Like a droplet of water broken into a million facets by the sun, Toni Morrison's Beloved is all but impossible to describe. At once simple and complex, highbrow and low, minimalist and maximal, the novel is, at its heart, a ghost story in which American history itself serves as the haunted house. Ghosts appear when the dead haven't been properly buried, and Morrison wants us to reconcile ourselves to the immense brutality that was required to sustain the South's peculiar institution--not just the thousands upon thousands of premature deaths (and millions more on the way over from Africa) but the death-in-life that was the average slave's lot before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Raised like animals and treated like animals, slaves sometimes acted like animals, and Morrison wants us to reconcile ourselves to that, too. It's a demanding book--part slave narrative, part folk tale, part biblical parable, searching through the rubble of history for something to hold onto, something to exorcise the demons. Few of Morrison's fans expected Beloved to become a movie, but one of them sure did. Oprah Winfrey, still the biggest mouth in daytime talk, has been wet-nursing Morrison's novel since it was a newborn, preparing it for a life on the big screen. And here, after 11 years, is her love child--a squalling, sprawling epic directed by Jonathan Demme, who's brought us such movies as Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Make no mistake, however. Beloved is very much a Harpo ("Oprah" spelled backwards) Films production, with Winfrey herself starring as Sethe, the escaped slave who's ready to sacrifice her own children on the altar of freedom. And, despite Winfrey's noble attempt to bury herself in the role, we can't help but fuse these two women in our minds. The Mother Courage of Reconstruction leads straight to what Time magazine calls the "Queen of All Media." And Sethe's triumph, so personal and understated, gets overshadowed by Winfrey's, so public and overstated. Demme and his adapters are literally faithful to the novel, if not literarily. The movie never quite breathes on its own, and during the last of its three hours it runs out of air altogether. But, like Morrison, Demme knows how to cast a spell. The movie opens with a scene out of Poltergeist: It's 1865, and the rural Ohio house where Sethe lives with her daughter and two sons is possessed. Untouched cakes slide down a table, the family dog is flung against the wall, and the whole house emits a devilish glow. The two sons, though young, take the next train to anywhere, leaving behind Sethe, her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) and the spirit, which may be the ghost of Sethe's other daughter, Beloved, who's buried in a nearby cemetery. And that's how things remain until, eight years later, Paul D (Danny Glover) shows up. Paul D and Sethe once lived on a Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home, which was neither, according to Sethe. Their memories of the place are mortifying, but it's the only past they've got. And it begins to swirl around them, like a funnel cloud. Moving back and forth in time, Morrison compiled the bits and pieces of Sethe and Paul D's lives, and it was left to us to stitch those scraps into a quilt that represents their story, their history. We've been shown the exterior life of slavery before, but Morrison has tried to show us the interior life--the thoughts and feelings of people who never had the wherewithal to write them down. (Even slave narratives were often composed with a white abolitionist audience in mind.) How did they handle the pain? How did they handle the guilt? Yes, guilt, for Beloved is built around an act of desperation by Sethe that even other freed slaves have trouble understanding--an act suffused with Old Testament fury. If we can come to grips with what Sethe has done, Morrison seems to say, we can perhaps come to grips with what slavery has done to her. By confronting our past, in all its tortured morality, we can finally start to put it behind us. Demme uses flashbacks, some of them so quick they're like strokes of lightning, others so drawn out we can't quite remember whether they're past or present. But the movie, which is otherwise a conventional narrative, can't begin to match the book's shape-shifting complexity, its all-at-onceness. Morrison's highbrow ghost story has devolved into a middlebrow horror movie, complete with a Frankenstein monster. When, in the book, a strange young woman who calls herself Beloved suddenly appears at Sethe's house, disrupting the family that Sethe, Paul D and Denver were starting to form, it's a stretch, to say the least, but a stretch that's a lot easier to accept on the page than on the big screen. In the movie, we're face-to-face with Thandie Newton's jittery, skittery performance, an amalgamation of all the cinematic wild children we've met before, from The Exorcist to Nell. It's not a bad performance, really; in fact, this may be as good as the role can be done.
That's not quite true for the role of Sethe, but Winfrey is surprisingly effective. She's removed the makeup and wiped that triumphant smile off her face, and the effect is of a comedy mask having been turned upside down. (Her voice, sad and low, is barely recognizable.) Like the crucified Christ, Sethe has borne unendurable pain, and you can see the pain and anger in Winfrey's eyes. Unfortunately, that's about all you can see. Winfrey simply isn't enough of an actress to show us that deep inside the darkness of those eyes is a light waiting to be turned on--that on the other side of rupture lies rapture. Sethe's story has to be one of the saddest in the history of literature or cinema, and perhaps we should be satisfied that it's being told at all, however well or ill. After all, Sethe didn't even have a story until Toni Morrison started piecing it together from the far corners of her imagination. Set in the Reconstruction era, Beloved is itself a heroic act of reconstruction, a herstory nearly forgotten by history.