Collaborated by: Leila Sassouni, Amanda Neri, Anthony Guttilla, Julia Yakowyna, and Lauren Silverman
Sidney Poitier’s 1963 film Lilies of the Field, draws on the relationship between five nuns and the main protagonist, Homer Smith, played by Sidney Poitier. While driving through an isolated town in Arizona, Smith comes across a small house, inhabited by nuns from Germany. These nuns are impoverished, yet express a deep faith in God. Specifically, they pray for God to send them someone to build them a chapel, and when Smith shows up, they claim that God sent him. They eventually convince Smith to build them a chapel. Everett’s goal in changing the names of the characters from the movie to the novel show the impact that names and money have on power dynamics.
Everett juxtaposes the mundane names of the nuns in Lilies of the Field by changing them to those of saints of the Catholic Church in his novel. The nuns in the film have typical German names such as Maria, Agnes, or Gertrude.While these names can refer to other Christian saints, the saints they refer to are patron saints, and have far less of an impact on their religion than others. This being said, each of the saints chosen by Everett was a recognized Christian author, historian, or scholar, all academics except for Irenaeus, who was known for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities (Britannica). Each of these men were academics or trusted leaders during a time when women were excluded from holding the same title, or participating in the same field.
Additionally, the nuns are not the most powerful people in the town. While Smith builds the chapel for the nuns, he realizes that he needs more materials in order to complete the building process. However, the nuns’ power is denied because they have no money in the bank in order to financially support the chapel-project process. Since Smith is building the chapel for the nuns, he essentially loses his own power, because he is constantly bossed around by Mother Maria who tries to exert more power than what she actually has. In order to also put Smith on their level, the nuns give him a new last name, Schmidt. While this may be a more convenient or more German sounding name for the women to pronounce, they basically call him a ‘worker’, undermining his power.
In Percival Everett’s novel I am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney encounters five nuns as he drives through Alabama, just like in Lilies of the Field. The situation he is put in mirrors the situation of the protagonist Homer Smith from the film. In both the film and the novel, Homer Smith, and his parallel of Not Sidney, is coerced into helping these women. However, instead of building the chapel himself, like Smith did, Not Sidney urges the women to find an architect who could build the chapel, with his money.
While the nuns in the film appear to care less about their own money and power, the novel illustrates the opposite; the nuns care more about money because it gives them more power. In the novel, Not Sidney offers the money to build a church for the nuns who otherwise do not have the financial stability to support this project. He tells the nuns that he lacks the skills and knowledge to build a chapel, but that he has the money to finance the project. By telling them this, he shows that he is a man with the power to make their goal achievable, placing himself in a position of power above the nuns.
Everett changing the nuns names’ to those names of male saints is supposed to give them all the illusion of having more power in the novel; however, the nuns ultimately appear to have less power. An instance where Everett gives the nuns less power occurs when Not Sidney is sitting in a diner while in Alabama. The diner owner tells Not Sidney, “‘Those poor sisters,’ she said. ‘They come here from Montana or someplace because somebody left some land to their church’” (Everett, 182). Later, one of the customers, who hears Not Sidney discussing the idea of the nuns wanting to build a church, criticizes them as he says “‘Those crazies?’ he said. ‘Gonna build themselves a church. Out of what, is what I want to know,’” (184). By writing the nuns in as delusional and crazy, it shows the irony of giving these nuns powerful names.
The name changes are significant from the film to the novel to demonstrate the impact of an individual’s identity. Changing the nuns’ names from common names to names of powerful Saints offers a power shift. Throughout the novel, we are able to see Not Sidney finding power over people through his money. While Not Sidney has his interview with Gladys Feet, he recognizes for the first time in the novel the extent of his advantage in life, “I realized that my scads of money gave me a considerable amount of power. A seemingly simple notion, but one that I had either been too stupid to acknowledge or too stubborn to accept” (83). He realizes that money brings power, which leads him to understand his potential for obtaining more power. Even later, when Sister Ireneus tries to steal 50,000 dollars from him, he illustrates his personal advantage as he still gives them the money for the chapel.
This entire sequence juxtaposing the film Lilies of the Field and the novel I am Not Sidney Poitier sums up one of the major themes of the novel in this way, as it is a condensed portion of the book that can represent the whole. Being financially stable demonstrates the way that both the chapel project and people’s lives depend so heavily on money. By comparing nuns in the novel versus the nuns in the film, there is a clear difference in power dynamics between both of the sets of nuns. This power dynamic is caused simply because of the change of names, and also the way Everett transforms them.