The power of the written word

12 years a Slave Solomon NorthupContinuing my January theme of film adaptations of novels, I decided to write about one such example that has captured my attention this week – the story that lies behind 12 Years A Slave, the recently released Oscar favourite directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped in New York in 1841 and sold into slavery, taken to work on plantations in Louisiana. The film is based on the 1853 memoir written by Northup, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives that was a bestseller when published.

I haven’t yet seen the film, but it is being praised for the fact that it does not shy away from some of the more shocking atrocities of slavery – something many other Hollywood adaptations have been guilty of in the past. The source material is a detailed and lengthy account of a shameful chapter in a nation’s history, and without such words being written down at the time, it might be easy, now, to forget or ignore the fact that these things ever happened.

“So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!” Northup describing the aftermath of his kidnap, being transported to New Orleans to be sold, evoking the hypocrisy of the “free” nation in which he lived.
am I not a manThe written record of history is, of course, always a thorny subject – how are we to fully believe the truth behind the words? Northup was writing an account of his own life, but then there are the writers of fiction, who have their own role to play in the sometimes distortion of the real facts. When novels, whether written today as historical fiction or written by authors as a commentary on the time in which they lived, are taken by the film industry, they are often adapted in an even more sensational way, causing more misconceptions. Fact and fiction become interchangeable in the eyes of the modern audience. But this isn’t just a criticism aimed at current writers and directors – as Alexandre Dumas said of his fictional work based set in 17th Century France and published in the 1840s and 50s, “True, I have raped history, but it has produced some beautiful offspring.”  Incidentally, Dumas’s novels have been adapted for the screen more than 100 times, with The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo being particular favourites.

It seems, however, that Northup’s memoir does include some balance – he writes that not all slave owners were so depraved as the ones he encountered, and even the ones that were were victims themselves of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. As highlighted in this Guardian article:

Chattel slavery, Northup writes, “brutalised” master and slave alike; this is why slave-owners behaved so monstrously, even against their best financial interests (a dead slave, after all, was lost money). Surrounded by appalling human suffering on a daily basis, slave-owners became inured and desensitised to it, “brutified and reckless of human life”. Northup goes further, declaring: “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.” These people were not inherently evil; rather, “the influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit”.

It’s amazing how the power of the written word can continue to captivate long after the pen was first put to paper.

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