’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. Yup, no thanks.

  2. This is an impressive article. It was very instructive. Good job.

    • Definitely agree there.

      I guess I don’t see the point in altering history sometimes if it makes no sense or adds zero drama compared to the actual truth.

      For instance, Argo. Great movie but I don’t know why they changed it from the British Ambassador hiding the Americans and made it the Canadian Ambassador instead. It really didn’t add any more tension than having it play out as it really did with the English taking them in when the mobs came after them.

      Those are the types of changes I don’t like, otherwise, I can understand if something needs to be different to add tension.

      • Well because in the true story about Argo my friend, it was I fact the Canadian Embassy that housed the Americans. It was the fact that they gave credit to the Americans for devising a plan to get them back to the USA, when that was a Canadian plan all along. Do some research before you post, even former President Carter was baffled by Argos lack of regard for the Canadian embassy in saving those Americans.

  3. Good article. It will, however, no doubt elicit even more criticism from our politically correct friends who believe we cannot/should not criticize a film, any film, about slavery. For those of you not in the know, read the comments under Sandy’s review of the movie.

  4. This is the reason I don’t hold films like Argo and Cpt Phillips as high as everyone else. I understand why specific changes are made but the subtle ones are the ones that make no sense. Captain Phillips was not a good guy at all and that is something that wasn’t even touched upon in the film. That is not to say the films aren’t very well made and do a great job all around. I just prefer the real story to be told. There is a couple films for me that haven’t followed the story like I wanted it to.

    • Its called HIStory in the making. This is exactly why things like this get distorted. There are whole Minor Degrees worth of information omitted from this country’s very short history

  5. I didn’t agree with your review Sandy, but I always enjoy reading yours.. regardless, great article!

    On the topic of adaptions.. we’re progressing into an era where being true to a novel is becoming less and less likely.

  6. A screen play is an original work or an adaptation.

    The definition of adaptation is – A composition that has been recast into a ‘NEW’ form.

    Perhaps the producers wanted John Ridley (An African American) to recast the story from a 21st century African Americans prospective on the slave trade. Perhaps, he was interested in debunking the the myths created by plantation epics like ‘Gone with the wind’ that slaves were happy. I enjoyed how McQueen showed slavery in a negative light, he displayed the institution for what is was – a despicable horror. The film was meant to alienate low brow types.

    • BectonD, thanks so much for your comment.

      I just saw “12 Years a Slave” and did NOT feel there was “too much” violence or that this was in any way “torture porn.” Among many other things, the movie made me feel that I had never seen slavery depicted in film in as true a light before. It’s the horror and revulsion you feel when watching the movie that is part of the point. That horror IS the film’s statement.

      I also think Sandy misses the point by talking about the “true reasons” we should never forget, and all the lessons this film supposedly missed out on teaching people. The film’s revelation is in seeing slavery through a slave’s (Northup’s) eyes and truly recognizing the institution as the living hell it was for millions of people. To me, Northup was a fully realized, complex character – and every act of violence in the film took us deeper into his experience.

    • i beg your pardon, but gone with the wind was not necessarily a myth of plantation life. the relationships between people tend to be complex. no, i’m not endorsing or excusing the enslavement that happened but there are slaves who stayed with families after the war was over and were even buried in family plots. there were black soldiers fighting on the confederate side. if you get the chance read the slave narratives taken by the federal writers’ project, i would encourage you to do so.

      it wasn’t la la land but not every owner was cruel although i realize it’s an unpopular truth. people seem to need to view things as all or nothing but reality has proven that most situations are never like that.

      • ‘Cruel’ is feeling positioning oneself as the ‘owner’ of another human being. Any degree of ‘kindness’ within that context is null and void …..and yes, even in
        situations of ‘kidnapping’, victims often become ‘attached’ to their captors…

  7. From what I’ve gathered there are about six instances of violence in the film. Is that too much in a film covering enslavement of a man in twelve years`? In the book there is a story about a slave boy who is eaten alive by dogs. Would that have made it too much or should it have been left out as it has been? The Paul Dano character had two altercations with Solomon; the one in the film, and one where he chased Solomon with an axe, trying to kill him. Should that have been included?

    Solomon also writes ““it is the literal, unvarnished truth, that the crack of the lash, and the shrieking of the slaves, can be heard from dark till bed time.” Would it have been torture porn to have SHOWN every lash ?

    It seems you wanted a dash of Amistad in this film. McQueen wasn’t interested in making a new Amistad where white characters argue in court room for hours. Some have asked for 10-15 minutes more with his family. Even some others have complained that his life before his enslavement is far too rosy.

    African American scholars and critics I’ve listened to don’t get the “it’s too violent” case. According to them the matter boils down to this misconception some people have about what slavery actually was like. It’s easier to accept and be horrified by Holocaust movies. It’s a thing “those Europeans” did. It’s much more difficult to confront the matters at home.

    • I wouldn’t sum up my problem with the film as “It’s too violent.” Rather, my biggest problem is it skimps on important details in between the violence, which I feel would’ve made the atrocities hit closer to home and, therefore, more difficult for audiences to confront (like what you’re talking about).

    • Simply put: excellent response. I was starting to think maybe some of the critism about him making the movie more brutal than the book for effect was justified, until you informed I and others who have not read the book, of only some of what was left out. This movies intent (and it more than succeeded) was to, in no uncertain terms, show the horror of slavery. Ther are plenty of other movies out there, based on true stories or not, that have taken artistic licsence to address some other aspect of slavery or had some other purpose. Rent those on DVD or view them on Netflix (Gone with the Wind seems to consistently get four stars from critics, past and present), but give this movie it’s due for doing something that has been long overdue: placing American slave owners and overseers where they belong right beside Nazis and SS men as persons who have perpetrated some of the most evil and in humane acts on their fellow men.

  8. I enjoyed the movie and thought that, while there were some larger lessons that could have been conveyed in the story, it did a pretty good job of hitting home the idea that above all the institution of slavery was one that was motivated by greed and sustained through violence. There were multiple instances in the film that spoke to the economic drivers behind slavery – the initial kidnapping, the inspection of the slaves, the multiple references to “property”, etc. The end of the film did allude to the systematic cementing of slavery into the nation’s political institutions when it explained the fate of Northup’s captors.

  9. Sandy, let it go. we get that the film makes you feel uncomfortable, we get that you don’t like it.
    let it go. you’re exposing yourself here.

  10. Hey Sandy. Thanks for this write up. I’m always interested in hearing where real life and screen adaptions part ways. We’re still in disagreement on the review but I respect your opinion and am looking forward to more reviews. Thanks again!

  11. Thanks for the comparison it’s always interesting to see the differences between the adaptation and the original source. Again I apologize for my initial upset comments on the review, I appreciate different opinions.

  12. If you are interested in the process of revisiting history. You can, for start, read this article: http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v5n1p123.html

    • This link to ihr posting has little relevance to the movie. Further, it should be noted that Organization of American Historians commissioned a study of IHR’s materials concluding the Journal of Historical Review was “nothing but a masquerade of scholarship.” Based on this I would be skeptical of anything on this site which frankly appears to be a perverse apology for Nazi Germany and Hitler.

  13. I saw 12 years of slave good movie I never knew I had ancestors for dkavery

  14. I agree completely with both of your articles about the film. As I was watching it, the words “torture porn” came to my mind several times as well. I understand that the violence was there for an important reason, however, I did not feel a strong emotional connection to the story. I wish that the story had been more developed, as you said, between the scenes with the violence.

  15. How can anyone not feel a strong emotional connection to this story? I read the book immediately before watching the movie and I concur that there are certain changes but none that detract from the most true story as a whole.

    I hope that this will be uncomfortable viewing for so many people. I confess I struggled to hold back the tears three separate times but I appreciate the inspiration to think and indeed reflect that despite their ‘scripture’ and feigned superiority the lowest and cruellest of beings is indeed the white man.

    • I also couldn’t connect. I just couldn’t suspend disbelief. It started with the idyllic life Northup supposedly lived in Saratoga, complete with the picture perfect family and upper middle class life style. Yet in actual fact he was just a fiddler and his wife a cook. It all seemed so Hollywood. Then there was a surprising lack of interaction among the slaves themselves in the film–despite the historical evidence of strong personal bonds that characterized slave communities–one of the reasons being sold off the plantation was such a catastrophe for any slave. I also found some of the scenes lacking in psychological truth–the parting of the mother from her children in the slave market should have been far more intense–and the actress involved seemed amateurish with her fake-seeming sobbing. I was disappointed in the film. It was interesting throughout–but lacked a feel of truth.

  16. I agree that the movie was extremely uncomfortable to watch and also that it *should* be…its about the most horrific events of our nation’s history. I openly cried during the movie and even afterwards. The tragedy of the story was made even more tragic for me by the fact that he’s considered ‘lucky’ to have been reunited with his family where so many thousands of others were never that ‘fortunate’. I still can’t shake the scene of the mother being separated from her children or a few where Patsy was abused forwards and backwards with no reprieve from her miserable subjugation. I wouldn’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ the movie but feel that its important to keep history’s message alive and never forget. I was, like some others, hoping for some scenes where the human spirit was kept afloat admist the horrors, but I acknowledge that that would be more for my own comfort and my own wanting to believe that their spirit was alive during the most desperate of moments.
    I disagree with Ogg’s statement that “the lowest and cruelest of beings is indeed the white man”. Just as no man should classify himself as being superior to another, neither should a man classify another as ‘lower’.

    • I support each and every word you say Jennifer regarding the movie (I urge you to read the book).
      I am allowed to state my loathing of the white man though, being white english and an anti-theist it’s almost expected of us :)

      • …of me I meant :)

    • I can see you “got into it,” whereas I didn’t. Sure, some scenes were shocking. The film’s brutality put me off, but I might have accepted it had I believed in the depiction as fundamentally honest. Something was off–and I’m trying to figure it out. I read the mostly rave reviews. I wanted to be deeply moved as so many are. But despite its length the movie still seemed sketchy and superficial to me.

  17. First off, thank you for doing a side-by-side analysis of the movie and the book. I just watched the movie and am about half-way through the book right now. I tend to agree with Sara and many of the other comments made above about the appropriateness of the violence. The movie did not seem to me to be “torment porn”, in fact the most interesting aspect of seeing all the naked bodies and some sexual situations is how incredibly unsexy it all was. As difficult as it was to watch, and only possible through deep weeping, I am grateful that such a movie was made because there is nothing more harmful to the soul than an attempt to conceal one’s pain. I actually walked away from the movie with a sense of healing. I do not feel abused. I feel loved. I feel empowered. I feel like reaching down inside myself and loving every human being much more than I ever did before – love until it hurts – love until I must lay down my life for my fellow human. I think the message I got is that the most basic action of a truly free person is to truly love. And yes, slave owners and the slaves sometimes loved each other – as the movie does show – but slavery twists that up into something less than true unflinching unconditional love. In general I am not disappointed with the slight variations in the comparisons between film and book, since no film is exactly the book, but I do agree with you that it might have been nice to see more of Solomon’s prayers to God Almighty for strength and courage, as is expressed in the book. I also am encouraged in the book how often he thanked God that he never spilled anyone’s blood as he believes that all human life is sacred; I think this might have been something that the movie could have said more about, especially in light of the planned Amistad-like revolt that never happened. All in all, I am happy with the movie and the book.

  18. I believe the film did outline the subtle areas of Slavery even though it did not match the book to the letter. If Platt was in the sun for an extended time or half hanged the point was made about him being more valuable alive than dead and they also had a scene where he the Epps were running around the pig pen when Epps was drunk as well as Epps wife sending Platt on trips to the store etc. I felt though the acting that Epps wife had a certain amount of respect for Platt in a strange way. I do agree that the irony of the the original Slave owner of Northup’s father going though the efforts and issues to get Platt out of Slavery would have a better ending. If you watch the movie again notice the acting. I belive it matches the spirit of book closer than you outlined. Kind regards

  19. There were little matters that I found puzzling. The idea that Northup ate supper inside a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel and slept in a room in the same area as white patrons struck a very false note with me. Northup never indicated where in the hotel he ate supper. And he made it clear that he ended up with a room in the back of the hotel. He did not sleep in the same area as the white guests.

    And could someone explain what kind of ship (or boat) conveyed Northup to Louisiana?

  20. I am still trying to decide whether to see the film, and your comments and comparisons have been very helpful in that regard. I am in the process of re-reading Northup’s book, and I was hoping that this new film would improve on the older film version with which I am very familiar. I have been very disappointed that, thus far, I have seen no reference to the earlier film, HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE, in any of the reviews I have read. I believe that it is helpful not only to compare the new film with the book, but also the new film with the old film. From what you have written, it appears that the new film version sticks closer to the book than the older version, but that the older version provides a clearer perspective on the institution of slavery than the new. I have also been disappointed that no review that I have read thus far makes the point that Northup’s book provides one of the most vivid accounts of slavery on a large plantation in the Deep South from the point of view of a slave, better than any other slave narrative that I am aware of. It is not clear to me how well this new film measures up on that score.

  21. Great article, but it still does not excuse the savagery of slavery. In fact, I know the author of this article is not making any excuses, but something’s did occur, I believe they may have happen and maybe Solomon forgot to mention them in his book. Let’s not forget that slave owners and slavery were atrocities to the human race, but what’s even more disgusting is the fact there are people who still believe America should still be ran the same way! Author of this article please forgive me, but I tend to rant.

  22. Just saw the movie and then read the book. Found that the movie was very close to the book in basic story and a number of incidents, including close use of dialogue from the book, in the case of Bass, the Canadian carpenter, for example.

    The film very good in most respects but awkward, somewhat cold, distant, despite the depiction of abuse and despair. The language needed to be less formal – was too close to the book, which followed some weird 19th century idea of formality for written language.

    Soloman’s character came through, but played too simple, one-dimensional. Brutal owners played mire effectively.

    Plantation slavery was brutal – could have been shown in the film as much closer even to the brutalities suffered, but audiences are spared the worst of such a world. What we got in this film was an idea of the violence and also the commerce of slavery.

  23. Do you really expect a movie,an entertainment device to equal a memoir , and educational device. You should either produce a movie that conveys your need for academic detail or start a book circle to discuss the nuances of the book. Their is no way a movie can convey all the details you describe without becoming pedantic, dry and arcane. As one writer said the fact that a slave narrative is on the big screen is pretty big and that half the horror was shown. If it had of been shown 50 years ago maybe America racial conundrum would be on the way to solution.

  24. I am watching the DVD screener of this movie at this very moment, and your first assertion — that the “mortgage” was not mentioned in the movie — is patently false.
    This is CLEARLY explained by not one but two characters.

    I only mention this for anyone, like me, who stumbled upon this site via random google search.

    Either the writer of this piece is intentionally publishing things about the movie they know to be false, or they simply aren’t very perceptive / bright.

    • “In the film, however, the highlight of this event is the 1-2 minutes of sickening footage that shows Solomon half-hanging to death.”

      I didn’t say the mortgage wasn’t mentioned. My point was that the image of Solomon half-hanging is what most people will end up taking away from this scene, as opposed to a more subtle and insightful commentary on how slavery was a sustainable (yet horrifying) institution. In my review, I further discussed how there were several intriguing elements (side characters, plot points) that begin to shed more light on the complexities of American Slavery, but that I feel the film hurries through them in order to place more emphasis on the sheer display of misery.

      • I have never seen a sheer display of misery in a film depicting slavery to date. That is the overwhelming detail the director did not miss.

  25. If you want to (under-)indulge in showing the ugliness of slavery go watch Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind again.

    • I preferred (and read) the novel 12 Years a Slave – which shows even more of the ugliness of slavery but also the necessary complex emotional insight and historical context to make the suffering meaningful – to the film (though the latter has its strengths too). I thought that was made clear by the fact that I wrote this article.

  26. The examples given about the differences between the book and movie are unconvincing. The horror depicted was not so much the actual beatings and killings that were inflicted on slaves, but the fact that there was nothing to stop the whims of the white authorities to do this to any slave at any time. For example, the white carpenter who because he lost an argument to Solomon ordered him to publicly strip and suffer a beating. I haven’t seen that happen at work for years.

    As far as Gone With The Wind. If people think the chivalrous South with happy slaves, and the greedy rapacious North, is the take-awsy from the Civil War, then perhaps we need to see a big-budget movie about a loving family in Germany 1945, who are inconvenienced when the American troops break into their house and steal their bratwursts.

  27. I have to agree with Sandy about how the movie did not allow the viewer to gain an understanding of some of the emotional insight that Solomon expressed in the book. When you understand what he was thinking and how he felt during certain situations (as detailed in the book) you get a better feel for what it was like for someone of his status to go through such a terrible ordeal. My wife and I both were upset and disappointed at the film. We both read the book before seeing the film and had very high expectations especially since this film has been nominated for so many awards. To us it was boring honestly. McQueen deviated too often and changed facts unnecessarily. But I think the mistake was trying to tell Solomon’s story in a two hour film. It should be a mini-series so that the viewer can get the whole picture and not some chopped up version of it.

  28. I liked the movie. But like this article illuminates, I wish there had been a few less beatings and more facts on how this shame in American history was perpetrated for so long. I was also taken back by the extreme dichotomy of our hero’s seemingly perfect life in the north in 1841. A little more back story on how he was, at that point in time, so integrated into his community, so well educated and so obviously fairly well off would have been appreciated. This seems really unique at that time frame. Surely there were blacks less well known and “easier prey” within a day’s ride to the Mason-Dixon line? I now must do more reading to quench my curiosity.

  29. ["Surely there were blacks less well known and “easier prey” within a day’s ride to the Mason-Dixon line? I now must do more reading to quench my curiosity."]

    Solomon Northup wasn’t even known until his memoirs about his twelve years in slavery was published in 1853. And blacks were kidnapped from all over the North, not just those who lived near the Mason-Dixon line.

    ["A little more back story on how he was, at that point in time, so integrated into his community, so well educated and so obviously fairly well off would have been appreciated."]

    Why would you need a back story on his education and position in the Saratoga neighborhood?

    ["I also couldn’t connect. I just couldn’t suspend disbelief. It started with the idyllic life Northup supposedly lived in Saratoga, complete with the picture perfect family and upper middle class life style. Yet in actual fact he was just a fiddler and his wife a cook. It all seemed so Hollywood."]

    The movie made it clear that his wife left their Saratoga home for two weeks to earn extra money as a cook. You were paying attention . . . right?