Critical Essays Novel “versus” Film Adaptation


The film 12 Years a Slave, based on Northup’s memoir, was released in 2013 and went on to receive acclaim in the motion picture industry. In addition to many other honors, it won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey.

The film is generally faithful to Northup’s memoir as a whole, even lifting some dialogue directly from the memoir, including Freeman’s heartless reasons for not selling Emily to William Ford. Out of necessity, though, the movie is not as concerned with factual detail as Solomon Northup was. This results in shortcuts of storytelling and a muddying of facts that are often found in book-to-film adaptations.

For example, the slave trader Goodin is eliminated from the story, along with Northup’s experience in his possession. The slaves Arthur and Clemens Ray are combined into one character, with the latter being rescued in New Orleans instead of the former. Northup’s time with William Ford is abridged, while the role of John M. Tibeats is inflated for the screen—the role is combined with other minor characters and played more as a crazy man than the bitter, angry man of Northup’s narrative. Only one of Tibeats’ murder attempts is shown, though it is embellished for dramatic effect. Both Platt’s harrowing nighttime escape in the swamp and his time at Peter Tanner’s plantation are eliminated completely, and some of Tanner’s role is added to Epps instead.

The movie lays the blame for Northup’s sale to Epps directly on William Ford, when in fact it was Tibeats who sold “Platt” to the notorious “nigger breaker.” Even worse, the film suggests that after Tibeats’ murder attempt, Northup told the righteous Ford about his status as a free man and begged Ford to help him. According to the movie, those pleas fell on William Ford’s deaf ears. The facts, however, are much different.

Like Northup’s real-life experience, the bulk of the film version of 12 Years a Slave is seen on Epps’ plantation. Here, the film concerns itself chiefly with the sorrows of Patsey and, in that regard, stays fairly true to the memoir. However, that means the film downplays or eliminates events in Northup’s personal story and generally ignores other significant events that happened to slaves Abram, Wiley, and others. Also, Northup/Platt’s eight-year role as the slave-whipping driver on Epps’ farm is completely omitted, except for the one brutal whipping of Patsey. Henry B. Northup—the man who actually rescued Solomon from slavery—is not included in the film. The entire trial and acquittal of James H. Burch is also omitted, reduced to a text-only postscript as a prelude to the final credits.

Overall, the movie 12 Years a Slave does a better-than-average job of portraying the content of its source material, but there are too many creative licenses taken in the film to trust it as a reliable substitute for reading Northup’s memoir.