The film "A Lesson Before Dying," starring the incomparable Don Cheadle. was based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines. I couldn't help thinking, when reading the book recently, that it would make a powerful movie, and I'd thought about how I would depict various parts of the story -- for instance, the event at the store that takes place before the book starts but almost has to be the beginning of the movie -- so I was interested to see how the film had been done and happy to have a chance to watch it on DVD only days after being immersed in the world of the book.
Horizons are not wide for the people in the black Louisiana community that is the setting for both book and movie. This claustrophobic world is seen directly in the film, where tall fields of cane wall in the roads, houses in the quarter are small and dark, and prisoners’ cells in the old courthouse building are like cages in a zoo. To stay there in Louisiana, his own teacher had told Grant Wiggins, would mean his defeat and possibly his death, so if he wants to save his own life he must leave the South. Mr. Wiggins, or “Professor,” as many call him, wants to leave but is kept home for now while he waits for the woman he loves to be divorced from the husband who abandoned her and her children, and his frustrations increase when his old auntie and her friend, the godmother of a young man in their community sentenced to death, insist on his involvement in the young man’s last days.
Several characters and incidents in the book were not included in the movie, and while I understand that film has to compress a story, I was disappointed that Paul, the one white deputy who treated Jefferson with respect and who came to wanting friendship with the teacher (also, the only nonracist white character), was left out of the movie. In this story no one person has all the answers, but several have something to contribute, and they make these contributions by listening and reaching out to each other. The teacher has as many lessons to learn as the prisoner, and the deputy also learns from the relationship that grows between the two black men.
Another character in the book passed over in the film is the young girl who takes over the schoolroom when the teacher is called away. Vivian, Grant’s beautiful girlfriend, thinks Grant's student is in love with him, but he tells her no, she is just looking to him to be a savior, like everyone else. (Isn’t this often part of a student’s infatuation with a teacher?) Expectations of family and community weigh heavily on Grant Wiggins, and what he does with the burden and how it changes him is as much a part of the story as Jefferson’s transformation.
In the end, Jefferson goes to the electric chair on schedule. (The movie ends before his execution; the book continued through it.) He had not killed anyone, but he is executed as a murderer nonetheless. From the beginning of the story Jefferson’s death was never in doubt, but in the end he goes to his death like a man, as his godmother wished him to do, knowing he was a man and knowing that people cared about him, and that, as the author presents it, is an important victory for him and his community. He was not a mindless "hog" (the comparison was made by his defense attorney in an attempt to avoid the guilty verdict) but an upright man. The story is what happens between the verdict and the execution, to both the convicted man and his teacher. Theirs is hardly a straight or easy road. It is hard, it is slow, there are numerous setbacks – it is life, condensed into a few weeks. Every day, every sentence, every word spoken by the characters counts.
The movie is very good, but if anyone had to choose between novel and film, I’d advise reading the novel. There is always so much in the pages of a book that cannot be translated to screen, for one thing. And while the film does an excellent job presenting the visual aspects of the story, the beauty of the actors almost distracts from the characters’ struggles at times. Most significantly, however, the movie doesn’t have time for all the dialogue in the book, and in the writing of Ernest J. Gaines, “action” mostly occurs in dialogue.
The other Gaines novel I read after this one, A Gathering of Old Men, also begins after a shooting, so that the story is not the shooting itself but about – and again, this is revealed in characters’ speaking -- lifetimes spent in discouragement and humiliation. The most important act of the old men's lives is this act of finally standing up, each old man claiming to have been the shooter. In A Lesson, Jefferson had to walk like a man. In A Gathering, the old men had to stand up like men at last. It's the standing up and walking that are important. As the teacher told Jefferson, we're all going to die. It's how you live and how you treat those who love you that matters.
Dialogue is even more important in A Gathering than in A Lesson, with characters telling their lives and constantly challenging one another, and a reader hears this dialogue mentally while reading, almost like watching a play or a movie. It’s the importance of dialogue that made imagining both books as movies irresistible. But nothing is missing in the books, I realize, after having seen the excellent film version of A Lesson Before Dying, because as we read, we see the movie in imagination, fuller than any film can be, even with the best actors.
Ernest J. Gaines: If you haven’t read any of his books, pick one up soon. Read the book first, and then see the movie. It's worth seeing, just not a substitute for reading the novel.