Beloved (1998): Demme’s Honorable Failure of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Novel

Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s screen version of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is an honorable (even noble) failure, leaving much to be desired, considering the dramatically stirring source material upon which it is based.

A labor of love, this big-budget, lavishly mounted  movie is produced by Jonathan Demme and the Queen of talk, Oprah Winfrey, who also plays a major part.

In an excessive running time of nearly three-hour, the sharply uneven film, set in Ohio circa 1873, covers most of the events in the book, but it lacks dramatic coherence and emotional poignancy.  Part slavery fable, part mother-daughter tale, part ghost story, but not satisfying on any of these levels, Beloved is multi-layered but not compelling.

The tale traces the life of Sethe (played in her middle years by Winfrey), a former slave who has rebuilt a seemingly peaceful, productive life in Ohio.  Through sparing use of flashback, Demme slowly unveils the horrors of Sethe’s former life, and the terrible event that led to the haunting of Sethe’s home.

The brutal depiction of the horrors of slavery, supernatural scenes, and the bloody events in Sethe’s family have undeniable impact, motivating some critics to label Beloved as a cross between the decent TV series Roots and the gross effects of The Exorcist.

But the movie boasts too much its unsentimental fierceness, resulting in a depressing feature that most audiences found hard to follow or feel for any of the characters–including its victims.

Made as a prestige feature, vying for critical recognition and Oscar attention, Beloved divided reviewers and failed to find audiences, resulting in a commercial flop vis-a-vis its overbloated nature and excessive budget.

The lead cast members, especially Kimberly Elise as Sethe’s struggling daughter and Thandie Newton as the mysterious title character, go out of their way to render affecting performances, but ultimately are defeated by narrative strategy that doesn’t serve well the intent of the literary source.

Strangely enough, well intentioned as it is, Beloved comes across as one of Demme’s most intert and listless efforts, failing to convey Morrison’s subtle novel, which interweaves masterfully her reflections on history, memory, and desire.


Oscar Nominations: 1

Costume design: Colleen Atwood


Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme

Directed by Jonathan Demme