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Spielberg scrubs and softens `The Color Purple'

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Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I'm still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. That's an example of the gritty prose and folksy philosophizing that earned Alice Walker a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for her novel ``The Color Purple,'' about the hard family life of a poor black woman in the South.

But don't look for Walker's proud ethnicity and deliberately rough-hewn style in Steven Spielberg's version of the story. Although he keeps the plot and characters largely intact, his movie is wildly different from its source: a series of letter-perfect set pieces, rooted less in felt experience than in time-tested Hollywood formulas.

In other words, this is very much a Steven Spielberg picture, even if the subject is surprisingly grown-up for the director of ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' and the Indiana Jones movies. The fragmented phrases of the book, so expressive on the printed page, fight valiantly for life in Benno Meyjes's efficient screenplay. Spielberg's mass-appeal sensibility hunts them down and cleans them up, though, scrubbing and regimenting them within an inch of their lives. In place of the book's raw humanity, he gi ves us filmmaking by the numbers.

Fortunately, they're terrific numbers. Spielberg's mastery of Hollywood technique has never been more clear, flooding the screen with bold images and vivid gestures. The effects are calculated so precisely and crafted so rigidly that ``realism'' soon caves in to the snazzy artifice of classical Hollywood melodrama, smoothing over the story in a way that has little to do with Walker's blunt, first-person immediacy. Yet the subtly stylized cinematography and razor-sharp editing offer pleasures of their ow n. And there's a true kinship between Spielberg's world-view, which is incorrigibly childlike, and the sentimental optimism that dominates Walker's novel after its deceptively bleak beginning.

The plot focuses on Celie, a used and abused black woman whose miseries seem boundless. She has two illegitimate children, the result of domestic rape, and both have been spirited away against her will. Her husband is a selfish pig who treats her like a slave. The only person she desperately loves, her sister Nettie, has run away to avoid a similar life -- and could be dead as far as Celie knows, since her husband intercepts and hides any mail she receives.

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