In 1841, Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Twelve years later, Northup retells his accounts in his memoir Twelve Years A Slave. Director Steve McQueen adapted Northup’s memoir in a major motion picture of the same title; now in the race for multiple Academy Awards. Although the book and film share a biography, each uses different conventions of storytelling. There is an elegant tone in Northup’s first person narrative. A diplomatic tone is sustained throughout the memoir, allowing the piece to act as a political voice of 1853. McQueen’s compelling take on the story gives us a visual outlook on slavery. Mr. Solomon Northup’s memoir opens with a preface by white lawyer and legislator, David Wilson. His preface grants the book credibility by stating “Unbiased… by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup's life, as he received it from his lips (page XV).” Compared to many autobiographies issued today, a credible preface was not unheard of during 1853 when many slaves’ stories were being documented. Northup gives permission to the reader to perceive his story as truth or fable in his first chapter: “My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage (page 18).” The author trusts his readers to learn from his story. In conjuncture, the tonal attitude Mr. Northup conveys in his writing is well mannered and diplomatic. His words describe each sorrowful scene very vividly while still keeping conciliatory conversation. Solomon refers to the Christian God throughout the piece either “begging for mercy” or “asking for strength” relating to the white religion making his words much powerful (page 77). The author paints his situations with emotionally driven adjective and verbs such as “painfully”, “beating”, “naked”, and “energetically”:
“As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before… All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. (page 44)”
His report on every scene is simply envisioned through a thorough description of each moment.
In comparison, Steve McQueen’s motion picture graphically portrays Solomon’s accounts with brilliant cinematography and the heart-wrenching performances of brilliant actors. A scene that stuck hardest was the night scene in the slave shack with Edwin Epp (actor Michael Fassbender) and Patsey (actor Lupita Nyong'o). The framework during this scene exposes an uncomfortable rape between the characters; the scene is described as an “awkward rape”. In figure I, McQueen shares Patsey in a vulnerable state. Figure I.
The action descriptions in the screenplay are as follows: