Over the course of the last week, I did something I haven’t done in a long time: finished a significant book in a matter of days. I was determined to finish Alan Paton’s beloved novel before a screening of the 1995 film on Wednesday evening at the library.
But though I enjoyed the book, and the movie (the latter reaction a surprise, the former, not so much), I’ve had a hard time trying to figure out how to write a review for both of them. You see, while both have their merits, there are also some downsides that, sadly, I can’t ignore.
So, to make this review easier on myself–and you–I’m going to break it down into the following components:
1. Basic synopsis of the book and movie (not too too many huge differences between them)
2. What I liked better about the book
3. What I liked better about the movie
4. Closing thoughts
Cry, the Beloved Country was published in 1948, the same year that apartheid was officially instituted in South Africa. The timing is stunning, and helps to explain, I think, why Cry, the Beloved Country is fairly mild in tone. It’s markedly different from last week’s graphically violent A Dry White Season, which was characterized by blood, riots, torture, and murderous special police in the state-of-emergency 1980s. In contrast, the main character in Cry, the Beloved Country is a gentle–sometimes excessively so–Zulu pastor, lovingly and respectfully called umfundisi by all who interact with him.
Revered Stephen Kumalo runs the humble St. Mark’s Church in the rural village of Ndotsheni, Natal. His sister, brother, and son have all abandoned Ndotsheni to seek another life in Johannesburg. When Kumalo receives an urgent letter about his sister Gertrude’s declining health, he decides that he, too, must make the trek. And so, for the first time in his life, the humble umfundisi leaves his humble village, boards a train, and arrives in the great, dangerous city. His first objective is to locate his sister. His second, to find his lost son, Absalom.
Kumalo does manage to find his sister, his brother, and his son. But all of them have been changed by Johannesburg. His sister works as a prostitute; his brother, though a great politician, is materialistic and disloyal. But his son is the worst of them all. After committing a series of minor crimes, Absalom was sent to a reformatory school, only to leave it and commit murder while robbing a white man’s house.
This is where things get really interesting. It turns out that Kumalo knows the father of the white man who died–his name is Jarvis, and he owns a prosperous farm on this hills above Ndotsheni. In the most powerful scene in the movie, Kumalo confesses to Jarvis: “It was my son that killed your son.”
As you can see, it’s quite a profound parallel. Kumalo must travel to a Johannesburg, the city that absorbed so many black South Africans, to understand why so many good souls lost their way. Meanwhile, the veneer of privilege behind which Jarvis lives is shattered after his son is shot dead. Eventually, Jarvis realizes that part of the reason his son was killed is the lack of opportunities that black South Africans have for upward mobility. He renounces his racist views, and devotes the rest of his life to reviving the drought-stricken village of Ndotsheni.
Strengths of the book
- Alan Paton has a lyrical, yet lucid, way of writing. I found the style overdramatic at times, but it’s true–the book contains an endless set of quotable quotes. The most famous, of course, is the refrain from which the book takes its name: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear.”
- There is a bigger and more critical focus on the South African mining industry. The Witwatersrand is a 34-mile-long cliff running through the Johannesburg region, and the source of much of the country’s gold. South Africa is, even today, something of an anomaly because of its wealth relative to its neighbors. Yet the enormous wealth generated from gold mining was extracted on the backs of exploited black South Africans who earned pennies (literally) in comparison to the millions that poured into the hands of the white mine owners.
- In addition to the focus on the mining industry, the book contains a richer exploration of, and explanation for, crime in Johannesburg. It tackles the physical and mental barriers that white South Africans erected in order to ignore–and indeed, in their ignorance, perpetuate–the dismal conditions in which black South Africans were forced to live. And Paton’s thesis is that fear is what allows the mutually destructive system to persist.
- It comes full circle. To atone for his sins, and in memory of his son’s life, Jarvis spends the rest of his days nursing the village of Ndotsheni back to health. He invests his time, money, and life into rescuing that which should never have been allowed to wither. This is a critical part of the book, yet it’s completely absent from the movie.
Strengths of the movie
- I was pleased to see James Earl Jones in the title role of Stephen Kumalo. Jones’ rich and sonorous voice, coupled with his great presence, are an improvement over the almost simple-minded Reverend of the book. In addition, his voiceovers grant the character additional power. Jones quotes passages that, in the book, are attributed to the omniscient narrator (i.e., to the white author, Paton). By letting Jones speak the words, something subtle, yet powerful, happens–and the book’s author can no longer take full credit for them.
- The weird gender stuff isn’t there. As progressive as Paton was in his views regarding race, the portrayal of women in Cry, the Beloved Country left much to be desired. Often, the female characters did just that: cry. Not that there’s anything wrong with crying, but in general it’s best not to perpetuate the “hysterical female” stereotype. The female characters also had no agency. Cry, the Beloved Country is a story about healing, but that healing was always facilitated by men. Women are ancillaries to the process. This distinction was not as obvious in the movie, and the unmarried, pregnant girl not so heavily criticized.
- Absalom. I had a distinct idea of what the boy would be like, and actor Eric Miyeni played him beautifully and sorrowfully.
- Johannesburg is just another character; there’s far less of the city vs. country trope. By that I’m referring to the age-old assumption that cities are inherently evil and wicked, while the countryside is pure and green and good. While reading the book, I was often frustrated that Reverend Kumalo seemed to think that the evils that befell his sister, brother, and son were caused by their mere presence in the enormous city. The point, of course, was not that Johannesburg was inherently evil to begin with, but rather that it was constructed upon a warped social and economic system.
So, all of this said, do I prefer the book, or do I prefer the movie? I’d like to tell everyone to do what I did–read the book, and then watch the movie! But since that’s unrealistic, I’m going to recommend the book. It’s a relatively easy read, though I do think some of the more heartwarming moments are better suited for the big screen. If you’re in it for the history lesson & social criticism, the book will better satisfy you.
Overall rating, book: 3.5/5
Overall rating, movie: B