A Raisin in the Sun

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A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


A Raisin in the Sun: A Trinity of Adaptations--Comparisons in Contrast

Jenny Taylor

Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun was groundbreaking as it was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as one of the first to depict the everyday struggles faced by a black American family (Nemiroff 6). The play has been adapted to the screen on three occasions. In 1961, a film version of the play was released featuring the original Broadway cast and a screenplay written by Hansberry herself (A Raisin in the Sun 1961). A second adaptation was made in 1989 in honor of the play's twenty-fifth anniversary. This version differs greatly from the 1961 adaptation in that it is a filmed version of the play and, therefore, adheres to Hansberry's original work much more closely than the first adaptation. This American Playhouse production was made for television and based on the off-Broadway revival of the play produced by Roundabout Theatre (A Raisin in the Sun 1989). In 2008, a third adaptation was produced, also for television. This version offered a teleplay, written by Paris Qualles, based on Hansberry's original play, but again, like the previous 1961 version, was adapted from stage format to movie format (A Raisin in the Sun 2008).

Having three adaptations of a single original work is bound to lead to a number of commonalities, and these are no exception. Similarities are found in plot, thematic issues, characterization, and symbolism; however, each screen version exhibits variances in the strength of its interpretations of these four elements, as well as the additional elements of performance, direction, cinematography, setting, and sound.

As the play begins, the Younger family, consisting of matriarch Lena, her two children Walter Lee and Beneatha, Walter Lee's wife Ruth, and son Travis, await the arrival of a ten thousand dollar check. This check, a payout from Lena's deceased husband's life insurance policy, is the inciting incident from which all conflicts emerge.

The play's opening scene, depicting a morning in the Younger household, touches upon a number of thematic issues through character conflict. The undercurrent of discontent existing between Walter Lee and Ruth is immediately evident by their passive aggressive behavior. Walter Lee, aware the insurance check will be arriving shortly, wants Ruth to speak to Lena about giving him the money to invest. At Ruth's reluctance to do so, he declares her unsupportive, an accusation he reiterates several times within the scene (Hansberry 32).

Hansberry describes Walter Lee as ". . . a lean, intense young man in his middle thirties, inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits--and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment" (25). Sidney Poitier, who portrays the character in the 1961 adaptation, embodies the physicality of this description well, in particular the "quick nervous movements" (25). Poitier, however, while still bringing an intensity to the role, does not capture Walter Lee's resentment as well as Danny Glover does in the 1989 adaptation. Glover's performance creates an edgier Walter Lee, one who is unpredictable, while Poitier's range is not as broad. His tone remains even throughout much of the adaptation, creating a more likable character but deviating from the original play in that Walter Lee is not particularly likable. He is a conflicted man, or as George says, he is "all whacked up with bitterness" (Hansberry 85). This bitterness is eating away at him, and he takes it out on those closest, particularly his wife Ruth. Poitier does a great job at capturing the despair of the character, but the performance lacks the internal conflict that Glover's displays. That said, both performances are far superior to that of Sean Combs in the 2008 film adaptation. Combs does not have the same acting ability as the two previous actors, and his portrayal of Walter Lee lacks sharpness. He displays little of the intensity the other actors bring to the role, and, without that intensity, any edge the character has disappears. Combs creates a soft-spoken character, and while it works to show Walter Lee's disillusionment, it does not convey his anger as well. He does not bring the same range to the role both of the previous actors display and the result is a largely one-dimensional portrayal.

In Ruth, Hansberry describes a woman who is ". . . about thirty. We can see that she was a pretty girl, even exceptionally so, but now it is apparent that life has been little that she expected, and disappointment has already begun to hang in her face. In a few years, before thirty-five even, she will be known among her people as a 'settled woman'" (24). Ruby Dee's performance in the 1961 film captures Ruth's weariness well. Dee's exasperation is visible when she deals with Walter Lee. When he begins talking about investing in the liquor store, her reaction is almost pleading in inflection, too tired to deal with him yet again. This is in direct contrast to the hostility Starletta Dupois displays in her characterization of Ruth in the 1989 adaptation. Dupois' performance is grandiose compared to those of the other two actresses in the role. It is louder, angrier, and more suited to the stage than the screen, where nuance is of consequence. Audra McDonald, in the 2008 adaptation, strikes the best balance between Ruth's underlying anger and world-weariness. She comes across with all the tired disappointment life has left her and a sense of quiet desperation rivaling Walter Lee's verbalized discontent in magnitude. This is best displayed in the scene in which Ruth visits an abortion clinic, operated out of the neighborhood beauty parlor. While Ruth is waiting for the procedure, she looks around the room, and as she thinks about her decision, her eyes tear, her misery palpable. It is an affecting performance created by a gifted actress.

Lena Younger embodies many of the archetypical features of a mother figure. She is described as ". . . a woman in her early sixties, full-bodied and strong. She is one of those women of a certain grace and beauty who wear it so unobtrusively that it takes a while to notice" (Hansberry 39). As Lena in the 2008 adaptation, Phylicia Rashad exhibits not only the grace described but a loving warmth as well, while simultaneously maintaining an iron strength. One scene which exemplifies this takes place shortly after the family finds out Walter Lee has lost his father's life insurance money and plans to take the bribe from Linder to not move into their new home. Beneatha, angry at the situation, says Walter Lee "is no brother of mine" (Hansberry 145). Lena, though equally disappointed in Walter Lee, responds by saying, "Child when do you think it is time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then you ain't done learning because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so" (Hansberry 145). In this scene, Rashad rivals the exemplary earlier performance of Esther Rolle in the 1989 adaptation. Rolle's portrayal of Lena is similar to Rashad's in that she comes across as a strong-willed woman who can be harsh with her children when necessary, but her devotion to them is evident in every scene. In the 1961 adaptation, Claudia McNeil portrays Lena as a harder woman than in the two later adaptations. Her devotion is unwavering, but her tone is angry much of the time. The portrayal conveys strength, but the warmth, which comes through in the other two performances, is lacking in this one.

Beneatha is described as similar to her brother in nature in intensity, but education has differentiated her from the rest of her family (Hansberry 35). In the play, she comes off as given to the dramatic, but young and idealistic as well. Sanaa Lathan's portrayal, in the 2008 adaptation, falls between Diana Sand's portrayal of the character in the 1961 film and Kim Yancey's in the 1989 version. Yancey overacts the part, as her performance seems better suited to the theatre, where a larger performance is necessary. With this adaptation being a play filmed as a play, the performances are more theatrical in nature than in the other adaptations; however, the inclusion of the camera necessitates an alteration in the performance that simply does not happen. Instead, Yancey's performance seems over the top in a few scenes, such as the one in which Beneatha argues with Walter Lee early on and, later, the scene in which she interacts with Asagai when he's first introduced. Contrasting this in the 1961 adaptation is Sand's performance, which is low-key, resulting in a temperance of Beneatha's personality when compared to the other versions and the original play. In the original work, Beneatha is dramatic, but not ridiculously so. Sanaa Latham captures this best in the 2008 adaptation, as her performance embraces a sense of Beneatha's dramatic nature, yet she is not a caricature.

In all of the above performances, character emerges with the progression of conflict, both character and plot. It is apparent both Walter Lee and Beneatha are struggling with self-identity. Walter Lee is a self-centered individual, placing more importance on his needs than others'. He continually harasses Beneatha about her desire to go to medical school. It is not that he does not want her to go, he simply wants to use the money for his liquor store. He believes she should be willing to sacrifice her dream for his. This is the same belief he has regarding his wife Ruth. When Lena places a down payment on a home, Ruth cannot contain her happiness. It is obvious from Ruth's reaction that she needs this move--that it is integral to her well-being. Her happiness over Lena's use of the money is a direct defiance of Walter Lee's own unhappiness, and she knows this. She pleads with Walter Lee to be happy about it, but he is unable to so (Hansberry 92.) Instead of seeing his wife's happiness or his mother's desire to keep her family together, he sees his own opportunity eluding him. Walter Lee's options in life are limited because he is black. His desperate search for a better life is made all the more futile because of the oppression he faces in a racist society, and now he feels his one chance at something more is being taken from him by his own mother. Despite this reaction, Walter Lee is not entirely selfish. He is motivated not only by a desire for something more for himself, but also for his family. A scene conspicuously missing from all three adaptations effectively depicts this desire. After Lena has given Walter Lee the money to put into a checking account, he begins talking to Travis, telling him his dream for the future:

"That's how come one day when you 'bout seventeen years old I'll come home and I'll be pretty tired, you know what I mean, after a day of conferences and secretaries getting things wrong the way they do. . . 'cause an executive's life is hell, man--and I'll pull the car up on the driveway. . . and I'll go inside and Ruth will come downstairs and meet me at the door and we'll kiss each other and she'll take my arm and we'll go up to your room to see you sitting on the floor with the catalogues of all the great schools in America around you. . . . All the great schools in the world! And--and I'll say, all right son--it's your seventeenth birthday, what is it you've decided?. . . Just tell me where you want to go to school and you'll go. Just tell me, what it is you want to be--and you'll be it. . . . Whatever you want to be--Yessir! You just name it son. . . and I hand you the world" (Hansberry 109).

It is unfortunate this scene did not make it into any of the adaptations because it accomplishes two things; it lends an element of kindness to Walter Lee's character by revealing that his motivations are not entirely selfish, and it also touches on the theme of a person finding hope for the future in their children. The omitted scene shows Walter Lee is not as far away from being the man his father was, as it might seem. Had that scene been in any of the versions, it would have added strength to theme and character.

Beneatha's search for identity does not have the quality of despair Walter Lee's has, as she has not been forced to sacrifice her goals and aspirations in order to support the family. Her pursuit instead has to do with an expression of self and search for inner fulfillment. When she tries to explain this to her mother and Ruth, they burst into laughter (Hansberry 48). The concept of self-expression is foreign to these women concerned with surviving as opposed to expressing themselves. Beneatha's search for self-discovery leads to her relationship with Joseph Asagai, a native Nigerian she befriends at school. Her experimentation to this end includes dressing in native Nigerian robes Asagai brings her, listening to Nigerian music, and allowing her hair to return to its natural state. The only adaptation in which Beneatha changes her hair is the 1989 film. In the other two adaptations, no mention is made of her hair, while the robes and music are kept. Beneatha's hairstyle is symbolic of her "assimilation" into the accepted white culture of the time period and the larger "assimilation" of black people into a country in which the white culture is predominant. The loss of Beneatha changing her hairstyle in an attempt to break with conformity in the 1961 and 2008 adaptations is a loss of one of the play's larger symbols.

What is ironic in the lack of understanding between Walter Lee and Beneatha is that Walter Lee does not seem to understand that Beneatha's desire to go to medical school is much like his own desire to invest in the liquor store and just as important. Nor does Beneatha see Walter Lee's desire to invest in the liquor store as an aspiration equal to her desire to go to medical school. Walter Lee and Beneatha both want something more out of life; however, they do not relate to each other's struggle.

In the characters of Lena and Ruth, the playwright has presented women of a self-sacrificing nature. Lena has spent a lifetime sacrificing for her children, just as her husband did. She does so with a faith in something bigger, a belief that all the sacrifice is for a purpose. Even the death of her husband, due in large part to his own life of sacrifice, does not destroy her faith. Having sacrificed so much herself, she cannot see why this same sacrifice is eating away at Walter Lee.

In each adaptation Walter Lee stops going to work after his mother refuses to entrust him with the money to invest. Both the 1961 and 2008 adaptations have Lena show up at the bar to retrieve her wayward son. In the 1961 adaptation, Lena sits with Walter Lee in the bar, and he asks her why she left the South so long ago. As she explains her motives to him, she realizes he, too, is driven by a desire for a better life, just as she was. A new understanding develops between the two, and that is when she gives him the money. This scene is altered in the 2008 film as Lena commands Walter Lee to follow her out of the bar and is shown outside waiting, doubt written across her face, until he does follow her. It is evident she is wondering if her action is too late, if she has already lost her son. This change from the original play and the 1989 adaptation is effective because it lends credibility to Lena entrusting Walter Lee with the money. The alteration to this scene also allows for the parallel bond to be drawn between Lena and Walter Lee and reiterates the thematic issue of a desire for more in life.

The character of Joseph Asagai serves multiple purposes. He is symbolic of one of the major thematic points of the play, depicting the larger overall racial struggle and divide between those who have and those who do not. Asagai comes from a place where "it is the exceptional man who can even read a newspaper. . . or who ever sees a book at all" (Hansberry 135). He is able to bring a unique perspective to the Younger's struggle. Asagai reinforces the message of hope and the importance of maintaining it in times of despair. He states progress cannot always be seen, but it does not mean it is not being made (Hansberry 134). Asagai's part is minimized in the 1961 film, while the 1989 and 2008 versions maintain the scenes between him and Beneatha where the above thematic issues are underscored, reinforcing the character's symbolic value, the play's larger theme, and developing character conflict between Asagai and Beneatha.

Two additional minor characters, George Murchison and Mrs. Johnson, also serve to represent larger thematic issues. The character of George is representative of the social divide that exists because of economic status. George believes himself to be better than Walter Lee, not because of race, as they are both black, but because his father is a successful, wealthy businessman and Walter Lee is a chauffeur. Mrs. Johnson, the Youngers' neighbor, is also representative of a type of discrimination. She is critical of the Youngers, implying that they think they are better than others because they are unwilling to settle for what they have in life. That they want more, that they are unwilling to keep their place, so to speak, is an affront to her. This is apparent by the way she speaks of Beneatha's education, by her comments that Walter Lee should be satisfied with being a chauffeur, and by her thinly veiled implication that in moving from the neighborhood the Youngers are inviting misfortune (Hansberry 102). Mrs. Johnson's visit is only in the 1989 adaptation, and both the 1961 and 2008 adaptations lose any exploration of this thematic issue.

The loss of Mrs. Johnson and the symbolism related to Beneatha's hairstyle are two examples of the ways in which the 1989 adaptation offers the most authentic recreation of Hansberry's original work. It is minimally altered in terms of content, allowing for a full exploration of the play's themes and character conflict, while both the 1961 and 2008 adaptations are drastically edited. While Hansberry herself adapted the screenplay for the 1961 film, the content was cut by almost an hour's length of running time, which meant conflicts were condensed and not all themes were given the same amount of attention, as is normally the case with an adaptation. The 2008 adaptation is edited to an even larger degree in the respect that content was deleted and altered, but scenes were also added. This, however, does not lead to a fuller exploration of the play's original themes, as this adaptation focuses on the individual thematic issue of racial discrimination more than any other.

In the 2008 adaptation, the additional settings serve not only to add to the tone of the overall film, but they also depict the discriminatory treatment the Younger family receives from the world outside their apartment, including Lena being treated poorly by the grocer at the supermarket, and Walter Lee dealing with the police officer on the street. Both of these scenes speak directly to the subject of racism alluded to in the play but not shown, as the play has no such interactions. The scene in which the family goes to visit their new home also defines the difference between the two films. Lena has put a down payment on a home in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood. Their presence is not a welcome addition to the residents of this area. In the 1961 version, the Youngers' visit to their new home is a hopeful one. The family tours their home, and the scene ends on a happy note with Lena receiving the presents from her children and Travis. In the 2008 version, the end of the scene is altered to depict the white neighbors staring out of their windows at their new black neighbors with suspicion, fear, and anger. This addition reinforces the theme of discrimination and racism, and Mrs. Johnson's implication of future trouble for the family. The additional settings in the 2008 adaptation, including the market, the home in Clybourne Park, and the bar, enhance the thematic issues of the film. In the 1961 film, the additional settings also include the bar that Walter Lee frequents and the home in Clybourne Park. The addition of these settings allows for scenes in which Walter Lee interacts with minor characters Bobo and Willie; however, these interactions are brief, and, while they add to the general cinematic aspect of the film, they do not serve to enhance any thematic conflicts.

Cinematography is limited in the 1989 adaptation as it is filmed as a stage work and most of the shots are close-ups and medium close-ups. In addition, the singular setting limits the cinematography of this adaptation. The setting maintains the description given in the play of the apartment being "tired" from having "had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years. . . . " (Hansberry 23). One benefit to the single setting is the sense of confinement it provides the play. The family has been bound to this apartment for too long, and it shows. The 1961 adaptation has many of the same limitations in cinematography, in that even with the addition of setting, the overall direction is not wide ranging as in the later adaptation. A series of close-ups and medium close-ups are employed with the addition of a few orienting shots, such as the train passing on-screen before the scene cuts to the neon sign for the Kitty Kat Club and then cuts to Walter Lee sitting inside. The cinematography in the 2008 adaptation is more expansive than in the previous two films. This adaptation uses a number of point-of-view shots, as well as orienting and scenic shots, to provide a better sense of setting than the 1961 adaptation does. The 2008 adaptation is also able to capture the subtlety of the individual performances with the combination of direction and employment of close-up shots, something lost to the other adaptations, which elevates it comparatively in terms of cinematography.

The 2008 adaptation has a superior musical score than the other two films as well as better sound effects. The score enhances the adaptation, instead of detracting from it, unlike the score to the 1961 adaptation, which is dated and overpowering. The scene in the1961 film in which Lena slaps Beneatha is an example of the music detracting from the intensity of the scene instead of supporting it. The jazz used is too fast-paced for the melancholy tone of the film, and the saxophone score in the 1989 film is much better in adding to the tone of the adaptation. Another important aspect of score in all three adaptations is the symbolic use of Beneatha's Nigerian music to emphasize her exploration of self and, additionally, each adaptation shows how music can be used to enhance a mood or tone when it is used to effectively underscore Walter Lee and Ruth's newly restored happiness with one another. The use of sound effects is sparing in the 1989 adaptation, and the sound heard from the street below when Walter Lee opens the window lends a sense of realism to the scene. Sound effects are not incorporated as well in this adaptation, however, as they are in the 2008 adaptation. In that adaptation, when Ruth cooks the eggs, we hear the sizzle, which adds authenticity to the scene. Most of the sound effects employed are so natural that they are not noticeable separately but they would be missed if left out.

In comparing the adaptations and the changes made within each one, the 2008 film is more effective than the 1961 film. The addition of the aforementioned scenes, as well as the increased number of settings and character interaction, expansive cinematography, improved musical score, and exemplary performances by the female principals, lead to a more fully-realized film. However, neither the 1961 adaptation nor the 2008 is able to actualize the most important aspects of the original work--the complicated thematic and character conflicts--as well as the 1989 version. The thematic issues and characterizations in the play are what made it groundbreaking when it was first produced and what continue to make it relevant today. Besides racial and gender discrimination, social class is still a major dividing factor in this country. The desire for a better life resonates with most people, as it did when the work was first produced. The deferment of dreams is also something that afflicts many. That the 1989 adaptation fully and effectively explores the themes of Hansberry's play is what makes it the better adaptation of the three efforts.

Works Cited

A Raisin in the Sun. Dir. Bill Duke. Perf. Danny Glover, Esther Rolle, Starletta Dupois, Kim Yancy. 1989. VHS. Fries Home Video, 1990.

A Raisin in the Sun. Dir. Daniel Petrie. Perf. Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil. 1961. DVD. Columbia Tristar, 2000.

A Raisin in the Sun. Dir. Kenny Leon. Perf. Sean Combs, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad. 2008. DVD. Sony, 2008.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. 1958. New York: Random House, 1994.

Nemiroff, Robert. Introduction. A Raisin in the Sun. 1958. By Lorraine Hansberry. New York: Random House, 1994. 5-14.