Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book versus Movie: 12 Years a Slave

2013 wasn't a great year for historical accuracy...and by this, of course, I'm referring to "Lee Daniels' The Butler". I went on a not-so-famous diatribe about how horribly manipulative, condescending, and grotesquely fair-tale-esque all the lies in the movie where. From the name of the man to how many sons he to to the fate of the sons—it was a terrible offender.

The other movie that could have felt this way was "12 Years a Slave" which told the "true story" of Solomon Northup.

Steve McQueen is a fantastic director so he knows how to make a movie. The film didn't have the phony feeling that Daniels' movie did...whether it was true or not is another saga. The two movies are very similar. They both deal with racial issues—albeit in drastically different ways—and both are about injustice. Naturally, one has much more suffering in it than the other...that much is expected.

So that's why I haven't picked up the book 12 Years a Slave because I was fearing the worst. Last time I had researched a movie, it turned out to be a complete lie and I liked the film too much to do that. But, I have decided that the film is great even if it is a lie...and I started to read the book anyways.

Not truly existing in its original form, edited, and editorialized, 12 Years a Slave has been preserved as best as it can, even with all the 'inaccuracies" within it. The edition I can across (by Sue Eakin) has about a hundred pages of notes in the back, explaining who is who and where the book takes place, things of this nature. Any time there was research that could be done, these people did it. As such, it feels like an exhaustive work and can be quite tiresome to read.

Bu still, you have to admire the dedication that this group of people had towards making a fully comprehensive edition of Solomon Northup's life and I'm glad that I'm reading this book and not just the diary itself, because it illuminates several facts about the book and, to an extent, the movie that wouldn't have been seen otherwise.

With the book, Solomon—using a ghost writer named David Wilson—paints himself as a man above reproach. He suffers and is put through horrible circumstances; but is intellectually, spiritually, and morally superior to all his captors and owners. He is portrayed as an almost angelic creature, a virginal type person who is tainted with Slavery—referred to as an entity in the book and not just an act.
But Solomon was not a perfect man and the notes take time to point out that he had been arrested several times for assault. He was a drunkard and he often disappeared and reappeared going to places unknown so his absence from his home was not uncommon and that's why people didn't immediately start looking for him.

Yet he was treated brutally, and that much is shown clearly in the movie which takes the book very, very literally; and I find myself having even more respect for John Ridley and Steve McQueen for the movie. When you translate a novel to film, you have edit a lot out...there's just no way to make a comprehensive film that can do a three hundred page novel justice. The same is true for "12 Years a Slave". There are moments that are taken out, like Solomon getting sick and going blind right before he is sold to William Ford. There is also embellishment, namely the amount of grief that Eliza shows when she is separated from her children. The book somewhat glosses over the fact, not taking too much time to spend on Eliza and focusing more on Solomon. But the movie expounds on what the book implies—there is heavy sorrow here.

Still, the shocking thing is how the book lines up almost exactly to the movie, it's a brilliant interpretation of the diary.

But why didn't the movie portray Solomon as the man he actually was—rough around the edges?
Though it could have been much more realistic with Solomon, the movie is based on the diary and not the life of the man. It pays homage to the writing itself. Solomon isn't perfect in the film, but he's as close as any protagonist we've seen in a long time. Just seeing an actor embody the graceful being as seen in the book is enough to humanize him.

Christy Lemire, on a YouTube show called "What the Flick?!" said that she though the film was too gratuitous with its violence. She mentioned a scene in which Solomon hangs from a tree by his neck as punishment for attacked one of his masters. This much is in the book as well, the scene in question has Solomon losing himself to his anger—Slavery has turned him into a resentful person, though this is really the only time we see him lose his temper—and we can all cheer for him because of his attack.
Anyways, the guy come back and seizes Solomon, hoisting him up on a tree before being ordered to stop. He runs off and Solomon is left hanging by his neck, the tips of his toes barely touching the ground. It's a long, static shot and I would say it's the one moment in the movie where McQueen is at his most consistent.

Lemire criticized this moments, but it was in the book! What were they supposed to do? There's a little leeway here, but it's taken from the written word almost verbatim.

The movie has its critics because they all think it too excessive; but I look at the film as a powerful representation of a historical occurrence. Solomon Northup is given his dues...the movie is sensational; but more than that, I consider it to be one of the best examples of a book being made into a book. John Ridley is a master.

I think both the book and the movie are best summed up by part of the final paragraph in Solomon Northup's diary:

"This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations in Texas and Louisiana. But I forbear....I hope henceforward to lead an upright and though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps."

If you had to pick one: Movie

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