Here we are again looking at the movie tie-in edition of 12 Years a Slave, which shows actor Chiwetel Ejiofor running for his life as the slave Solomon Northup. The photo so beautifully communicates Northup’s excruciating fear that it was chosen as the “brand” for both movie and tie-in edition.
It’s okay with me that this specific scene isn’t in the movie (more about this later), but I wish the publisher had at least hinted on the cover that the original book is more than an extension of the movie experience.
To me, that’s the art of the movie tie-in, showing that print can sometimes be better, wilder and more adventurous, more escapist and engaging, more colorful and even more intimate and immediate than any movie on a screen.
A Pivotal Episode (Not in the Movie)
What’s in the book that doesn’t appear in the movie?
No motion picture can capture the entirety of a book, but in the case of 12 Years a Slave I was surprised to see a key passage omitted that occurs about 90 pages in. This occurs when Northup clashes for a second time with the vicious white carpenter, John Tibeats. The movie shows us the first conflict (Northup’s near-hanging) but leaves out this more riveting episode, when Tibeats comes after him with a hatchet, and Northup has no choice but to run for it.
Behind him Solomon hears Tibeats release the plantation’s dogs — each a “savage breed” of hound and pit bull “trained to attack a negro” and capable of running faster than a slave can run.
We’ve learned by now that the swamp is eerily silent, so it’s doubly terrifying for Northup to “hear [the bloodhounds] crashing and plunging through the palmettoes, their loud, eager yells making the whole swamp clamorous with the sound.”
The dogs are 80 feet behind him when Northup reaches the swamp, hoping they’ll lose his scent in the murky green water. “Most slaves are not allowed to learn the art of swimming,” he writes, which is why plantation owners used swamps to keep slaves from escaping. But Northup learned to swim as a child in the North and is relieved to feel his ankles, knees and chest sinking into the thick marsh water as he plows ahead.
But now the real danger begins. “Great slimy reptiles” loom out of the water everywhere — poisonous water moccasins slithering over every “log and bog,” and “alligators great and small, lying in the water or on pieces of floodwood,” inches away.
Northup has told us earlier that alligators are known to leap out of the swamp so fast that “swine, or unthinking slave children,” are seized right off the banks. Now in the murk with them he realizes that shouting and slapping the water startles the alligators enough so they “moved and plunged into the deepest places” away from him.
A Fast Learner
“Sometimes, however,” he writes, “I would come directly upon a monster before observing it” and have to jump away in the nick of time. This happens several times, and soon the always curious Northup notices why the alligator doesn’t simply twist in mid-leap and snap its jaws around his body before landing.
Alligators may lunge in a “straight forward” direction toward their prey, he learns, but out of the water, their bodies “do not possess the power of turning.” This gives Northup a fraction of a second to engage in a “crooked race” that allows him to “run a short way around, and in that manner shun them.”
What a great tip for the next time we’re stuck in an infested bayou! It’s typical of the way Northup’s curiosity enhances his experience for the reader that, right in the middle of one life-and-death scene after another, he pauses to explain in the most exquisite detail how life works for slaves in the South — how, for example, they learn to slice bacon with an ax (“slaves have no knife, much less a fork”), hunt ‘possum, survive whippings without infection (dab the lesions with melted tallow) and trap fish without a net or cage.
And so hour after hour, as the sun fades from the swamp, Northup plunges through the quagmire, one foot now shoeless and more exposed to water moccasins, clothes in tatters and body cut and swollen everywhere. The only sounds (after the barking and yelping have faded) seem to come from Northup’s own breathing and deliberate noise-making as he’s gradually swallowed into the giant, insatiable bog.
An Existential Moment
As midnight approaches, the swamp becomes “resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks,” and Northup, nearing death from exposure and exhaustion, suddenly realizes how far he’s come: “Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp.”
It’s an incredible existential moment. Here in what he learns later is Louisiana’s Great Pacoudrie Swamp — 30 or 40 miles of lethal marsh — Northup is no longer the powerless slave, the forgotten husband and father or the despised threat to white owners. He is rather the free man he knows himself to be, surviving adversity on his own terms and discovering a universe known only to himself.
This recognition seems to spark an even greater cacophony in the swamp. Suddenly “hundreds of thousands” of birds rise up all around him in the darkness, screeching and plunging and flapping their wings in such “clamor and confusion,” he writes, “that I was affrighted and appalled.”
Affrighted and appalled. Another joy for the reader is Northup’s easy flexibility with formal language. Reading this rich narrative reminds the modern reader that average people in the 19th century often demonstrated a better command of English than, say, many graduate students in the 21st. While it’s true, Northup’s style can verge on the ornate (“their garrulous throats poured forth multitudinous sounds”), he also reveals, in words such as “affrighted,” a vulnerability we might not see otherwise.
And so we readers become witness to that moment in the swamp that convinces Northup to survive at all costs — to turn back from “one of the wildest places on earth,” where death is certain, and make his way back to the questionable civilization of plantation life.
There he’ll do something else we don’t see in the movie: He’ll explore with other slaves every possible chance at insurrection and escape, including hideouts for escapees in the swamp. And, too, as the movie does show, he’ll wait for a white benefactor to rescue him legally (about a million-to-one chance), if he can only get word North.
The Movie’s Transcendent Scene
I don’t know why director Steve McQueen omitted the swamp episode in the movie — it could have been as thrilling as the cover photo promises — but I do want to give credit to one scene whose transcendence is so cinematic, it might not have similar impact in the book.
This occurs when Northup looks slowly around the plantation without appearing to react to it at all. I think it’s due to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s skill as an actor that he remains a nearly passive character in many scenes — since any reaction could get Solomon killed — yet somehow registers a mixture of emotions that range from heartbreaking acceptance to dogged resolution.
Then his gaze slows and stops right in front of the camera, so it seems as though Solomon Northup is looking directly into the eyes of the viewer. Surprisingly, we see in his face no judgment or accusation, no appeal, no recognition or salutation. It’s simply his humanity that comes across.
We don’t want to interpret the significance of this moment. Those eyes coming at us across a century and a half are too riveting for thought. Maybe we are the future audience that finally wants to look back. In any case, that gaze will follow us for a long time.
So this is the difference between the two narrative forms: The movie shows Solomon Northup as a compassionate and even heroic man who never gives up in his quest to return home. But the book reveals Northup to be a larger presence, a kind of Everyman who reflects our own hope for ourselves, an eternally free being whose slave’s body is soon to be ground to dust.
The Book’s Survival Story
The movie tie-in could also allude to the fact that 12 Years a Slave has its own million-to-one history. A nonfiction bestseller in 1853, Northup’s book was celebrated by abolitionists as “proof” that Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t lying about slave conditions in her fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, however, it disappeared for 75 years and would have been lost to obscurity if a 12-year-old white girl named Sue Eakin hadn’t discovered one dusty copy in the back of a plantation library in 1931.
Eakin went on to become a historian specializing in the antebellum South and devoted her life to publishing both “the first authenticated edition” of 12 Years a Slave in 1968 and an “enhanced edition” in 2007 at the age of 88. When Steve McQueen won an Oscar for the movie, he thanked Sue Eakin, who died in 2009, for her “life’s work preserving Solomon’s book.”
So this is not simply “the best written of all slave narratives,” as the text on the back of the book calls it. (By the way, could we dispense with the term “slave narrative” altogether? It’s just a dumpy label that academics use to take the sting out of hearing first-hand what it felt like to be owned, whipped, starved, bred like animals and worked to death in America, the Land of the Fr— I beg your pardon. Emotional overstatement in writing about slavery is one problem that Solomon Northup overcomes.)
The fact that 12 Years a Slave is now taught in schools, considered essential in libraries and celebrated as a gateway to other slaves’ autobiographies may explain why not just a few but more than 20 versions of the book are available today, some of which I’ve pictured throughout. It’s intriguing to see every publisher taking a shot at designs and illustrations that range in subject from hands in chains to Northup’s life-saving violin.
A Word about Dover Publications
With so many versions to choose from, I read the official movie tie-in from Penguin ($16) and the reprint from Dover Publications ($9.95).
Why the huge difference in price?
Dover has been reprinting books mostly in the public domain since 1941 and is famous for keeping costs down, sometimes charging just a couple of bucks for known and unknown classics.
I think the staff cuts cost by not paying royalties and by not resetting text — usually it appears they just photograph existing pages and slap on a new cover.
In the Dover edition of 12 Years a Slave, for example, you get a chance to appreciate that sense of lead type cranked up and ready for letterpress that Dover brings with many of its titles.
The old-fashioned font is a reminder that this story happened in a different world long ago. That’s why the writing is both eloquent and sometimes a little creaky.
Then, too, Dover doesn’t spend a lot of money redesigning the cover, even when a huge publicity campaign kicks in for the sure-to-win-an-Oscar movie.
The Big Challenge
Talking about movie tie-ins is another way to explore basic questions of publishing procedure that haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Even with the massive upheavals of electronic technology and corporate ownership in recent decades, publishing philosophy — the reason you publish a book, how you design it and what you can do for it — is eternal.
True, companies with strong links to Hollywood have taken over many mainstream houses since the ’70s. But their influence fades when it comes to the challenge facing people in publishing who determine the design and marketing of movie tie-ins.
Essentially there are two different doorways to enter:
Door #1: If you think publishing is part of the entertainment world, you’re going to use pictures of famous actors to sell the book as part of the movie experience, and leave it at that.
Door #2: If you think publishing is part of the book world, you’re going to use the movie photos to introduce delights inside the book that come only from reading.
Just a Sentence or Two on the Cover
In terms of Penguin’s tie-in of 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s knockout comment (from the Foreword) that the book is “as important as Anne Frank’s diary” has wisely been placed on the back cover. It’s important but kind of static — an example of telling but not showing readers the wonders inside. A boring quote from historian Ira Berlin’s Introduction refers to the book’s “sheer drama” but again without examples that might inspire us to open it up and start reading.
So what could these few sentences be? I’m terrible at succinct marketing phrases, but wouldn’t it be great to see personal reactions from young readers on the cover of subsequent editions?
Here are a few from Goodreads:
“Solomon Northup was BAD. ASS.” — Dorothea (5 stars)
“…. chilling, heart breaking, gut wrenching, atrocious and none of these words can aptly describe Solomon Northup’s experience as told in this memoir.” Angela (5 stars)
“The joy for me was the language used …. the text reminded me of the beautiful choice of words used by some of my favorite authors like Jane Austen.” — Michael (4 stars)
“One of the most revealing books about the life of a slave I’ve ever read. It was an odyssey that wrenched my heart. Many, many tears.” — Rosemari (5 stars)
Such heartfelt modern endorsements remind me that the art of the movie tie-in often involves just a few strategic words or sentences on the cover. In terms of what we want to do in publishing, which is to make reading full-length books as exciting and relevant as any other medium, choosing Door #2 can make all the difference.