I recently re-watched Oprah Winfrey’s made for TV movie adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and was very disappointed. I admire Ms. Winfrey immensely because of her inspirational rise to fame due to her persistent pursuit of excellence and because of her desire to leave something positive for the world, so I hesitate to be critical of her pet project. However, her version of this most profound and uplifting novel fell short of capturing Ms.
Hurston’s excellence. The movie focused almost entirely on the love story between reformed playboy, Verigible Woods (aka, Tea Cake) and Janie. However there were so many more layers to the novel, including studies in developmental psychology and cultural anthropology. On a psychological level, we see the main character, Janie Crawford, grow through four of the five stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Personal Development (depending on which version you read).
Janie starts out in survival mode, or at least Nannie, her guardian- grandmother, is on that level since she is the one who makes major personal and financial sacrifices in order to make Janie’s life better than hers or Leafy’s, Janie’s absent mother’s was. But even though life is pretty good for Janie, she has no sense of who she is.
When she begins to tell her story, her first memory is having no personal identity (no stable name), no social identity (she is rejected by her Black peers for living in the White folks’ back yard), no family identity (she does not know her mother or her father), and no racial identity (she is startled to learn that she is Black). Because she is moving zombie-like through her life, Janie gives all her power away, first to her grandmother who forces her to marry at age sixteen, an older man, Logan Killicks, whom she barely knows and to whom she is not the least bit attracted, then later to her second husband, Joe Starks.