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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Thursday, April 15, 2010 9:56 am
Reading the Screen: Precious or Push: It Matters What You Call It.
Posted by: David Pitt

pushPrecious, the movie based on the 1996 novel Push, by Sapphire, is a faithful adaptation of the book — which means you should expect an emotionally draining story, hard-edged characters, and some unsettling language and imagery.

 

Here’s a look at the movie:

The movie is very good, but the book gives you things the movie can’t.

The novel is narrated by Precious, an illiterate teenaged girl who’s pregnant with her second child. Her first child has Down Syndrome. Both children are the product of rape: Precious’s father is their father, too. Precious’s mother is physically abusive (“I am going to stab her if she ever hit Precious Jones again,” Precious writes), and just a very unpleasant person. To put it bluntly, Precious can barely see a future for herself, and what she can see doesn’t look very promising.

The novel is written in a faux-illiterate style that (while being obviously a literary conceit) nicely captures Precious’s lack of education. “Fahver,” she writes, instead of “father.” She writes “ninfe grade” instead of “ninth grade” — both of those a reflection of the way she speaks. You can hear her voice in the words the author chooses.

Some of the book’s language is very raw — I won’t quote any of that here, but trust me — and there are some graphic descriptions that put some very unwelcome pictures in your mind. A movie takes away the participatory aspect of a story: watching a movie, we see what the director wants us to see. Reading a book, we see what we can imagine. And, let me tell you, what you imagine here can be pretty scary.

Precious, over the course of the story, undergoes a pretty remarkable transformation, seizing control of her life, coming to understand that she is not, despite what she’s been conditioned to believe, worthless — that she has value, and is entitled to some diginity and respect. The movie nicely reproduces this transformation, but again: we’re seeing it happen, but when we read the book we’re imagining it, participating in it, experiencing it through Precious’s words and thoughts.

And we should talk briefly about the title. The book is called Push: a reference to the physical act of giving birth, and (slightly more obliquely) to Precious’s own rebirth.  The movie is called Precious, or so we’ve been told, because there was another movie coming out called Push (about telekinetics or somesuch). That doesn’t seem like a big change, switching one word out for another, but it is.  It switches focus from the rebirth, the spiritual transformation, to the girl. Switches it from the universal to the specific.

That might sound like bafflegab, but do me a favor: read the book, watch the movie. You’ll see what I mean. Both are very good, but they’re also — I think they are, anyway — fundamentally different.

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