’12 Years a Slave’: The Movie vs. The True Story

Published 1 year ago by , Updated November 4th, 2013 at 5:32 pm,

12 years slave movie true story 12 Years a Slave: The Movie vs. The True Story

There’s no doubt that Oscar nominations (and possibly some wins) lie ahead for director Steven McQueen’s acclaimed drama, 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup, which reveals what happened after Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free black man living in New York in pre-Civil War America – was kidnapped and sold into slavery, before he was able to regain his freedom more than a decade later.

If you’ve read my review, then you’re aware that I’m more lukewarm on the 12 Years a Slave film than many other critics and moviegoers – many of whom have proclaimed that McQueen’s adaptation is a masterpiece (or, if not quite that perfect, the next best thing). My overriding complaint about the film is that it’s an unflinching look at the atrocities committed by American slave owners – but not so much a movie that sheds additional light on how this (as the euphemism goes) “peculiar institution” worked – and, therefore, feels a bit like “‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”

 12 Years a Slave: The Movie vs. The True Story

Question is, does Northup’s original memoir offer that kind of insight on American slavery? Or does it foremost strive to document the traumatizing events that Solomon bore witness to, even as he struggled to keep himself alive (like the 2013 film adaptation)? Are the intents of movie and memoir one and the same  - or vastly different?

It almost goes without saying that you have to allow room for some creative leeway and exaggeration/changes for dramatic effect – something I addressed last year with an examination of the truth vs. fiction in Argo – but my argument here is that those difference between 12 Years a Slave the book and the movie add up in a way that shouldn’t be overlooked.


NEXT: The Book vs. The Movie [SPOILERS]

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  1. I know this is five months old, but I just saw the movie and wanted to tell you that I heartily agree with you’re estimate of the important things left out. However, I would like to add two more to the list.

    1) The film completely expunged any reference to Solomon as a driver, which was the capacity in which he served Epps.

    2) The film also entirely ignored the slave community, pretended it didn’t exist. Frankly, for all the hardship, I feel the film did itself a disservice by cutting out any notion of the slaves having an existence outside their work.

  2. While I liked the movie a lot, the book was wonderful! It gave me goose bumps in three places and made me cry in two. It is possibly the best book I have ever read (and I am a big reader) and it is definitely the best autobiography I have ever read, and that includes Ann Frank’s and Nelson Mandela’s.

  3. Solomon Northup’s 12 years a slave is a compelling story about a kidnapped freeman sold into slavery. As an educator I do not have lots of time on my hands except in the summer months. It has been a pleasure reading the novel before embarking on the journey of watching the film; that has been raved about for months. To my dismay, the film was somewhat disappointing. In regards to allowing the true story to come alive. Often times readers are let down, because the imaginations that we portray in our minds while reading books does not amount to what producers…produce. Don’t get me wrong, 12 years a slave as a movie was portrayed somewhat decent; if I had not yet read the autobiography. There were a lot of details that were misplaced in the movie; that really illustrates to the reader the intensity of what slavery really was…and what it still is. Unfortunately, to individuals who still suffer from the consequences in present day 2014. I would have loved to see the Christmas holidays that were written about in his autobiography; to depict other perspectives of the daily life of a slave. Also many key details that climaxed to the retrieval of Northup’s freedom was missing. Unfortunately, this film is another missed target in regards to a reader vs. a movie goer. With all of that said and done; whether it be a missed target or not…the story of Solomon Northup has been brought back to life, and should be passed down from generation to generation. In the efforts of not allowing history to repeat itself in the same form. Best Regards!

  4. The irony is that hollywood stars like Brad Pitt are the new slave masters, hiring illegal aliens slave labor wages to tend their kids, cook, clean their plantation like giant mansions. Not much has changed except the color of the slaves.