Twelve Years A Slave – A review of the book and film

Every time I sit down to write one of these blog posts, I keep trying to think of new ways to push myself – little things, usually, like playing with language choices and structural devices, and other stuff that probably would never cross the minds of most of the people who read these. This week I’m aiming to be a little more explicit in my experimentation, by writing a combined book and film review. In line with my aforementioned “Best Picture Quest”, I chose to read and then watch Solomon Northup’s memoir of slavery in 1850’s Louisiana, Twelve Years A Slave.

What. A. Book. This is honestly the most phenomenal memoir I’ve ever read. For a start, the storyline itself is incredible, and kind of uplifting despite how astonishingly horrific the events that transpired were. The title itself is a brilliant move because it takes the onus of trying to guess how the plot works out off the reader – it’s all spelled out on the front cover. Instead of worrying about how everything turns out, you simply become absorbed in this extraordinary tale.

The way that Northup writes is beautiful and eloquent, which totally contrasts with the horror of life as a slave and actually heightens the reader’s disgust with the slaves’ treatment. It’s also really interesting to me how Northup takes pains to make the reader aware that not all slave owners were horrible people, going out of his way to show how kind Ford was, and even providing explanation for the appalling actions of Epps.

The one criticism I would highlight is the slightly odd editorial decision to foreshadow the fates of newly-introduced characters before we’re made aware of how important they’ll be in the overall narrative, which is a little jarring at times. That said, the conclusion to the book is nail biting, tying the rest of the book together so well that it’s easy to overlook these minor faults.

I watched the film the morning after finishing the book, and it was a really interesting experience to do it that way, as it made me directly compare the two. The film is surprisingly faithful to the book in a few key respects – it swaps beautiful prose for gorgeous cinematography to maintain that crucial contrast of beauty and horror that made the book so powerful, and it’s completely unflinching in its depiction of even the most despicable acts of cruelty from the book.

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This is a good example of the style of cinematography in this film: a classically composed shot with a really gritty, unflinching aesthetic to pull you into the film’s world

The performances were near-uniformly amazing; Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender really nail down their characters, Lupita Nyong’o thoroughly deserved her Oscar for her outstanding portrayal of Patsey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor was finally given a role to much his considerable dramatic chops (after brilliant supporting roles in films like Serenity and Salt), grounding the film with an unswervingly brilliant performance as Solomon.

There were a few slip-ups though. For one thing, sudden Brad Pitt was extremely sudden, and I felt that the crucial role his character played in the book was both reduced and underdeveloped here. In fact, the whole ending felt a little rushed. The book took a whole chapter tracing Solomon’s attempted communication with the outside world and how it lead to his emancipation, which really built tension and gave the book a much more satisfying conclusion. The film ends quite suddenly by comparison, which didn’t work for me. That said, the end title cards played over the credits really effectively hammered home the injustice of Solomon’s life after the events of the film.

Ultimately, the book is better than the film in my opinion. That might be because I went into the film with raised expectations (given that it won Best Picture and has an astonishing score of 97/100 on Metacritic), but even factoring these things in, the book is a little stronger. I highly recommend both though – it’s a timely reminder of how dangerous it is to draw distinctions between different races, of the depths of suffering that “man’s inhumanity to man” can create, and the importance of remembering the sins of history so that we are able to avoid repeating our mistakes.

“Alas! I had not then learned the measure of “man’s inhumanity to man,” nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain”

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2 thoughts on “Twelve Years A Slave – A review of the book and film

  1. Wonderful review! I’ve had this book on my Kindle for a year now – something always stops me from reading it. I have no excuse to not read it now though. I’ll probably read the book first, like you did.

    Liked by 1 person

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