A Mistake and a Debate about ’12 Years a Slave’

I loved that moment at the Academy Awards when John Ridley, accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, stated fiercely that almost every word in 12 Years a Slave came from the original book by Solomon Northup, who wrote it in 1853.

John Ridley

John Ridley

In later interviews, Ridley added that he  saw his job as “reductive — take 12 years and fit it into what ended up to be about 2 hours — but not additive. I had nothing other, better, greater to say” than what Northup put on the page. At last: a commitment to print from the translator-to-film.

Question #1: The Out-of-Place Scene

So I’m wondering why director Steve McQueen created a scene for the movie that’s not only missing from the book but is weirdly, to me, out of place.

In this scene, Solomon Northup is trying to sleep on a floor crowded with other slaves when he notices that the female slave next to him is staring beseechingly and soon insistently at his face.  Without warning,  she grabs his hand and uses it to massage her breast. Then she briefly kisses him on the mouth and brings his hand between her legs to masturbate herself to orgasm. Then she turns away from him and bursts into tears  — in shame or hopelessness or release, we’re not sure.

McQueen has said he created this scene for the movie because “I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.”

His choice of words sounds odd to me because “tenderness” is completely absent in the scene, and the idea of “taking control of her own body” had not been conceptualized for women at the time (i.e., no Our Bodies, Ourselves lying around.) Since we know from the movie that female slaves were raped repeatedly by white men along the way, it’s hard to believe this manic rubbing would provide the kind of “sexual healing” McQueen mentions.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

Of course, directors throw new material into adapted screenplays all the time, and I’ve always believed it’s not the business of the viewer to question WHY a decision was made.  (We simply get to say it works for us or not.)

But in this case, Ridley’s pride at the Academy Awards reflected more than a faithful script. He wanted us to appreciate the enormous achievement of Solomon Northup, an ancestor who so perfectly captured every detail of his experience that the truth of it, coming to us through the political chaos of a century and a half, must be respected and preserved.

And Ridley is hardly alone in his praise for Northup. Usually in the case of an adapted screenplay, only one edition of the book exists, and that’s the movie tie-in. But 12 Years a Slave has been valued by so many  audiences that there are more than 20 versions — illustrated, annotated, footnoted; with interviews, introduced by scholars/celebrities, written for children — now available.

McQueen himself is quoted as saying that when he first read 12 Years a Slave, “it felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary.” That should have meant Don’t mess with what the author left us in print.

News stories suggest that Ridley and McQueen argued during the filming and  aren’t speaking to this day, which is why they snubbed each other at the Oscars.  I wonder if the made-up masturbation scene is the reason.  The worst part of it, to me, is that McQueen inserts the scene again later in the movie to show us (I guess) all the things Northup endured in his 12 years of slavery. The unfortunately comical message we get at that point is Wow, what a great guy! Show him your needs and he’s a veritable Dr. Ruth. No puns allowed about lending a helpful hand.

Question #2: The “Mistaken” Scene

One of the big no-no’s in movie tie-ins is that the publisher must never step in and “correct” the original work, even if there are misspellings and grammatical errors aplenty.  The thinking goes that once you open that door, your own biases could intercede, distorting the author’s intentions without your conscious knowledge.

Several times while reading 12 Years a Slave I imagined frustrated copy editors tying their hands to the chair upon viewing Northup’s many misplaced modifiers (“having been fed, preparations were made to depart”), lengthy sentences and pronoun confusion.

12 Years a Slave book cover

12 Years a Slave book cover

See, for example, if you can sort out who is who in this passage below. The speaker is Solomon Northup, and he is describing  the hatred that Mistress Epps bears for Patsey, the slave whom Mr. Epps sexually prefers:

“Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.”

Yikes, so many uses of “she” and “her” could inspire a person to pick up the blue pencil, but noooo. Just as Northup is to be respected for his thoroughness in historical/geographical accuracy, so must he be allowed a few bafflements along the way.

But readers get to have their opinions, so what do you think:  Is it Mistress Epps or Patsey herself who is depicted asking Solomon to put her (Patsey) to death?  The pronouns make it impossible to tell, so the filmmakers chose Patsey to be the one pleading with Solomon to put her out of her misery.

#2On the Internet, however, by my count, most viewers who debate this question believe Northup was writing about Mistress Epps –for one thing, she can afford the kind of bribes Patsey could never offer; for another, Patsey is not suicidal even after the whipping scene (though her spirit is altered terribly).

I also believe the author meant Mistress Epps,  but this time, unlike the first example, I’m not worried about the filmmakers’ mistaking the author’s intention. The scene is so well acted and scripted that it feels authentic and fitting in terms of the movie’s view of the world, and that’s good enough for me as a viewer.

Question #3: The Jacket Illustration

What film producers decide to put on the jacket of the movie tie-in is something I wonder about all the time. Like many readers, I tend to stare at it the cover illustration while pausing between chapters, and if its message even remotely misrepresents the book, I find myself thinking that all of Hollywood is illiterate.

So I’m wondering what comes to mind when you view this photo of Chiewetel Eliofor, the actor who plays Solomon Northup, running across the cover of Penguin’s official movie tie-in cover.

I’ll try not to bang on the table in the next post, The Art of the Movie Tie-in, when describing what I think is going on.

movie tie-in book cover

movie tie-in book cover

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