I finally got the time to watch The Watsons Go to Birmingham movie last week with the two classes who read the book earlier in the school year. The DVD had been sitting on my desk but finding the time was difficult. Still, I wanted to see what the folks at the Hallmark Movie Channel did with a book that I love reading and teaching, and students were eager to see the movie version, too. So, we did.
I could quibble with some of the changes made to the Christopher Paul Curtis story and some of the casting choices and other things, and we did quibble in our post-movie class discussions, but I understand a bit about the need to make changes to a novel to fit the screen. The one thing I was disappointed in but wasn’t surprised by was the removal of the vision the kids have of each other in times of danger, of each becoming the savior of the other in times of trouble. We talked a lot about that missing element in class. Oh well.
Overall, I enjoyed what they did with the story. Most of all, I was very much pleased with how the producers brought in archival footage from the news of the day (1964) in Alabama, as it really sets the tone and stage for the unfolding of the story as the Watsons visit the south. The scene of the famous church bombing is chaotic and emotional, and I found it hit the right notes for my students to feel compassion and fury, and to understand Kenny (the narrator) a bit more as he searches for his younger sister.
Also, I give high praise to the movie folks for making the Children’s March a secondary storyline, with the Watsons’ cousins telling how they are marching with other children in protest. The book never mentions the Children’s March. The movie uses that event in a way that gives the story a different emotional feel, particularly when Byron (the oldest brother, a troublemaker) sees it as an opportunity for him to make a difference and make his parents proud of his actions.
Overall, the movie fits in nicely with the teaching of this powerful story of growing up in the era of civil rights and racism, and how our families are the center that holds us together. The movie gets that right, time and again.
Peace (in the past),
PS — an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis about the adaptation of the book: