Tuesday, 14 January 2014

12 Years a Slave book vs film

Solomon Northup was a free man living with his wife and two children when he was tricked into touring with a musical group, drugged and sold into slavery. Twelve years later, he was freed. But this is only a tiny part of his incredible story, as told by the man himself in his powerful and eloquent memoir 12 Years a Slave, now a major feature film.

The book is incredibly complex, as Northup details all the people he meets along the way and even the daily work the slaves were forced to endure. He talks about the violence and the horror of his life as a slave but does not fail to mention the good he sees, be it in the compassionate Master Ford or his fellow slaves who give him hope to carry on living.

Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes across very differently in both mediums. In the novel, Solomon goes to great lengths to explain to the reader how good and how smart Ford was. He was a decent man born into a world where slavery was the norm. Effectively, he didn’t know any better. Solomon clearly has great respect for him and explains that while some thought the way he treated his slaves showed weakness, Solomon insists that it served to make all of his slaves so desperate to please him. They didn’t fear him so much as revere him. In the film, he is shown to be a kind owner, impressed by Solomon’s initiative and hard work. However, the additional scene where Solomon tries to tell him the truth about his identity makes Ford quickly unlikable and weak. He has a debt to be paid and does not want to hear what Solomon has to say. In reality (or in the memoir at least) Solomon is never brave enough to tell him the truth.
Other than the story of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) himself, it is the horrific story of Patsey (played in the film by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) which draws the most heartbreak. As the object of Master Epps's (Michael Fassbender) attention, she is assaulted by him frequently but because his wife sees the desire he feels for her, she gets abused by her too. Though he attempts to help on occasion, the most tragic part of the whole story is that nobody can do anything to really stop the abuse. This is, after all, a true account of slavery. There is no happy ending here. That the true horror of what Patsey endures is shown in unsettling detail is a true testament to Steve McQueen’s bravery as a filmmaker.
A lot of the story is cut but this is essential as there are so many players in Solomon’s story there would be no way of including them all. The key players are rightly pushed to centre stage while the others become extraneous. The book feels like twelve years whereas the film passes by without the feel of such a lot of time passing. There is only one addition which baffled me and that is the strange sexual opening which seems entirely out of place in this story.
Both interpretations are heartbreaking, shocking and emotional. The greatest travesty and upset in both though is not so much what happens to Northup during those twelve years but what comes after. He is, after all, still a man of colour in a world where they are not deemed equal to white people.

Film – 5/5
Book – 5/5

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