Abstract illustration of the houses of Clybourne Park

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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What are all the differences and comparisons that can be made between the movie adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun and the original play version?

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The 1961 movie version of A Raisin in the Sun is very close to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, but the main difference is that the movie allows the story to leave the confines of the dimly lit, cramped Younger apartment. Walter, played by Sydney Poitier, is full of ambition but also resentment, as he feels his dreams are not taken seriously by his family. Ruth is “tired of it all,” just as she is in the play. The opening scenes with the Younger family waking up, eating breakfast, and fighting for their turn in the shared bathroom, as well as fighting each other, are very similar in the film and play. But after Walter storms off to work, the movie version allows the audience to see Walter at his job as a chauffeur. He is commanded to “bring the car around,” and the viewer can see where Walter works—we see the beautiful car and huge house of his white employer. When Walter drives his boss to the city, we see Walter’s frustration because he is not a part of this world of business, deals, and privilege. He is forced to remain on the outside, waiting. Later, the film adds another city scene, showing Walter and his buddies at the Kitty Kat Klub; Walter is finally able say to them, “It’s a deal,” though there is much apprehension on his face; he knows Mama has not agreed to his business idea of opening a liquor store.

The next day, Saturday, is the big day when the check comes. The movie is very similar to the play except some dialogue is cut (such as the jokes about the cockroaches and the discussion between Joseph Asagai and Beneatha about her “mutilated” hair.) But for the most part, the movie follows the dramatic moments of the play: Ruth reveals her pregnancy, the check arrives, Mama says no to Walter’s dream, and Walter, full of bitterness, says nothing when Ruth reveals she may get an abortion.

The film starts act 2 with an additional scene showing Walter alone at a bar, drinking and depressed. When he returns home, the film follows the play closely. Mama’s arrival cuts short Ruth’s attempt to talk to Walter. (In the play, they are able to have more of a talk.) Mama announces that she has made a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park. Walter is crushed and stops going to work. In the film, Mama leaves the apartment to find Walter drinking at the bar. Walter tries to connect with Mama and the dreams she had when she was younger. Mama decides to give him the rest of the insurance money, which he happily accepts. The film shows Walter back at home, going to Ruth, who is crying on the bed, and they embrace. (In the play, a happy Walter instead talks to his son, Travis, about his dreams for the future.)

The movie breaks again from the play as the family leaves the apartment to see the house that Mama has bought. Everyone eagerly explores the house, and it is in the yard that the family presents Mama with her gardening gifts. The tone has shifted greatly by this point, as all of the family is happy and excited, and the movie emphasizes this shift by its focus on the spacious rooms, the wide yards, and the sunlight basking the whole family in its glow.

However, the tone shifts dramatically again after Walter finds out that his friend Willie has stolen the $6500. The film cuts much of Beneatha and Asagai’s conversation, keeping act 3’s focus on Walter and what he will do with Lindner’s “deal.” Just as in the play, the climax of the film is when Walter dramatically rejects Lindner’s offer. As everyone gets ready to pack up and leave, the story ends with Mama looking around the apartment in a final goodbye. In the film version, however, Walter comes back to help her, carrying her bag and waiting respectfully by the door for her. Before she leaves, she grabs her much-loved “raggedy-looking” plant, just as she does in the play, and then heads out the door.

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One of the differences between the play and movie version of A Raisin in the Sun is that the entire play takes place in the Youngers' living room, while the movie also shows the family's bedrooms, the bar where Walter hangs out, and Walter's workplace. Because there are locations in the movie that are not in the play, some of the scenes are moved. In the play, the audience merely hears about Walter's job, but in the movie, Walter is shown working as a chauffeur. In addition, Lena, or Mama, is shown speaking to Walter in the bedroom about the liquor store in the movie, while this scene takes place in the living room in the play. Later, Mama gives Walter money in their apartment in the play, but this scene is moved to the bar in the movie. In the movie, the bar where Walter goes is known as the Kitty Cat, while it is called the Green Hat in the play. In the play, the mailman comes to the house to deliver the letter with the insurance money, while in the movie, Travis runs up to the mailman outside the apartment. Finally, Beneatha cuts off her hair in the play, while she does not do so in the movie. 

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There are two film versions of A Raisin in the Sun:  the 1961 version starring Sidney Poitier and the 2008 version starring Sean Combs.  My response will reference the 2008 film.

The 2008 film follows the play very closely; however, there are a few differences.  At the beginning of the film, Lena is shown at her last day of work.  The child whom Lena looks after is sad that Lena will no longer be working for them.  This is not seen in the play--the reader simply knows that Lena works as a maid for a white family.

Another difference occurs when Walter begins skipping work.  In the film, Walter's employer calls and Lena answers the phone stating that Walter is not home.  She is told that Walter did not show up for work on that day.  In the play, however, Ruth answers the phone when the employer calls and Walter is in the bedroom lying down.  Ruth is told that Walter has been absent from work for three days.

Finally, a major difference between the film and the written play is the appearance of Mrs. Johnson.  In the written play, Mrs. Johnson serves as a foil character for Lena.  She has been removed from the 2008 film version.

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There are not many differences between the film and Hansberry's work.  Part of the reason of this was that the director and the actors simply revived the roles they were doing in their Broadway production of Hansberry's work from 2004.  Outside of the obvious differences in translating any theatrical drama to the screen, I think that one major difference was that Hansberry's work seems to imply a great deal of doubt and insecurity that the 2008 film lacked.  There was an evident "preachiness" or sense of the didactic in the 2008 version that was noticeably missing from Hansberry's work.  Part of this might lie in the time period.  Hansberry's work articulates a condition that is really uncertain.  At a time in American History when Civil Rights was still a dream, when segregation laws in the South and covert racism in the North were palpable, Hansberry's arguments were radical.  They were groundbreaking because their assertions were rooted in the fundamental belief that doubt and insecurity shrouded any hope of affirmation.  This is not as evident in the movie, primarily because, of the time in which we live.  For better or worse, there is a greater sense of racial equality now than back then, making Hansberry's claims seem more didactic than what might have been their original intention.  The very fact that the film can draw stars like Sean Combs is another indication of a different cultural valence between the time of the film and Hansberry's context.

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