels enlarged the presence of some supporting characters, including Nurse John, a helpful medic glimpsed only briefly in the book; and the alternative school receptionist, Cornrows, who was fleshed out with boyfriend troubles and a tart sense of humor.