'The Secret Life of Bees': Hive Fidelity

Salt Lake City Weekly | October 13, 2008
This framework, first of all: Sue Monk Kidd's much-loved 2002 best-seller, The Secret Life of Bees? Not a big fan. Maybe it's a gender thing, what with all of its emphasis on matriarchy and a girl's adolescence. Maybe I didn't find Kidd's storytelling voice as compelling as the unique story she tried to tell. Or maybe it was my general aversion to a certain strain of fiction by white authors set in the segregated American South -- vaguely guilty yet still nostalgic, the ugly realities smothered in Fried Green Tomatoes sauce.

Gina Prince-Bythewood -- the African-American director of the under-appreciated 2000 drama Love and Basketball -- would at least seem to be a likely candidate for tweaking the latter problem. Instead, she has opted essentially to stick close to the source material. Those who swear Kidd's novel is a modern classic should be delighted. Those who weren't nearly as impressed? Well ...

Prince-Bythewood launches immediately into the flashback that defines the life of 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) in 1964 Georgia: the memory that she accidentally shot and killed her mother 10 years earlier. Her strained relationship with her father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) makes Lily ready to flee, especially when her family's beloved housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) faces repercussions for insulting a white man while trying to register to vote. The two of them hitchhike to South Carolina, where an artifact from Lily's mother leads her to the beekeeping operation of the Boatwright sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo).

It's there at the Boatwrights' cotton-candy-colored house that many life-lessons are learned by Lily over the course of a summer, in the tradition of coming-of-age stories everywhere. She finds herself attracted to the Boatwrights' young black hired hand, Zack (Tristan Wilds), in a little "first love that dare not cross miscegenation laws." She hears the story behind the strange "Black Madonna" statue that gives the Boatwrights' honey its name, as well as defining their twist on Christianity towards the divine feminine. And yes, eventually she will discover the secrets of her mother's heretofore mysterious life.

It's all shot by cinematographer Rogier Stoffers with a rapturous golden glow, the land itself seemingly bathed in honey as Lily wanders between cornstalks and hive boxes. This is the default visual framework for period dramas of this kind -- a cue as certain as Mark Isham's score that while, yes, there may be tragedies along the way, and hardships to overcome, nothing too unsettling will happen to alienate the target audience of adult women.

That's what makes this kind of glorified TV-movie so frustrating in its mechanized emotionalism: You know it's never for a moment going to dig at anything. Kidd's novel itself may have been a kind of made-for-Lifetime fiction, and the film does show (discreetly) the arbitrary violence to which Southern blacks were subject. But there's little pretense that The Secret Life of Bees is more than a pep rally for female strength in the face of adversity. Kidd and Prince-Bythewood both seem more wrapped up in the challenges of women living in a man's world than blacks living in a white world -- oh, to be like bees, where the queen rules! In so doing, the film creates an awkward equivalency between Lily's teenage travails and the fight for simple survival faced by her black surrogate mothers.

It would feel better smacking around The Secret Life of Bees if it weren't so well-crafted in so many other ways. Okonedo turns in a particularly effective performance in a challenging role as the feels-too-deeply May, and Bettany's more generous with T. Ray than Kidd chose to be. And as a literary adaptation, Prince-Bythewood's script manages to hit virtually every crucial plot point from the novel without ever feeling like there's no room for the story to breathe. If you're a writer, and you want someone to be both faithful and cinematically efficient, Prince-Bythewood should be on your "must call" list.

The only question, then, is whether the source material might actually benefit from a freer hand. Clearly there are thousands who think The Secret Life of Bees is just fine, thank you, the way it is, and they're likely to embrace this highly-polished adaptation right along with it. For them, there's no reason to lament a second helping of exactly the same.


**1/2 (two and a half out of four stars)

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Rated PG-13

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