From Book To Film: A Look At Steve McQueen's Upcoming Adaptation Of '12 Years A Slave'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
July 17, 2013 6:37 PM
10 Comments
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'12 Years a Slave'

NOTE: If you don't like spoilers, I strongly suggest that you skip this entire post. I don't give everything away, and we don't even really know with certainty how different the film will be from the novel. But just a precaution.

It's a short read (but not necessarily quick, given the overly formal, even ponderous prose), and a relatively straightforward story: free black man in early 1800s is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he spends 12 years, until he's freed again.

It's a first-person narrative, told entirely from Solomon Northup's POV, which is refreshing in a way, given that stories like these that become films are often based on works penned in the third-person and usually by white authors. Not this time; however, whether director Steve McQueen and producer Brad Pitt have made a direct translation from book to film isn't yet entirely known. We won't know with certainty until we actually see the film this fall.
 
There isn't a lot I can say without giving away plot elements; the meat of the narrative comprises of those 12 years he spent in bondage, as the title of the book states, and I don't think it's necessary for me to retell every single story of whippings, working in fields picking cotton, sicknesses, deaths, attempts to escape, etc, etc, etc. I'd like to believe that we're all somewhat familiar with the many physical and mental ills of slavery. Although, unlike Quentin Tarantino's fictional exploitative Django Unchained, Northrupp's story is very real and raw, and, as I already noted, it's very much HIS story, and his story alone. Much of the book is made up of his thoughts on his experiences, and what he sees. 

Northup (who'll be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film) is a family man with a wife and 3 children, and, by his account, was a good husband to his wife and father to his children. He references them often while in bondage, quite possibly helping to keep him alive and hopeful that he'll one day be free again. So there isn't any correspondence between him and his family for the entire 12 years of his captivity. In fact, they're not even sure what happened to him or where he is during that long stretch of time. But as we find out towards the end of the novel, there was a search for him and a belief that he had indeed been kidnapped into slavery.
 
It actually reads somewhat like a mystery novel; you know what's ultimately going to happen, that there's likely some sort of happy ending coming, and that he'd eventually be a free man again; BUT you just don't know exactly how that's going to happen. And that mystery helps keep you anxious; otherwise it's grueling page after page of the day-to-day lives of slaves, which, as everyone should know by now, wasn't much living at all. 
 
He's first *master* - William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) we learn, is what you'd call a *good master.* He's still very much a slave owner, but, unlike the plantation owner Northup spends much of his 12 years with, Ford is actually kind to his slaves. He demonstrates a genuine care and compassion for them that other *masters* most certainly do not. And initially, it looks as if Northup's 12 years, though while still in bondage as a slave, working for Ford, may not be the worst experience a slave could have at the time.
 
But that changes eventually and rather quickly, much to his misfortune, when he becomes the property of one Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender in the film). Epps is your garden variety uneducated, ignorant, alcoholic, redneck asshole, to put it plainly. It's so easy to hate him here, and you do so instantly, from the moment you first meet him. In the novel, he's probably middle-aged and, from what I gathered in Northup's description of him, a large man - although more fat than muscle (clearly McQueen and Pitt had other plans for Epps' age and appearance when they cast Fassbender) - and just a mean old bastard; an ignorant one, who drinks... a lot. A lethal combo I'd say: ignorant, mean and an alcoholic, and in a position of power too, I should also add.
 
Northup spends 10 of his 12 years with Epps; long enough to actually gain Epps' confidence (somewhat) that Epps eventually puts Northup in charge of his slaves while they worked; in fact, there are moments when Epps asks Northup to whip the other slaves. Of course Northup is conflicted by this. I won't tell you whether he follows through or not, however.
 
Northup is known as a jack-of-all-trades because he can do a variety of things other slaves cannot, or have never been allowed to do - from reading, to building a raft, swimming, giving business advice and ideas to his owners; some of those *skills* contribute to his *masters* liking him - as much as a slave master can like his/her slaves.
 
But Epps' confidence in Northup - or more like Epps' stupidity and Northup's smarts - do come in handy, and save Northup from a terrible lashing or two.
 
There are two moments of rebellion on Northup's part that are worth noting, and you'll probably cheer when you see them, assuming they aren't discarded in translation from book to screen. But I don't see why they would be. 

Keep in mind that Northup was born a free man, educated, learned, has traveled a bit (at least to areas in which a free black man can roam unabated) and initially he isn't all that familiar with the lives of those who are in chains; it's almost a foreign world to him. He's aware certainly that slavery exists, just not where he lives; and he experiences a rude awakening when he's first captured. He still very much believes himself to be a man, and all that the word connotes, and that he deserves to be treated with the same kind of dignity and respect as any other man - beliefs that he holds early into his captivity. But he quickly learns to suppress all of that at the hands of some cruel slave traders and plantation owners. He larns his place, as they'd say, and you can imagine what larning him involves.
 
So his rebellion comes early and it actually takes you by surprise, because you immediately wonder if this man knows that he's risking his own life by physically fighting with his master, for example. At first you cheer for him; but that's quickly replaced with dread, because you know what's likely coming next - either a serious skin-peeling lashing, or a hanging; or something altogether worse.
 
He attempts to escape once, but not quite. I won't explain what I mean by "not quite," because to do so would be to give even more of the story (as written in the novel) away.
 
He can play the violin, and his ability actually comes in rather handy at times, making him somewhat popular amongst the Bayou plantation owners (where he spent most of his 12 years in bondage) who make requests that he perform for them; and this allows him to move around a bit, instead of being chained (literally and figuratively) to a single location. The luxury of travel affords him the opportunity to meet other slaves and plantation owners, all contributing to, and even expanding on his experiences - in some cases for the better; in other cases, for the worse. 
 
But those moments (of rebellion, escape, and/or travel to other plantations to perform with his instrument) help shake up the monotony and dread of the day-to-day, not only for the slave, but also for the reader. 
 
Chiwetel Ejiofor will play Solomon Northup, as already noted, and I could actually very easily see him in the role as I read the book; and depending on how McQueen interprets the novel, I'd say pencil in Ejiofor for his first Oscar nomination after the film is released. I didn't say he'd win, but it's the kind of meaty role that I think will attract critical acclaim - again, assuming the film we see in a few months, isn't too distant, in terms of content, from the novel I read, as well as an early draft of the script.
 
There's a duality in the character (the erudite Northup which he has to suppress when necessary, throughout the narrative, and the down-trodden slave "Platt" as he's called when he's sold into slavery) that demands the talents of a capable actor who can convincingly navigate both worlds believably, otherwise it could border on comedy when there isn't supposed to be any. However, it's not all sadness and doom; there are moments of joy and even hilarity as well.
 
There are several other black characters in the narrative, all slaves old and young; Several are introduced along the way; some returning in later chapters, others we meet once or twice and never hear from again. But Northup is the star of this show; it's his story after all. 
 
The only other character that takes up almost as much ink (and thus eventually screen time) as Northup, is the evil white plantation owner Edwin Epps, who Northup answers to for 10 of the 12 years he's in captivity, with Epps occasionally "renting" him out to other neighboring plantation owners. 
 
There is a character named Tibeats (played by Paul Dano in the film) - another nasty slave driver, a carpenter who William Ford is indebted to, and thus so has to give Northup to him to assist with his carpentry. Tibeats is just as bad as Epps (he actually tries to kill Northup at least once), but Northup is with him for only a short period of time, thankfully.
 
Also worth noting, there isn't what I'd call a traditional lead female role in the novel. There are 3 main women characters in Northup's life whom he writes about - his wife Anne (played by Kelsey Scott in the film) who's of mixed race, Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong'o in the film), a young woman slave who Epps keeps as a mistress, and finally Eliza (played by Adepero Oduye in the film), also a slave, as well as a mother who is separated from her children in a slave auction. 
 
Anne only appears early in the story before Northup is kidnapped, and then again at the end after he's freed. Eliza and Patsey feature more constantly throughout the narrative; although if I were to say which of the 2 was the more prominent in the story, I'd say, without hesitation, Patsey - and her story is a sad, sad one. She's considered the best cotton picker of Epps' slaves, and is also his mistress, although certainly not because she wants to be. Epps is married and his wife is aware of his infidelities with Patsey, and for that reason, she routinely orders Patsey whipped. She hates Patsey and of course blames her for Epps' indiscretions, even though she doesn't exactly have any say in the matter. So she's forced to sleep with Epps and faces his wrath if she doesn't; but if she does sleep with him, she faces Epps' wife's wrath. There's a scene in which Patsey is whipped by Epps so cruelly that I felt it just from reading Northup's words as he described the scene. I don't know how McQueen will shoot that particular sequence, but, assuming it's in the film adaptation, I'll just tell you that it'll be incredibly painful to watch. If you don't already hate Epps by then (and really, given everything else he does prior, you should), this will most certainly do it.
 
Overall it's a tough read - not because of the prose, but mostly because of the history it depicts. Any real slave narrative likely isn't going to be anything *entertaining*. Those weren't exactly fun and exciting times for black people. Although I'd say that Northup's story is likely one of the few with what we'd call a happy ending. He regains his freedom and returns to his family, and goes on to live as a free man until his death. We could even say justice is served (somewhat). But it still doesn't feel as sweet a victory, after the inhumane journey that we take with him to get there, and all the lives the reader is introduced to along the way who aren't as, shall we say, lucky as Northup.
 
In closing, I should note that there has been some public criticism of the narrative - notably that it was co-written by David Wilson, an attorney who approached Northup after he was freed, to collaborate on retelling his story (from what I read, his case became a very popular one, receiving lots of public attention). The concern some have is that the story as told in the book may not all be Northup's words, and that Wilson may have made his own contributions to sensationalize the narrative and make it more marketable. There isn't a consensus on that from what my research tells me, but it's said that "most" scholars believe Northup's words are indeed his, and not anyone else's. 
 
Another critique is that it didn't deserve all the hype it received after it was published, with some reportedly holding it up as an important text for use in the argument against slavery. Critics dismissed that claim, stating that Northup's narrative simply can't be compared to, or spoken of in the same breadth as those by Frederick Douglass for example. 
 
I certainly wouldn't call it the definitive slave narrative, if there even is one; it's one man's story, and Northup himself states at the end of the book that his story isn't representative of others, even acknowledging that he may have had it much easier than most. But still, it's impossible to have his experience, no matter how *easier* some might say it was, and not come out of it a completely different human being.
 
I actually plan to read the book again and will likely return for a few sporadic pieces of more in-depth analysis of sequences and characters; it'll also be good to discuss in a group with others who've read it.

So there you have it... now we wait until October 18th, when the film opens in theaters (in limited release at first).

Here's the trailer for the film adaptation, if you're one of the few who has yet to see it. Based on all I just wrote, you can make any comparisons/connections between words and images.



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10 Comments

  • Donella | August 10, 2013 5:44 PMReply

    I'll just bet we get to see the full trailer on The Butler previews.

  • David Fiske | July 19, 2013 10:28 PMReply

    I really appreciate the good vibes I get from readers of this site, now and in the past! Thank you one and all.

  • ska-triumph | July 19, 2013 12:05 PMReply

    Stellar Tambay: I've bookmarking, sharing, et al. this one. I just skimmed most of the article, and have been sitting on the script, anxiously waiting for this moving trailer. Now I'm on the fence about reading anything before the film. But I'm all over all the texts - including Mr. Fiske's book.

  • sthn | July 18, 2013 5:28 PMReply

    I don't have to worry about spoilers. I'll be skipping it. I can go to Colonial Williamsburg and see the same thing.

  • Mia | July 18, 2013 8:59 AMReply

    can you say and the oscar goes to Chiwetel Ejiofor...


    can't wait for this to come out

  • David Fiske | July 17, 2013 10:01 PMReply

    I state this, not as a plug, but to establish my credibility: I have researched Northup extensively, lectured, written articles, published a short book, and am a co-author of a major book coming out this summer: Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave. First, your analysis is outstanding, spot-on. Second, I have it on good authority that the film is absolutely faithful to Northup's book. Real life is complicated--movies can't be (at least not good movies). A few things are simplifed or consolidated in the film, but they do not affect the spirit or thrust of Northup's tale. Probably as much as I should say, but I do not think it will disappoint. Third, you are quite right about the importance of Northup's book before the War. As an example, during the Civil War, 10 years after the book's publication, Union soldiers took time out to seek out locations in the South that he mentioned. Some even found Epps and spoke to him, and he acknowledged that Northup had mainly told the truth and that he was smart.

  • David Fiske | July 18, 2013 8:36 PM

    Thanks dancelover51. Yes, amazon and also B&N. I won't repeat info I've posted on this site previously, but you can do search to find my earlier posts.

  • dancelover51 | July 18, 2013 6:59 PM

    Thank you so much for this additional information. I plan on buying your book. Please let me know if it will be available on Amazon.

  • David Fiske | July 18, 2013 5:44 PM

    Yes, they remembered the book even after 10 years. Some soldiers sought out the slave pen while they were in Washington. DC. I've owned several early editions of Twelve Years a Slave. They are usually well-worn, with names of several family members written in the front, indicating they were passed along--and read--by the whole family. Thanks, Donella, for your support.

  • Donella | July 18, 2013 11:26 AM

    David, I'm so glad for your insight on Northrup. I anticipate 12 Years a Slave might have its detractors and it will refreshing to receive information from someone with a depth of knowledge on the topic. For instance, I didn't know this about the Union soldiers using Northrup's book as a guide.

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