cbr10bingo The Book Was Better
The novel Mudbound was a Pen America Literary Award winner and was turned into an award winning film starring Mary J. Blige. It’s a powerful and tragic story about land, love, friendship and racism in post-WWII Mississippi, told from multiple points of view. Both the novel and the film are excellent, but I must give the nod to the original novel as being better.
The novel (and film) open with brothers Henry and Jamie McAllen burying their Pap while Henry’s wife Laura and their two daughters look on. It’s raining and muddy and our first narrator, Jamie, prepares the reader for the story of what has led to this moment, the unknown tragedy that will unfold but which will involve struggle, disappointment, violence and betrayal. From there, narration switches to Laura and her recollection of how she came to marry Henry, an older man with a desire to return to the land and farm. Without consulting Laura or caring much what she thinks, Henry uproots his young family and moves them to a farm he has bought and which Laura will dub Mudbound. The farm is without plumbing or electricity and is susceptible to flooding and heavy rains. Mudbound is worked by sharecroppers and tenants, including the Jackson family. Hap and his wife Florence, who also narrate, have always worked the land with their children and struggled to raise themselves from sharecroppers to tenants. Hap’s dream is to own his own land some day and to see his son Ronsel return safely from the war. The arrival of the McAllens will bring not just complications but also danger to the Jacksons. Henry, like previous owners and pretty much all white people, sees his tenants (people of color) as inferior and in need of a strong guiding hand. He expects his tenants to do exactly as he tells them not just with farming but in their personal lives as well. Florence is expected to help Laura around the house (for pay) and as a result, is exposed to the virulent racism of Pap, a hateful redneck who sold off his wife’s farm in the 1920s and is critical of his sons and daughter-in-law.
The real trouble begins when Jamie and Ronsel return from the war. Both men spent time in Europe before coming home and both are unhappy and dissatisfied with life back in Mississippi. Jamie is a decorated Air Force captain who is haunted by what he saw on his bombing missions and has turned to alcohol for comfort. Ronsel was a sergeant in an all-black tank battalion that fought under Patton and liberated Auschwitz. While white Americans and military personnel treat Ronsel and black soldiers as second class citizens, Europeans, particularly white women in Europe, seemed far less concerned with skin color and had no problem fraternizing with Ronsel and his men. Leaving a place where he was recognized as a hero and treated as an equal to return to Mississippi, where he must use back doors and not be seen sitting in a car with a white person, frustrates and angers him. Jamie and Ronsel strike up a friendship, spending time drinking and talking together. Yet they must be careful not to be seen together in racist, segregated Mississippi. Meanwhile, Henry and Laura’s relationship is tested by the troubles with farming, having Pap living under their roof, and the return of Jamie. Florence sees that Jamie is trouble for Laura and for her son, and she watches and listens carefully so as to protect those she loves. Jamie’s alcoholism gets him into more and more trouble, and as Florence predicted, he ends up hurting and endangering those close to him. The tragedy that is foreshadowed on page one of the novel is hideous, and the fallout somewhat surprising. Author Jordan carefully and slowly reveals the truth of what happened bit by bit, surprising the reader with the details and who is responsible.
Thinking back on the novel, what stands out is the racism of all the white characters and their ability to stand above or outside the muck in pretty much every circumstance. Henry is a farmer and it’s a muddy and back-breaking business, but it’s the tenants who suffer the most when rain, floods or illness threaten. Henry makes it his business to force the Jacksons to rent his mule when Hap is injured, and has no qualms telling Hap and Florence how to deal with their grown son Ronsel. Henry remains unchanged at the end of the novel, much like the people of the little town where they live. Jamie as a pilot literally flew over towns and fields where men like Ronsel were engaged in battle and witnessed atrocity first hand, and while Jamie is a damaged man, he seems to be able to get out of trouble and move on when he needs to. Laura’s recollections reveal that she like everyone else believes in the inferiority of blacks even as she relies on Florence in critical periods of her life. Laura is a somewhat sympathetic character though given her backstory and the subordinate position of women vis a vis men.
As a film, Mudbound is generally quite faithful to the novel and visually it captures the mood of the novel very well. It is shot almost in sepia tones, with lots of brown and black and little bright color. There is quite a bit of over-narration, which I think might annoy some viewers who are of the “show me don’t tell me” way of thinking. I noticed that a few scenes from the book were cut but none that were essential to telling the main story. My complaints about the film are twofold. One, I felt that the character Florence (played by Mary J. Blige) was a somewhat watered down version of the Florence from the book; and two, at the end, with the critical scene of the tragedy and its aftermath, some changes were made that I felt were both unnecessary and undercut the punch of the finale. Florence in the novel is a formidable character. She is taller than her husband but more importantly, she is a force to be reckoned with; her presence awes people, even Henry. She has an authority in the novel that I would have liked to see more of in the movie. Florence is at the center of everything because she has eyes into Laura’s world and Ronsel’s. And at the end of the novel, she takes an action that is left out of the end of the movie. So, as much as I liked the film and Mary J. Blige in it, it is not as good as the book. But read, watch, and decide for yourself.