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The Garden of Pleasantville

May contain spoilers

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How do things work in a perfect world? The book of Genesis tells us this much: every living thing lives in harmony, food is plentiful, there is no such thing as pain, and nobody knows the difference between good and evil.

That's the loophole the serpent uses to convince Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "God said not to because I'll die," she protests. "You won't die," the serpent says. "You'll just be wiser, like God, and see things the way he does." So Eve eats the fruit because she can't conceive of anything that isn't perfect, and if God is wise, then wisdom is perfect too. As for Adam, the Bible never really attributes any motive to his deed. He just seems to take the fruit from Eve without question.

The DVD of "Pleasantville" is available on Netflix. You can stream the film for $2.99 on Vudu or Amazon Instant.

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I always wondered why God put the Tree there in the first place. If you don't want your immaculate beings to have any knowledge of good and evil, why give them access to it? When God eventually punishes Adam and Eve, he's not just angry that they disobeyed. He also realizes they're smart enough to want to do it again. And nothing ruins a fine paradise like free will.

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You know what David loves about Pleasantville? It's unlike everything that's wrong about the world we live in. The beginning of the movie even shows us some of the harsh truths David is confronted with: pretty girls that flock to jocks; the lack of job opportunities; the threat of STDs; global warming; and Dionne Warwick infomercials.

A super-fan of the 1950s show "Pleasantville," David doesn't give too much thought to the fact that such a heavenly place never really existed. Those sitcoms were as much an ideal then as they are now. But David doesn't want realism. He gets enough of that every day. He's a nerdy nobody in school, his divorced parents fight over who's going to watch the kids, and his twin sister Jennifer is a selfish, slutty brat.

On a night when David and Jennifer squabble over who gets to decide what's on TV, a mysterious (if omniscient) cableman teleports them to Pleasantville to teach them a lesson in nuclear family behavior. The problem is, he takes them to the idea, not the show.

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In black-and-white Pleasantville, toilets don't exist. Nor any other ickiness. Nobody knows how they got there, and nobody cares to ask. Nobody knows much of anything, and nobody cares to ask about that either. The people of Pleasantville live in an idyllic little bubble that has no beginning or end, where the sun shines every day, where the basketball team never misses a shot, where firemen only ever rescue cats, and where children win science fairs without having to delve too much into the science. They haven't a clue what "bad" means because everything's so swell all the time.



Realizing that they're stuck in Pleasantville as the show's main characters, Bud and Mary Sue Parker, David urges Jennifer to play along. He doesn't seem to mind it so much at first, but rebellious Jennifer is mortified. At least until dreamy Skip Martin asks her out.

On that date, Jennifer does something even her Pleasantville parents, George and Betty Parker, haven't done: she has sex. She fulfills her Eve-like role by setting off a shift in perspective: sex is how people in this town start to see color. But that's not all it does; it also introduces the concept of imperfection when the basketball team, distracted by Skip's erotic tales, loses its first game. Oh, and sex causes a fire.

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David begs Jennifer to stop messing with this fragile cosmos, but she isn't convinced it's meant to be so stringent. "These people don't want to be geeks," she tells him. "They want to be attractive. They have a lot of potential, they just don't know any better."

David's own geekiness proves useful when he ends up educating everyone else. He tells them how Huckleberry Finn ends, he shows them how to put out a fire, and he reassures them that rain isn't dangerous. As he does, the people of Pleasantville turn to color.


But people don't turn to color merely by way of sex and trivia. It goes deeper than that. It has to be something that touches you on a visceral level. Something that's the opposite of what you think you know about yourself. That's why David and Jennifer are among the last to make the transition, because for the most part, they're the ones teaching Pleasantville new tricks.

For David, it finally happens when he punches a still-black-and-white boy who's harassing his "colored" Pleasantville mother Betty. If you consider that he didn't have the nerve to speak to the girl he was crushing on at the beginning of the movie, this is an important first. For the previously boy-crazy Jennifer, it happens when she hits the books and genuinely enjoys it.

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Before color, Pleasantville was a place of unquestioned rituals and customs except for one person: Bill Johnson, the soda shop owner. I don't know what Bill's doing in Pleasantville, but whoever put him there sure took a risk. Like the Tree, he's a crack in the universe. That he paints a different Christmas mural each year makes him a malleable force. It's the only thing that changes in Pleasantville, and he revels in it. When color is introduced to Pleasantville, Bill's even the first to ask what the point is of doing the same thing in the same way every day. It proves Jennifer's earlier observation about the town's potential. Pleasantville always had the palette and brushes, it just needed to inspire its painter.


Writer-director Gary Ross has dealt with the theme of displacement in earlier movies. It started with Big and carried on in Mr. Baseball and Dave. In each, the expatriation causes discomfort, and the characters inevitably tap into their own resources to adapt. What's great about Pleasantville is that this conversion isn't limited to its main characters. The whole town undergoes the same transformation. And it turns out that it's just as lovely in color as it was in grayscale.

The advent of color in Pleasantville means sacrificing its unsullied state, but the townspeople seem to think they're better for it. Things aren't black and white, they're complicated. That's the beauty of it. That's how we know we're doing it right.

Olivia Collette is a writer from Montreal, Canada. She'd still like to know what God was thinking when he put Adam and Eve within earshot of the Tree. She blogs at livvyjams and you can follow her on Twitter at @Olivia_Collette 


Olivia Collette

Olivia Collette is based in Montreal, and has written for the Montreal Gazette, World Film Locations: San Francisco, Sparksheet, Indiewire’s Press Play blog, the Spectator Arts Blog and other outlets. She discusses pop culture at Livvy Jams.

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