John Ridley's adaptation renders 12 Years a Slave powerful but palatable for modern audiences
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Solomon Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave, was a bestseller in its own time, but like many others I’d never heard of this account of Northup’s gruelling ordeal in slavery until it was adapted into Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave. (McQueen’s film is actually the second adaptation of the book – television movie Solomon Northup’s Odyssey disappeared from cultural consciousness in much the same way as Northup’s writing).
Preparing for an interview with John Ridley – who wrote the film’s Oscar-winning screenplay – that never eventuated, I dusted off Northup’s book to gain some insight into the choices made in adaptation (dusted off figuratively – the book is widely available online).
I’m not the first to compare the two texts, and I’m certainly not going to be the last – especially with the film and book becoming part of the public high school curriculum in the United States – but the biggest surprise was how faithful Ridley was in his adaptation. 12 Years a Slave – the film – seems custom-made to provide an inclusive historical perspective on Northern American slavery. On the surface it’s presented as the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), but the film’s narrative allows us to see various presentations of women and men (particularly the former) trapped in slavery – running the gamut from violent opposition to cowed deference – and slave-owners who are variously cruel and psychotic or polite but weak-willed. It’s so perfectly calibrated to present a prismatic, nuanced portrayal of the era that I was expecting much of the screenplay to have been invented from whole cloth.
Such faithfulness is an oft-overrated characteristic – just ask any teenager what they thought of a recent YA adaptation and you’re practically guaranteed to hear a laundry list of what was omitted from the book as though it’s meaningful criticism. The importance of a (relatively) accurate interpretation is emphasised here, I’d argue; too many alterations to Northup’s storyline risks colouring an important historical document with a contemporary perspective. Most of the changes in the screenplay are necessary ones – two characters folded into one, or unnecessary dialogue removed.
Film adaptations inevitably require such omissions. These omissions provide one of the key distinctions between film and autobiography as Ridley consistently conceals the lighter elements of Northup’s tale. The film’s posters are emblazoned with the image of Ejiofor mid-stride, suggesting a dash towards freedom – a misdirect, given the closest the film comes to an escape attempt is Northup dashing into the bushes only to encounter a lynching in progress. His autobiography, though, includes a genuine (if short-lived) escape, not to mention more attempts to contact his family that were understandably expunged from the script.
Again and again, Ridley darkens or deletes the slender moments of joy or levity found in Twelve Years a Slave. Patsey is introduced as a bright, friendly character reduced to despair by Epps’ abuse in the autobiography; Ridley’s presentation of her begins in misery and descends further (credit to Lupita Nyong’o for finding a spark within the gloom). Scenes of celebration are removed entirely… though it’s not hard to see why a scene where Northup’s fellow slaves are presented as watermelon-obsessed bumpkins wouldn’t fly with a modern audience. There’s clearly a deliberate choice by Ridley to ensure slavery is presented as consistently horrific. I respect his choice – and love the resultant film – but I do wonder if a few more glimmers of light might have made the prevailing darkness more effective.
Ah, but don’t assume that these omissions should validate one of the least convincing arguments directed at the film by its detractors – that 12 Years a Slave is analogous to torture porn, revelling in the misery of its characters. Sure, he culls out some of the ‘friendlier’ events, but some truly appalling sections of Northup’s text are omitted, consistent with the film’s decision to – outside of a couple significant events – leave the majority of the physical misery inflicted implied. Take this devastating quote from Northup’s stay in Epps plantation, after he mentions the possibility of being purchased by a local tanner:
"So, Platt, you’re tired of scraping cotton, are you? You would like to change your master, eh? You’re fond of moving round—traveler—ain’t ye? Ah, yes—like to travel for your health, may be? Feel above cotton-scraping, I ’spose. So you’re going into the tanning business? Good business—devilish fine business. Enterprising nigger! B’lieve I’ll go into that business myself. Down on your knees, and strip that rag off your back! I’ll try my hand at tanning."
I begged earnestly, and endeavored to soften him with excuses, but in vain. There was no other alternative; so kneeling down, I presented my bare back for the application of the lash.
"How do you like tanning?" he exclaimed, as the rawhide descended upon my flesh. "How do you like tanning?" he repeated at every blow. In this manner he gave me twenty or thirty lashes, incessantly giving utterance to the word "tanning," in one form of expression or another. When sufficiently "tanned," he allowed me to arise, and with a half-malicious laugh assured me, if I still fancied the business, he would give me further instruction in it whenever I desired. This time, he remarked, he had only given me a short lesson in "tanning "—the next time he would "curry me down."
Ridley’s omissions so far aren’t without purpose. By removing any scenes of joviality from Northup’s experience as a slave, he avoids people arguing that he’s presenting slavery in a positive light, even minutely (while also depriving some of the complex humanity that allows us to find joy in the darkest times, admittedly), while reducing – but not omitting – the physical brutality of his experience is pretty well necessary for a film that would be tolerated by mainstream audiences.
The overarching intent of 12 Years a Slave goes beyond simply doing justice to Northup’s story, but also to attempt to provide insight into the psychology and politics of slavery. That’s best demonstrated in the additions and tweaks made to the screenplay. For example, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) serves as an example of the hypocritical “kindness” of slave masters, unable to support his generous attitude towards Northup with genuine assistance – a scene invented for the film (in reality, Northup never revealed his identity as a free man to Ford). Similarly, a significant scene with Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) provides an example of the lengths women would go to in order to survive their captivity, but her character is only mentioned “off-page” in Northup’s book.
The biggest success of Ridley’s adaptation – and McQueen’s direction of the same – is not how closely it hews to Northup’s publication, nor how cleverly it presents a compelling portrait of an era too often forgotten. Rather, it’s the way it preserves the poetry found in Northup’s writing. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the shot of a burning letter disintegrating into embers and then fading into darkness. It’s emotional on both a literal and symbolic level, as hope is extinguished, but that same tragic beauty is found in Northup’s words, referencing the same event:
I knew not now whither to look for deliverance. Hopes sprang up in my heart only to be crushed and blighted. The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me—would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten. Repelled, betrayed, cut off: from the hope of succor, I could only prostrate myself upon the earth and groan in unutterable anguish. The hope of rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort on my heart. That was now flickering, faint and low; another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.