Illustration of Marcus Gardley by Jennie Edwards

Career & Craft

A New Shade of Purple

WGAW Member Marcus Gardley revisits a classic.

When he considered the deep love that Celie, the protagonist of The Color Purple, held for her sister Nettie, writer Marcus Gardley—adapting Alice Walker’s novel into the 2023 film—knew that an ocean separating the two women would be no barrier. At least not subconsciously. 

“In the initial draft, we introduced a lot of magical realism into the story. One of the things that kind of visited me in a dream was this idea that Celie walked on water, that she imagined that she could walk on water, and that was her way of getting to her sister, who is in Africa,” said Gardley. 

Gardley sent his first draft to the person who created Celie—an approving Walker who acknowledged that she and Gardley were of a like mind.

The deep bond between sisters Celie and Nettie sits at the heart of The Color Purple.

“She asked me how did I know that Celie walked on water,” Gardley recalled. “She said she had always known Celie could do that. How could I have known that? So that was shocking and quite powerful for her to say to me.”

According to Gardley, Walker’s notes were couched more as words of encouragement than as instructions. The notes were wonderful, and when Gardley promised he would incorporate every suggestion, Walker replied that he didn’t need to take any of them, as she was just sharing her ideas. 

“She was a supporter from day one, and it was an incredible experience working with her,” Gardley said. “I would call that a life-changing experience.” 

“And the second thing she said was that she was really excited that they had hired a poet,” continued Gardley, “because she always felt like the way to understand this world was through poetry.” 

During his years in the profession, Gardley has made a practice of hopping between creative mediums. He has written and produced for such series as I’m a Virgo, The Chi, Foundation, and Maid, the last of which earned him a shared 2022 Writers Guild Award for long form adaptation. Also an award-winning playwright, Gardley is the co-chair of the playwriting program at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University. 

Now with The Color Purple, his first produced screenplay, Gardley has taken the torch passed from one poet to another. For the first time in the story’s lengthy adaptative history, this important work in the canon of African American literature is being retold by a Black writer.

Simultaneously embraced and controversial upon its 1982 release, Walker’s partially-biographical novel has resonated with readers and viewers across five decades. As a college undergraduate at the time of its publication, Tulani Salahu-Din remembers the buzz over the book on campus. It may not have yet been required reading for literature courses—that would come later—but people had plenty to say about Celie, Mister, Sofia, and Shug Avery all the same.  

“It really has become a pioneering work because of its combination of themes related to gender equality, to sexuality and to feminism,” said Salahu-Din, who is now the specialist in language and literature for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “I think since that time, it really helped to inspire new generations of writings by African American women to write about those themes more freely and more deeply, and then also to give them license to write about whatever they want to write about. Because if Alice Walker in the 1980s was writing about lesbian relationships, abusive men, and domestic violence, then certainly we could write about those issues that were confronting us in our own lives.”

“Any story as honest and emotional and thought-provoking as The Color Purple is timeless,” agreed Bianca Sams, co-chair of the WGAW Committee of Black Writers. “There are issues and relationships in it that I think will always reach people, no matter when it’s told.” 

Gardley had been living with the story for many years prior to getting the job. Between his lifelong love of the book and having seen the 1985 movie and the stage musical multiple times, the Oakland, California-raised Gardley was something of a Purple addict.

“[The Color Purple] really has become a pioneering work because of its combination of themes related to gender equality, to sexuality and to feminism.

- Tulani Salahu-Din

“You can revisit The Color Purple a dozen times and still learn new things,” he said.

Gardley’s first awareness of the story came at an age when his parents considered him too young to process it. As a 13-year-old, Gardley recalls looking through a window and seeing his parents crying as they watched the movie during a family reunion (he and the other children were told to play outside). It was the first time Gardley had seen his parents brought to tears. 

He borrowed the book from the library and read it in a single sitting. 

“The experience of reading it felt very intimate. I really kind of felt like the author was talking to me,” Gardley said. “I shared a lot of the central character’s personal struggles. The novel was epistolary and I’m reading personal letters that this character is writing to God and to her sister. That felt very powerful to me. Celie was a quiet person, and I was the quiet person in the family. I could understand her feeling alone and wanting to be loved.”

The Color Purple quickly became Gardley’s favorite book. A few years later, he watched the movie, which was also impactful. Rereading the novel has since become a ritual, and Gardley and members of his family would often recite entire scenes from the 1985 movie together. 

“There are certain books that I have a strong attachment to and I would read them for my own inspiration as a writer,” Gardley said. “The experience of reading these books and how they would fill me with joy…there was always something to learn there.”

A cathartic family gathering toward the end of The Color Purple.

Gardley had worked with Oprah Winfrey’s production company on an HBO project which was not produced. Several years later, when they put out a call for screenwriters to pitch adaptations of The Color Purple for a new film based in part on the musical, Gardley was asked if he had any interest. He did, and eventually got the job. 

Operating on the mandate that the new Color Purple would have to stand on its own, separate from any previous adaptations, Gardley returned to the novel for his inspiration. His challenges included giving Celie an even greater voice and figuring out ways to incorporate the musical elements into the story as organically as possible. Gardley said he was especially pleased that the studio gave him some leeway to explore the relationship between Shug Avery and her preacher father.

“One of the biggest challenges for me as a screenwriter was deciding what to draw from,” said Gardley. “I leaned more on the book than anything, because for me that was the gold standard. I used music from the Broadway show, but also some of what I thought the theatrical devices were that were presented in the show as well. I still haven’t read the [1985 screenplay], but I kind of know it by heart a little bit.”

Sams and Salahu-Din both remarked on the cathartic elements of Gardley’s film, including the reunion of Celie and Nettie at a large family gathering toward the movie’s conclusion at which even Celie’s husband Mister is given the opportunity to redeem himself. 

“I’m sure I’m not the only one in the theater who teared up toward the end at their reunion,” said Salahu-Din. “It was just so beautifully done, and I think the screenplay was true to the spirit of the book, which is critical for me.”

Gardley has been gratified by the film’s reception since its release. WGA-sponsored screenings in both Los Angeles and New York produced long lines and plenty of emotional responses during the post-screening talkbacks. 

When it is suggested that the Gardley family can now gather to recite scenes from his adaptation of The Color Purple, the writer laughed, while also noting happily that Walker’s story about the importance of family has continued to bring his own together.

“The original was my family’s favorite movie, so I was worried that people would not be moved by my telling of the story,” Gardley said. “My mother has seen it several times and a lot of people in my family have seen it. Across the board, 100 percent of them have loved it and taken friends and entire church groups. It’s been quite remarkable.”

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