Secret Life of Bees: The Novel

L-R: Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys / Photo Credit: Sidney Baldwin


“I can’t think of something I’d rather have more then someone lovin’ me.”

Author Sue Monk Kidd talks about watching the world she invented come
alive on the set of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES.

Sue Monk Kidd’s internationally acclaimed novel The Secret Life of Bees was born from her experience growing up as an adolescent in the South during the 1960’s. “I do think race is the wound of my geography,” she says. “It’s the wound of the South and of American life.”
Despite the power of that experience, it took almost 30 years for Monk Kidd’s deeply internalized feelings to surface, when she started to share her memories with her husband and when they began to crystallize into book form.

Monk Kidd grew up in a large country house in Sylvester, Georgia, where bees inhabited a wall in the guesthouse. “I remember my mother cleaning up puddles of honey that had seeped out, and the unearthly sound of bee hum vibrating through the house,” the writer has noted. The bees never left, and even years later, when Monk Kidd’s husband visited her childhood home, he woke to find the bees flying around his room. That was when his wife “began imagining a young girl lying in bed while bees poured through cracks in her bedroom walls.” Unable to shake that image, she still had to answer two profound questions: “Who is this girl?” and “What is the desire of her heart?” Answering them led to the creation of Lily Melissa Owens, the girl who yearns for her mother, and who became central to Monk Kidd’s story.

At first, however, Bees was very much a story, not a novel. It was only after writing the short story in 1993, and after it drew a rapturous response when read aloud at a New York literary event, that Monk Kidd thought of turning it into a novel. During years of research and preparation, that took her through collage making and more contemplative periods, the author turned her attention to matters of race and spirituality. Ancient statues and “archetypal feminine images” of the Virgin Mary became her focus and she set out to learn more about the origins and significance of the Black Madonna, in particular, a journey that took her far from the South and all the way to Europe. There, she found that images of the Black Madonna were symbols of defiance among oppressed women. She knew now that the Black Madonna must be included in the novel.

A coming-of-age story, The Secret Life of Bees takes place in an intricate emotional landscape that explores the psyches of its young heroine and the matriarchs who mentor her. These characters, so genuine and true to life, are culled from the novelist’s imagination and from impressions drawn from her years in Georgia.

Deeply affected by the social dynamics of growing up white in the racially polarized South, Monk Kidd also benefited from her own immersion in African-American culture — especially with the character of Rosaleen, partly modeled on her own black caretaker; and the characters of May, June and the women who belong to the Daughters of Mary, all of whom called on memories of the Southern black women whose enthralling stories and kind nature left an indelible impression on Monk Kidd. As for August, the matriarchal figure played by Queen Latifah, she sprang from what Monk Kidd describes as “a vision I carry inside, of feminine wisdom, compassion, and strength… what I would have wanted to find if I’d been in Lily’s complicated situation.”

The novel was published in 2002 to critical acclaim and has since been published in more than 23 languages. The novel spent more than two years on The New York Times bestseller list and has sold more than 4.5 million copies.

“Most people have no idea about the complicated life goin’ on inside a hive.
Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.” -August

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES was shot on location during the months of January and February 2008, primarily in Burgaw, a small North Carolina town outside Wilmington. Much of the movie was filmed in a beautiful old house, painted Pepto-Bismol pink, just like in the book - though it took the director three attempts before she finally settled on the right shade. “The first time we painted it, I actually loved the color but it was a little too salmon,” the director explains. “Then we went too Pepto Bismol and it was just wrong. Finally, we arrived at this happy medium that everybody was pleased with.”

With the exterior in place, production designer Warren Alan Young, together with his property master and set-decorating crew, proceeded to transform the large old house into a 1960’s home, referencing magazines and catalogues from the era. “With writer Sue Monk Kidd’s help, we came up with a history for the house that put it near the end of slavery, when the Boatwright sister’s grandparents would have acquired the home,” Young explains.

One of the film’s other pivotal sets, May’s “Wailing Wall,” was constructed as a two feet by two-and-a-half-feet-wide stone wall, just large enough for Okonedo to sit on, per the director’s request. It was that kind of care that stamped the film.

Honored when renowned African-American artist Charles Bibbs agreed to collaborate with the filmmakers to create signature artwork for the honey jars featured in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, the design process became an exciting and fruitful one. Following multiple design consultations and subsequent conversations, Bibbs’ initial sketches included pencil renderings, which later evolved into color, before the artist finalized his image of the Black Madonna.

A highly respected contemporary artist who has enjoyed success with his fine art and popular graphics, Bibbs internationally acclaimed body of work is a fusion of cross-cultural themes including African, African-American and Native American aesthetics. Also a committed cultural philanthropist and community leader, his leadership has culminated in the establishment of numerous non-profit arts and media organizations benefiting minority artists and youth across the nation.

But all those involved knew this production was something special, something significant. Prince-Bythewood kept thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. - particularly when she found herself and her team shooting on his birthday. “I found it fascinating that, at the time this movie takes place, he was alive fighting for us,” she says. “You look around the crew and it’s very diverse. That was his dream - that we could all be there, putting this story on the screen.”