"Twelve Years a Slave": Dissimilarities Between The Book and Film

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 8992 |

Pages: 20|

45 min read

Published: Mar 24, 2023

Words: 8992|Pages: 20|45 min read

Published: Mar 24, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Brief History of Slavery
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Analysis
  5. Early life
  6. Kidnapping
  7. Burch and the Journey to the South
  8. Beginning of Life as a Slave
  9. Life under Edwin Epps
  10. Mr. Bass
  11. Conclusion

Brief History of Slavery

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘slavery’ as ‘a person who is legally owned by another person or entity and is forced to work or obey them’. It is a most appalling condition a human being can find himself in, where the right of liberty, freedom etc. are denied by the society and is viewed as property that can be owned. This heinous activity has been a part of many societies and culture from the earliest of civilizations to until the 20th century. For almost the entirety of the history of human civilization, slavery was legal, widely practiced and a flourishing business. In many societies, the status of a slave is placed lower than that of a pet cat or pet dog. Even to those who are fascinated by history, slavery to them is a story that is full of cruelty and tragedy, a feature of society that cannot be repeated again.

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It is difficult to completely ascertain from which period of time or civilization, slavery have risen as a business practice, as slavery is believed to be existent from the cradles of human society, and preludes recorded or written history. The ‘Code of Hammurabi’, one of the oldest written architecture written during 18th century BCE in the Mesopotamian civilization, has a code dedicated to slavery, establishing it as an established institution. Slavery then can be traced in Egyptian civilization, Persian civilization etc. Unlike other ancient civilization where the basis of foundation was the fertility of land and availability of water, the Roman Civilization was formed due to flourishing slave trading business. This continued through to the middle ages. The campaigns of Emperor Charlemagne enabled large number of people to captured and sold as slave to the highest bidder. This popularized slave trading in the Europe which gradually spread to Asia, particularly the middle-east. The crusades also played a part in this, where the victors captured and enslaved people of those of vanquished.

Slavery in America began after the discovery of Americas and establishment of colony during the late 15th century and early 16th century. It was especially popular in the Caribbean and Spanish America. Slavery in the current United States of America can be traced to August, 1619, when 20 Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. The records of ‘Royal African Slave Company’ tell us that in the 17th century slave trading was a very lucrative business in Americas. For the greed of much profit, many Africans were kidnapped, captured and forcefully sent over the Atlantic. The journey was of such harshness that many failed even to survive the journey. It is estimated that 10 million to 20 million Africans were captured for the purposes of selling as a slave in the Americas. Slavery in the United States seemed to be of another breed. Although slavery was prominent in other parts of the world, the Europe, Asia and Africa witnessed slaves from all race and culture due to wars being so frequent in those parts of the world. In the United States, only Africans were slave as they were captured and forcefully migrated, the status of slave had been institutionalized as a racial caste associated with African ancestry.

Slavery is a dehumanizing and brutal practice that has existed throughout human history. From ancient civilizations to the 20th century, slavery was legal and widely practiced. Many societies viewed slaves as property and denied them the rights of liberty and freedom. Although it is difficult to determine the exact period or civilization where slavery originated, it can be traced back to the earliest civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Roman civilization, which was founded on the flourishing slave trading business, popularized slave trading in Europe and Asia. The discovery of the Americas and the establishment of colonies led to the introduction of slavery in the New World, and it quickly became a lucrative business. Millions of Africans were captured and forcefully migrated to the Americas to be sold as slaves. The United States institutionalized slavery as a racial caste associated with African ancestry.

The practice of slavery has left a lasting impact on the world, from the exploitation of millions of human beings to the social, economic, and political consequences that continue to this day. Slavery has left a legacy of inequality and discrimination, and its effects are still felt in many parts of the world. It is important to remember the atrocities of slavery and to work towards building a more just and equitable society. By acknowledging the history of slavery, we can begin to address the systemic inequalities that continue to exist in our world today.


The main aim of this research paper is to identify the dissimilarities between the book ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ written by Solomon Northup, published in 1853 and the film adaptation of the book ‘12 Years a Slave’ released in 2013 and directed by directed by Steve McQueen. For the purposes of this study, the book and the film of aforementioned names have been thoroughly studied and observed. The book is edited by David Wilson, to whom Solomon Northup narrates his life history. The book contains detailed events of Solomon Northup’s life experiences and also his knowledge, views and understanding of the cause and effect of these events. The film although revolves around Solomon Northup, failed to preview all of these events and as, has been produced for the purposes of profit, is dramatized and edited, which failed to fully apprehend the wisdom of Solomon Northup, which can be accomplished by reading the book. The film however accurately previewed the gruesome conditions and treatments received by the slaves in the United States of America.


A time when the abolitionist movement was growing in the United States of America, “Twelve Years a Slave” a memoir of Solomon Northup was able garner support for the movement. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-seller ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published the previous year (1852) was influential in the United States and Great Britain, energizing anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the American South. The book was a key in the growth of the abolitionist movement but was a work of fiction. Solomon Northup’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ provided actual facts about the harsh life of slaves and consolidated that slave conditions pictured in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ were accurate albeit it being a work of fiction. In fact on her rebuttal, ‘A key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, Harriet Beecher Stowe cites ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ about the accuracy of her work. Moreover, Solomon Northup dedicated his book to Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 1960’s, two historians, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon separately researched and retraced Solomon Northup’s accounts and coedited a historically annotated version and ascertained that Solomon Northup narrative was indeed true and accurate.

In those times, many freed and escaped slave’s account was being published. Solomon Northup was unique in those regards. He was the only one who was born a free man, then kidnaped into slavery and later again freed. That is why Solomon Northup not only was able to describe the living conditions and treatments of the slave but also was able to compare between the lives as a freeman and a slave. Also he shared his perspective as a freeman and as an African American on the society that legalizes slavery.


The book ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ as narrated by Solomon Northup, is divided into twenty-two chapters. Each chapter is dedicated to different events in the life of Solomon. The book also contains Solomon philosophies and understandings that characterize Solomon’s wisdom and literacy. The movie is of more than two hours long and is edited to so that the most important aspects of the book can be filmed and shown to the audience. That is why much dissimilarity can be noticed between the book and the movie. This paper is dedicated to identify those differences. The paper will also explain why the absence of some events in film, made it difficult for the audience to apprehend Solomon’s hardships and wisdom which otherwise can be achieved by reading the book. It is important to note that the book as is written after narration is in first person. The movie revolves around Solomon as the main character. That is why less importance was paid to other characters in the film even to those who played an important role in the life Solomon Northup.

Early life

The first chapter of the book is committed to the Solomon life before the kidnapping. Solomon provides a brief history of his ancestry and father’s life. It encompasses how Solomon Northup was born as a freeman. Solomon’s father, Mintus Northup was actually born and raised as slave but was emancipated by the will of his owner on his death. Northup was actually the family name of the owner; slaves were required to adopt the name of their owner. Mintus Northup is responsible for the education of Solomon and also the growth of strong character and resonance of Solomon of which we can learn in the book and the film. Solomon also learns playing the violin from his youthful years.

The chapter also includes Solomon’s marriage life, which is of utmost importance. It is hard to put down in words the love and affection Solomon feels towards his family from whom he was separated for twelve long years. These feelings for his family enabled Solomon to endure his years of slavery and live on so that he can see his family again. Solomon married Anne Hampton after the death of his father and entered into professional life. Solomon was engaged in several professions in his life which developed his skills. These skills were particularly important and useful for Solomon during his slave years as they helped Solomon to his owner’s favor and earn few coins. Solomon attained good navigation and carpentry skills, along with his ability to flabbergast his audience with the violin, made Solomon very desirable as a slave. During his time as a navigation business holder, Solomon was able to visit several places in Canada. This information is very important as they played a very important part in the freeing of Solomon. Solomon and his wife later moved on to Saratoga and both were engaged in several professions. In Saratoga, Solomon and his wife is acquainted with Mr. Cephas Parker and Mr. William Perry, owners of own stores. These gentlemen were the recipient of the letter that was written on behalf of Solomon. Solomon also narrates his meeting with slaves accompanying their master from the South, and his conversation and dealings with these slaves. Solomon and his wife lived in Saratoga till the kidnapping of Solomon in 1841.

The movie provides a very short demonstration of Solomon’s early life. They completely ignore Solomon’s father and on how he became a freeman. By demonstrating Solomon as an independent person, the movie is dependent on the viewer’s wisdom that Solomon was able to acquire his education, various skills and character because he was independent. They however introduce Mr. Parker. Also the movie shows Solomon as a father of two children, where as a matter of fact Solomon fathered three children; two girls, and a boy who is the youngest. Margaret and Alonzo were with their aunt and Elizabeth was with her mother when Solomon was kidnapped. These dissimilarities are however very negligible in terms of the book and the film.


The second chapter of the book recounts Solomon’s kidnapping and the preceding events that led to it. While his wife and children were away for good number of days, Solomon was introduced to two unknown gentlemen, Merill Brown and Abram Hamilton. These gentlemen were in the circus, which was presently in Washington. They offered Solomon employment as a violin player and handsome payment, which tempted Solomon into immediately accepted it. Solomon was to accompany them to New York, and perform with these gentlemen on the way. He was to return to Saratoga after they reached New York. Solomon did not inform this to his wife thinking his journey will be brief and left with them. On reaching New York, Mr. Brown and Mr. Hamilton requested and flattered Solomon on continuing to Washington with them, which prompted Solomon on agreeing to it. At this point Solomon narrates about one of their performances and the process of how he acquired free papers from the custom house.

Merill Brown, Abram Hamilton and Solomon Northup reached Washington before the recently late President William Henry Harrison’s funeral. Solomon stayed with them for a day, enjoying the parade for the late president. In the afternoon, Solomon’s companions were indulged into drinking, and insisted Solomon to take some. At this point of his narration, Solomon strongly remarked that he did not become intoxicated by this. After this Solomon’s health began to deteriorate. As night progresses, Solomon start to lose his senses but for some time was able to grasp his surroundings. He remembered two or three people telling him he needs to see a physician and then went with them with his health and senses still getting worse. When Solomon woke up, he found himself shackled. He has been kidnapped.

In the film, Solomon is introduced to Merill Brown and Abram Hamilton by a Mr. Moon, and they offered Solomon to accompany them to Washington, with the next scene transcribing to the trio arriving in Washington and having dinner. In the narration, Solomon mentions that he is unable to recall the person who introduced him to Mr. Brown and Mr. Hamilton, but he first met them near a tavern kept by a Mr. Moon. Also they at first offered Solomon to accompany them as far as New York. The film also ignores the journey and trio’s performances on the road. One major contrast between the book and the movie is that in the movie Solomon is seen to get drunk by indulging wine with Mr. Brown and Mr. Hamilton, vomiting in a dark alley and then being put to bed by his employers. In the memoir, however, Solomon strongly suggested he did not get drunk but was poisoned, with his symptoms clearly matching that of one. He also recollected that he was called from his room to be taken to a physician which is not seen in the movie.

Burch and the Journey to the South

Solomon Northup now was a prisoner in a slave pen in Washington, which astonishes Solomon greatly; a slave pen established in the very heart of the capitol. Solomon also gives a very accurate description of the slave pen. This particular slave pen belong to James H. Burch, a man Solomon Northup blames entirely for his misery that followed in the next decade of his life. According to Solomon, no man could be equal with Burch in terms of cruelty. That is why the description given by Solomon in his narration is slightly biased, with Solomon quoting ‘Burch whose whole appearance was sinister and repugnant.’ Solomon though may not have been very wrong about Burch. At their first meeting Burch completely dominated Solomon in such a way that Solomon did not reveal his identity as a freeman to anyone for about twelve years. Burch tortured Solomon with two slave torturing instruments: paddle and cat-o’-nine tails. Burch at first proceeded to beat Solomon with the paddle. When Solomon still claimed his status as a freeman, the beating would be instantly resumed more energetically than ever. This continued till the paddle broke. Burch then continued to torture Solomon with the cat-o’-nine tails, which unbelievably was more painful than the paddle. Burch persisted with the torture until Solomon was rendered completely speechless in pain. Solomon was heartbroken.

As Solomon recovered from his injuries sustained during the whipping, he acquainted with several other slaves. They were Clemens Ray, John Williams and a child Randall. Randall’s mother Eliza is another interesting character. She, along with her seven year old daughter, Emily joined Randall after two weeks, the day before they were moved. Eliza was a slave of a man Elisha Berry. But the man treated Eliza as his wife and promised Eliza her freedom on his death. But the daughter of Elisha Berry was jealous of Eliza and tricked her into slavery upon the death of Elisha Berry. She did not even think of her step-sister Emily and sold her too.

The day before Solomon and other slaves’ journey begins; John Williams was redeemed by his master. They were moved in the dark of the night so as to not arouse any suspicion. They were handcuffed and then forced to walk across Washington, reaching a steamboat and their journey to the south began. They at first went to Virginia and stayed in a slave pen owned by Mr. Goodin. Solomon accidently slipped the information he originated from New York to Mr. Goodin who was surprised to learn that information. This prompted Burch to threaten Solomon very gravely promising to kill him if he ever said anything to anyone about his previous life.

Solomon was chained with a man called Roberts, who like Solomon was a freeman but was tricked into slavery. Solomon also met with other slaves in Mr. Goodin’s slave pen. The next morning, Clemens Ray was informed he would not travel south with them but instead will return to Washington. Solomon later learned after being freed that Clemens Ray escaped and on his way to Canada stayed with Solomon’s brother-in-law stating his meeting with Solomon. The slaves were then put into a brig, the number of slaves being forty.

On their journey by the brig, Solomon meets other slaves, most notably Arthur. He was a freeman like Solomon and Roberts, but was also kidnapped. Solomon, Roberts and Arthur began to plan a mutiny. They gave much thought to their plan and took some precautionary actions to increase their success rate. This plot however failed as Roberts became ill and was confirmed that he was suffering from smallpox. Roberts ultimately died soon after. Solomon, downhearted, then met with a sailor called Manning, who promised to write a letter on Solomon’s behalf to Sandy Hill. The letter did reach its destination but as lacked the information of his whereabouts, failed to free Solomon. On reaching New Orleans, two men, acquaintances of Arthur came to free him. Solomon, albeit happy for Arthur, wondered whether he will ever see his family again with great sadness.

In the movie, Burch only tortures Solomon with the paddle. The language spoken by Burch is not vulgar that has been narrated by Solomon. Solomon and the others from William slave pen are driven in a carriage to the steam boat as is seen in the movie, but in reality they walked in chains to the steamboat. Major dissimilarity can be seen about the journey. The movie only covers their journey on the steamboat showing they reach New Orleans on it. The picture also ignores most of the journey and other characters encountered by Solomon, for example the journey Solomon and Clemens Ray meet Roberts during their journey in the steam boat. The trio plans to mutiny and takeover the brig so that they can attain freedom, with Roberts instigating passion and Clemens who is afraid of the consequences on failure. In one night, a sailor comes down and takes Eliza with him. Roberts attempted to stop this halted the sailor, who without hesitation stabbed Roberts, killing him. Clemens Ray was not part of the brig journey narrated by Solomon having troubled back with Burch. Also, Arthur and Manning are not introduced, two men who to Solomon are dear friends of him. Solomon, Arthur and Roberts also take some actions to carefully plan their mutiny which also was not in the film. Another difference is the cause of death of Roberts. Roberts was stabbed according to film but in the memoir it is mentioned he died of smallpox. This difference also initiates another one, which is discussed later in this article. Having no mention of Arthur, it is portrayed that Clemens Ray is claimed by the owner as having been previously kidnapped, instead of Arthur being freed.

Beginning of Life as a Slave

Solomon is collected by Mr. Theophilus Freeman. He calls Solomon by the name of Platt, threatening Solomon with harsh actions if he ever failed to response to the name Platt. In New Orleans as steps were taken to sell the slaves, Randall was sold to by a planter, thus separating him from his mother. Sorrowful scenery is recounted by Solomon when Eliza was separated from her child. After that Eliza, Emily and Solomon became sick and were admitted to the hospital. They were at the hospital for more than two weeks. Solomon recalled that he was extremely sick almost near at death’s door. On their recovery and return to the slave pen, Solomon and Eliza were sold to Mr. Ford. As Eliza was being sold, another heartfelt scene occurred as Eliza clutched Emily in her chest, saying she would not leave without her. For Solomon, even in his pending slavery, it was the one of the saddest thing he saw in his life, how a mother is pleads to be not separated from her child. However, the struggle of Eliza proved fruitless. She and Solomon and another slave called Harry were sold to William Ford to Great Pine Woods, Louisiana. Solomon was employed in a lumber mill. For Solomon, he never saw a more kind and benevolent man than his first owner. That is why Solomon noted that a slave who loves his master will work harder than the slave who is drive by fear. According to Solomon, Mr. Ford was loved by his slaves, and read the Bible to his slaves every Sunday and encouraged the slaves that took interest in religion. Looking back, Solomon suggested that if Mr. Ford grew in a different society where the inherent wrong of slavery did not fall into deaf ears and blindness, he would not have been a slave owner. Solomon too grew to care for Mr. Ford, so much so that he wanted to work harder and bring profit to his owner. His idea of using the creek to transport wood was very successful. Solomon relates this to his experience as a navigator and carpenter. Solomon also describes his meeting and interactions with Indians.

After a while, Mr. Ford, to settle a debt, sold Solomon to a carpenter called John M. Tibeats. Solomon at that point achieved some reputation as a carpenter among the slave owners, which consequently made John M. Tibeats to settle for Solomon. Solomon also mentions that as his price was higher than the debt, Mr. Ford still holds a debt over Solomon. Solomon’s new owner was completely opposite of his previous one. As stated by Solomon, it was his grave misfortune to have met with John M. Tibeats. He was a quick-tempered and spiteful man and saw slaves as no more than a dog. At first they went to Mr. Ford’s plantation to complete some unfinished work. There Solomon reacquainted with Eliza and met with the overseer of Mr. Ford, Mr. Chapin. Under the new owner, Solomon worked from earliest of light to night, and very hard but was never able to satisfy his owner. One day Solomon was given a task by his owner. Solomon completed it as instructed. However, Tibeats was not satisfied, and going into a fit proceeded to whip Solomon. This instance Solomon became very angry having done no wrong. Blinded by rage he used his reflex and strength to overpower his owner and started to whip Tibeats. After striking many blows, Solomon stopped and just then Mr. Chapin appeared. Mr. Chapin insisted Solomon did not make any mistake. In response, Tibeats swore revenge and walked away. The overseer insisted Solomon not to run.

Solomon then fell into utmost despair and hopelessness. He had committed the most sinful crimes that can be committed in the state of Louisiana, striking a white man despite being black. This feeling of regret was so strong that Solomon remained stationary for at least an hour. Tibeats returned with two other companions. They tied Solomon and ensued to hang him. As Solomon was just about to be hanged, Mr. Chapin, armed in both hands, came to rescue him stating Mr. Ford still holds the debt over Solomon. Tibeats and his companion ran away, but Mr. Chapin did not free Solomon and standing, but tied and a rope hanging from his neck and tied to a tree. Mr. Chapin then sent for Mr. Ford. As Solomon was hanging by the rope, he was exposed to the blazing sun. He was not able to move and suffered all day long. Solomon was finally cut down by Mr. Ford as soon as he arrived. Tibeats and his companion again arrived and had a long conversation with Mr. Ford. That night, Mr. Chapin insisted that Solomon slept in the big house, as Tibeats may try to kill him in the middle of the night. The next day arrived, Solomon still swore from previous day’s injuries, was warned by Mr. Chapin to look after himself when he was around Tibeats. Solomon stated at that at those times, he wished that he did not have any children to love and live for. Solomon was then hired to Peter Tanner, to work as a carpenter.

Peter Tanner, like Mr. Ford, was in the habit of reading the Bible to his slaves every Sunday. But he did not do it to preach his slaves. He used the verses of Bible to inspire fear among slaves that if they do not do as he instructed, they will have committed sin and that God has given power to owner to punish his slaves. After working for a month for Peter Tanner, Solomon returned to his owner, Tibeats. Solomon this time was careful to not give any that would spite Tibeats. This would endanger Solomon’s life. Still, one unfortunate day when Mr. Chapin was absent from the plantation, the ever disagreeable and venomous Tibeats found unreasonably a reason to punish Solomon. Solomon defended himself well, and not intending to kill Tibeats, decided he should flee. Solomon soon found himself running and being chased by slave hunters and their hounds. Solomon managed to lose them by going into the swamp. In his escape, Solomon evaded quite a few amounts of snake and alligator. After putting some distance between him and his pursuers, Solomon decided to go to Mr. Ford, the only person who can offer him protection, and thus acted upon it. He reached Mr. Ford’s house the next day. The kind and benevolent William Ford gave him refuge. Three days later, Mr. Ford and Solomon met with Tibeats. Mr. Ford insisted that Tibeats being an inhuman slave owner, must sell or at least hire Solomon out, as they cannot be together. Solomon thus hired to Mr. Eldert. After working for a few weeks under Mr. Eldert, Tibeats sold Solomon to Edwin Epps.

The film depicted that Eliza, Randall and Emily were separated from each other in a single day. But this separation occurred gradually, as mentioned earlier Randall was sold two weeks prior to Eliza’s sale. Also the film completely ignores the haggling of Solomon by other interested buyers and later falling ill. Solomon, Eliza and Emily contracted smallpox from Roberts during their journey by the brig. The journey from New Orleans to Great Pine Woods is not shown. Solomon said that they walked the final lengths to his owner’s house, but they are seen arriving to their destination in a horse cart. John M. Tibeats is introduced as chief carpenter for Mr. Ford. This is not appropriately represented as Tibeats was a carpenter for hire, not seen as a very respectable figure in those areas, even by the slaves. Tibeats also orders the slaves to clap for him during his introduction while he sings a song implying his madness and unpredictable nature; this segment also was not mentioned by Solomon. The man who rebuffed Solomon’s idea of using the creek for transportation was called Adam Taydem. He was a superintendent in the mills of William Ford. Solomon, additionally, is seen to present his idea to Mr. Ford and Mr. Tibeats and then revealed some information about his past life when he was in the transportation business to convince Mr. Ford. In response Mr. Ford is seen to be very impressed. This scene in reality was unthinkable as it would have raised questions about Solomon’s past life and the threat of it coming forward. The success of Solomon is seen to infuriate Tibeats, who continues to hold a grudge against Solomon. As a reward, Mr. Ford presents Solomon with a violin, which is used by Solomon for the rest of his slave life. This also is not narrated by Solomon in his book, but is shown in the movie to suggest Mr. Ford as a kind and benevolent slave owner. The movie also displays additional information for Eliza, who quarrels with Solomon over her mourning due to loss of her children, and as a consequence is sold to another owner. This information is also not in line with the book, as Solomon mentions he was always sympathetic towards Eliza. Solomon learned that Eliza, after failing to satisfy Mrs. Ford was moved to his plantation and later was bartered to another owner, where her health gradually decreases, and eventually the separation from her children rendered her helpless and she dies. One of the most crucial information is left out in the movie; the sale of Solomon to Mr. Tibeats. While rescuing Solomon from Tibeats, Mr. Chapin briefly mentions the debt hold over Solomon by Mr. Ford. Mr. Chapin moreover suggested the incident was the fault of Tibeats while rescuing Solomon, which is also omitted from the movie. According to the movie, Solomon after being rescued by Mr. Ford took shelter in Mr. Ford’s house, where William Ford, arms himself with a rifle to protect Solomon. Mr. Ford also informs that as Tibeats is intent on killing Solomon, Mr. Ford has transferred his debt over to Edwin Epps, as he could not find any other owner willing to take Solomon. Solomon tries to inform Mr. Ford about his status as a freeman; Mr. Ford refuses to listen to this plea as he has a debt to be mindful of. Great changes can be seen in this segment of the movie. Solomon, after being rescued by Mr. Ford, stayed in plantation under the overseer by Mr. Chapin and during the night and is also protected by Mr. Chapin. Also, Solomon continues to be the slave of John M. Tibeats for couple more months before he was sold to Edwin Epps. Solomon’s slaving under Peter Tanner and Mr. Eldert is not shown in the film. Likewise, Solomon’s second fight and his escape from Tibeats are ignored. It is also important to note that Solomon never revealed his status as a freeman to Mr. Ford as is seen in the picture.

Life under Edwin Epps

Solomon hoped that any owner except Tibeats was a welcome sign. He was soon proved wrong. Edwin Epps enjoyed a reputation as that of a hard master and prided himself being known as the ‘nigger breaker’. Edwin Epps was a cunning and unpredictable owner. He was frequent to drinking and enjoyed to randomly whip any servant in his drunken state. Sometimes calling his slaves late at night to dance not caring the tiredness the slaves felt after a long and hard day’s work. During these ‘dance sessions’, Solomon was ordered to play the violin, which Mr. Epps persuaded Epps to buy one for Solomon. Edwin Epps principal business was raising cotton. He introduced a system in his plantation, in which the slaves lived under constant fear of whipping. Epps did not care for his slaves but only of their productivity, flogging any slave at the slightest sight of tardiness or mistake. Edwin Epps had no drop of kindness or justice in his heart, a hard, cruel and unjust man as Solomon narrated. Under him, Solomon labored for ten years before he was finally freed.

Solomon narrated that slaves were forced to work at the first sign of light till dawn. Sometimes during cotton picking season they continue to work until midnight. In those times, a slave must pick the average number of cotton, and is whipped if he or she failed to do so. This depended on the skill of each slave. Someone who is new or unskilled has lower quota requirements but someone who is highly skilled is expected to bring the same amount every day. Less amount picked means he or she has been lazy in field. Solomon described it as the ‘ginhouse’, a building which is part of the plantation where amount of cotton picked are measured. Solomon describes the plight of a slave before the ginhouse. Every day, no matter how hard a slave has worked and how tired he or she is, they must first enter the ginhouse and cower in the prospect of this. If a slave did not fill the usual quota of cotton, the slave is whipped according to the lacking amount. If the slave picked more than usual, from the next day he or she will be judged by that amount. Solomon dictated that there was not a single day during the cotton picking season when no slave was whipped. Even after returning from the field, their work was not finished. They then have to store the cottons, feed the farm animals, cut timber and then allowed to eat, food they are given to only sustain their life. Overall, the life of slaves as described by Solomon is very pitiful to say the least.

Sometime after Solomon was sold to Edwin Epps, he began to show symptoms of illness. This illness became very serious, and Epps not willing to bear the losses of losing a slave, called for a doctor. Solomon survived after following the doctor’s instructions but was in a much weakened condition. Solomon was still was not allowed to recover fully as he was sent to labor by Epps. Solomon soon found out he was not gifted in the labor of picking cotton. No matter the practice or whipping Solomon received he failed to produce the required quantity. Epps finally gave up on Solomon with cotton picking and employed him to other jobs.

In his third year under Edwin Epps, a great famine ruined the cottons. To cut losses, Owners in that region hired their slaves to other areas. Solomon too was hired to Judge Turner, in a sugar plantation. Solomon discovered that he is extremely proficient in a sugarcane plantation and was praised by Judge Turner. Sunday was a holiday for slaves, and any work done in that day was kept by the slaves. Solomon was in high demand for his talent at violin during the Sundays and he earned quite a lot for a slave during his time under Judge Turner. On his return he found out that, Patsey, another slave of Edwin Epps has been subjected to frequent torture by her master. Patsey was a young, energetic and pleasant girl who had always been a favorite of her master. She was light and extremely skillful at picking cotton, and was known throughout the Bayou Beouf as the best cotton picker. As she looked favorably Epps, Mrs. Epps looked down on her with jealousy and anger. This feeling of jealousy and hatred was unusual for Mrs. Epps, as according to Solomon she was an elegant and fascinating who treated her husband’s slaves kindly. Her hatred was only pointed at Patsey. Mr. Epps, unable to afford to cross his wife but also unable to bear the loss by selling Patsey, proceeded to whip Patsey to calm his wife. That is why, in spite of picking the most cotton, Patsey was lashed the most compared to others and in spite of being the most light-hearted and joyous character, she wept the most.

Solomon’s apparent his lack of skill made Epps to hire him out during the cane-cutting season. Otherwise he was employed in the field, where he was employed as a driver. A driver, in addition to his own duties, had the additional responsibility to whip other slaves when they showed signs of laziness. If this job was not performed well, the driver himself was whipped. Solomon was a driver for almost the entirety of his time with Epps, and gained very good expertise and accuracy with the whip. He stated he can whip within a ‘hair’s distance’ from anybody. Solomon used this skill to spare his fellow slaves by making it appear they have been whipped, wherein reality the whip did not even touch them. The other slaves would mourn and act painful as if they have been whipped, to make the ruse believable. In one occasion, as they were working in field, drunken Epps was grimacing at Patsey, which greatly distressed her. Noticing it, Solomon suggested in a low voice to Patsey to continue working as if she did not see her owner. Epps was not to be fooled, and in his drunken state was incensed. He brought out his knife to stab Solomon and Solomon fearful for his life began to run. Epps chased Solomon around the cotton field several times, but was unable to catch Solomon. Catching a glance of Mrs. Epps outside the house, Solomon ran towards her. Epps noticing her acted innocent such that nothing has happened. Edwin Epps then entered his house and Solomon went to the field, with the incident being not repeated ever again.

Solomon, albeit in slavery never forgot about his family. His objective always was to write a letter to his family or friends about his whereabouts. The obstacle was that he did not have any pen or paper and no shop would sell these things to a slave. Through great fortune, Solomon was able to acquire a sheet of paper. He experimented about making ink, finally succeeding in making some using boiled white maple bark and a feather plucked from a duck. AT night when everyone was fast asleep, he would lay awake and sneakily wrote a letter. Now the problem was posting it, as a slave was not allowed to post any letter. Solomon kept this letter hidden for a long time, unable to post it. Afterwards, he acquainted with a white man called Armsby who came to work as an overseer in Epps’s plantation. Later he moved to the neighboring plantation, where he failed to gain the post of overseer and started working as a labor. Solomon carefully became close with this person and losing patience asked Armsby to post a letter for him next time he went to town, not revealing that the letter was already written and giving him all the money he earned by playing the violin during Sundays. Armsby promised not to blow the whistle and took the money. Solomon not trusting him informed him that he would write the letter in couple days. His suspicion was well founded, as the very next day Armsby revealed everything to Epps. Epps that night approached Solomon, and inquired about the details that Armsby told him. Solomon fearful of the punishment ahead, took the path of ignorance and surprise, denying the whole affair. He convinced Epps that Armsby was lying so that Epps thinks all his slaves will runaway thus hiring Armsby as an overseer. Epps believing Solomon left while making descriptive comments about Armsby’s character. Solomon immediately burned the letter much to his desolation, reconnoitering the possibilities of his freedom, which grew ever dimmer.

Having escaped the lash previously Solomon was not always so lucky. At one time in his slavery life, a tanner came to Bayou Beouf and enquired Mr. Epps with the possibility of buying Solomon and introducing him in the business of tanning. Overhearing their conversation, Aunt Phebe, another fellow slave, gossiped it with Solomon. Solomon wanting to move away from Epps thus replied that he was looking forward to it. Mrs. Epps eavesdropping on the conversation confided to Edwin Epps. This irate Epps greatly as the prospect of a slave wanting to leave was greatly frowned upon by Epps. He scourged Solomon with thirty lashes for this, demonstrating what little it took to irate Epps. These punishments are little when compared to that received by Patsey. Constantly harassed by Epps, she was despised by the Mrs. Epps. On a Sunday, when servants were free, Epps called for Patsey. No answer came; apparently she was not in the plantation. Patsey went to the neighboring plantation to see the owner’s wife who was very kind to Patsey. Epps, however, thought she visits the owner instead. When Patsey returned she pleaded that she went to procure some soap as Mrs. Epps do not provide Patsey with any. This pleading fell into deaf ears, as Epps blinded by jealousy, ordered Solomon to tie Patsey and strip her; then giving the lash to Solomon, ordered him to whip Patsey. Mrs. Epps stood by, with utter satisfaction on her face. Solomon, unwillingly, had to obey his master, as he would have been whipped if he refused. After forty lashes, Solomon declared he will not whip her anymore. At this, Epps seized the lash and started whipping Patsey himself, more severely than ever. Epps only stopped as he became exhausted. Only then Patsey was allowed to be cut loose. The ever joyous Patsey was never the same again.

The life of Solomon under the ownership of Edwin Epps in the movie starts with Epps reading the bible to his slaves. This is entirely contrasting to what Solomon narrated in the book. As Edwin Epps never read the Bible for his slaves. He did not see the necessity in preaching the slaves as he did not consider them human beings. To him slave is a piece of property, no better than the horse or cow. According to Solomon, Edwin Epps would have tortured his slaves in any way possible if it profited him. In the movie, Edwin Epps is seen to read the same scriptures which were actually read by Peter Tanner, who uses scripture to keep his slaves in line. Edwin Epps is also seen to own more than a dozen slaves, which is also false. Solomon in his memoir mentioned of there were nine slaves under Edwin Epps including Solomon. Epps in actuality was considered a small planter and hired slaves from other plantations if additional help was required. The movie then continues to show the life in a cotton plantation and the haunting of the ginhouse, ignoring Solomon’s illness. It is also seen that Patsey receiving the favor of Mr. Epps and absolute hatred from Mrs. Epps. In one of the nights where the slaves are forced to dance in the middle of the night by a drunken Epps, Mrs. Epps throws a whiskey decanter at Patsey and then asks Mr. Epps to get rid of her. Mr. Epps replies he will get rid of his wife before ridding himself of Patsey. Forcing slaves to dance in a whim by Epps is entirely true, also the hatred bore by Mrs. Epps towards Patsey; but the Mr. Epps never told his wife that he would get rid of her before Patsey. He seemed to love his and tried to satisfy any whim she desired.

In the next scene, Mrs. Epps asks Solomon to acquire some articles from the town, handing him a list which makes Solomon to take a glance at it. This makes Mrs. Epps enquire if Solomon can read; strongly expressing it did not matter as Solomon was bought to work not to read. Mrs. Epps character is entirely opposite. Solomon described Mrs. Epps as a kind and elegant person, who was looked fondly by other slaves except of course for Patsey. In the course for the town, Solomon gets the urge of escaping but unfortunately arrived before a group of patrollers who were going to hang two slaves who tried to escape. This greatly discourages Solomon. This section is used to display that Solomon was constantly planning for escape but never did attempted, as he failed to successfully form a flawless plan. Also the society in state of Louisiana especially the area where Solomon was a slave was designed in such a way to cancel any possibility of a slave to escape. The patrollers seen in the film are exactly as Solomon described but he never saw any hangings during his time as a slave.

As mentioned earlier, the chasing of Solomon by Edwin Epps happened when Patsey and Solomon were working in the field. In the movie, Epps sent Solomon to retrieve Patsey from Mr. Shaw’s plantation where Patsey regularly visits Mrs. Shaw as cited in the book. When Solomon returned with Patsey, Epps called for Patsey. Solomon whispered Patsey to act like nothing happened and ensue. This enraged Epps and he then chased Solomon. Patsey also asks Solomon to kill her as she cannot do it by herself. She tries to bribe Solomon for doing this. In his chronicle, Solomon often hoped that Patsey would have died from the endless whipping she used to get without healing each and every time, but he did not said anything about Patsey asking him to kill her. This scene is used to show the audience the pain of Patsey, the constant agony and fear she used to live in the ownership of Epps. The next major dissimilarity which can be seen is about the segment with Armsby. In the film, Armsby is seen to work as a laborer in Epps’s cotton field. He then tends to Solomon’s wounds after the latter was whipped. During this time Solomon conversed with Armsby, getting the idea of having Armsby deliver a letter for him. Armsby never worked in Epps’s film actually. He came to Epps to be hired as an overseer, but was rejected by Epps. Armsby ten moved to the adjacent plantation owned by Mr. Shaw, where failing to be hired as an overseer, he started working as a labor. Solomon also had his letter written a long time ago, which is not correctly depicted either. In the picture, Solomon writes the letter after confirming that Armsby will post the letter. Uncle Abram is seen in the picture to faint while working in the field and consequently dying. It is shown that the driver also trying to revive him. In fact Uncle Abram was still living when Solomon was freed from slavery. Solomon also worked as the designated driver for Edwin Epps. This fragment of the film is used to reveal Solomon’s fear of never experiencing freedom again and never to see his wife and children again.

Mr. Bass

June, 1852, a new house was erected by Edwin Epps. Carpenters were contracted for the purpose and knowing Solomon’s experience as a carpenter during his time with previous owners; he was selected to assist the carpenters. Mr. Bass was one of the carpenters to work for Epps that time. He was a kind and liberal fellow, happy to argue about politics, religion and slavery with anyone willing, but never rousing any feelings of resentment with his debater. He was the man to have enabled the process of freeing Solomon. Solomon was working nearby when Bass and Epps were tied up in a conversation about slavery. Bass arguing there nothing right about this system and supported the abolition of slavery. Epps amused by this laughed and said there was no difference between a baboon and a black man. Epps was in the habit of conversing with Bass frequently as the latter amused Epps with his ideologies. As Solomon learned more of Mr. Bass, he formed the courage to disclose the truth about him to Mr. Bass. Still Solomon was hesitant to confide to Bass after Bass learned that Solomon had visited Canada, his birthplace. After Bass assured Solomon sincerely that he would keep Solomon’s secret, the decided to meet covertly during the night where Solomon revealed everything he has suffered since agreeing to accompany Abram Hamilton and Merill Brown. Amused by Solomon’s history, Bass promised to write a letter on his behalf to his acquaintances in New York. The next night, Bass wrote down all the names of acquaintances that he could send a letter to. Fully trusting Bass, Solomon started reveal all his sorrows of his slavery life. Bass wrote letters to the collector in New York custom house, where Solomon issued his free papers, another one to Judge Marvin who employed Solomon in his hotel and the last one to Mr. William Perry and Mr. Cephas Parker.

Solomon and Bass continued their midnight meeting the entire time Bass was at Edwin Epps’s plantation. Although Bass assured Solomon about the time it takes for letter to be delivered duly, the prospect of freedom made Solomon impatient and disappointed him when much time passed. Bass left the plantation as the house was completed but promised Solomon that he would visit during Christmas. Solomon gradually started to lose hope as no reply was received. He despair soon became visible to other slaves, who regularly enquired Solomon if anything was wrong. True to his words, Bass visited the plantation during Christmas. Having had no reply, Mr. Bass decided to travel to New York and find Solomon’s family, informing them of Solomon’s whereabouts. This however proved to be unnecessary as; Solomon was rescued eight days later on 3rd January, 1853. He was working in field when a carriage rode in, containing the sheriff and Mr. Henry B. Northup. After answering the sheriff few questions about his true identity, Mr. Henry B. Northup and the sheriff met with Edwin Epps to show him the proof of Solomon’ status as a freeman. Solomon then gathered his belongings, said goodbye to his fellow slavers. Mrs. Epps was actually in tears to say goodbye to Solomon. Next, Solomon was presented in front of the court at Marksville. All the evident were laid in front of the judge and Epps had to acknowledge Solomon’s freedom. After Mr. Bass posted the letters from Marksville, it actually set off a chain of events which were narrated by Solomon. These events took almost five months and ultimately led to Solomon’s freedom. William Perry and Cephas Parker received the letter in early part of September. They immediately forwarded it to Anne Northup, Solomon Northup’s wife. She then asked for Henry B. Northup’s assistance. Being a lawyer and respectable man, Henry Northup was able to garner support from the area in which Solomon was born, and as the law of New York suggested, was appointed an agent by the Governor of New York with the purpose of freeing Solomon. Henry then went to Washington. There he gained support and sympathy from Senator in Congress of Louisiana, Secretary of War and a judge from the Supreme Court. They produced open letters for Henry Northup with which Louisiana officials were bound to help him. While searching for Solomon Northup in Marksville, Henry fortunately met with Bass. Insisting that he has come to free Solomon, Henry urged Bass to tell him about Solomon’s location having failed to do so as Solomon was known as Platt. Bass hesitated for a moment but finally revealed that he was the one who wrote that letter and told Henry that Solomon belonged to Edwin Epps, thus enabling Solomon to be freed.

Solomon and Henry B. Northup started their journey towards New York almost immediately. They first went to Washington. Such was the pain of Solomon instead of hurrying straight back to his wife and children; he sought retribution by taking legal action against his kidnapper Mr. Burch. This ultimately failed as Burch hired false witnesses and as a black man, Solomon’s testimony was disregarded in the court. Nonetheless, Solomon left for New York after the lawsuit failed. The following narration describes the tearful reunion of Solomon with his family, a scene which is better imagined rather than explained.

The movie portrays Bass as the only carpenter to work under Epps’s contract. Furthermore, Solomon confides to Bass during the daylight while working together. This is unfathomable as a slave talking while disregarding his work was considered a severe crime and a punishable offence. Solomon surely would have been whipped if he was seen to show a bit of tardiness in his work. Also if any knowledge of these reached ears of any other slave or white man, Mr. Bass’s life would have been endangered, needless to say that of Solomon’s also would have been in danger. In reality, Solomon confided with Bass in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep, and kept their conversation and friendship under utmost secrecy. Bass and Solomon became very good friends and continued to meet and converse with each for most of the time Bass was in Epps plantation.


The analysis of the book and the movie highlighted the differences between the two versions. The book provided more detail about Solomon's early life, his father's history, his marriage, and his various professions, which was missing from the movie. Furthermore, the movie emphasized Solomon as the main character, ignoring other characters that played significant roles in his life. These differences made it challenging for the audience to understand Solomon's hardships and wisdom, which were better explained in the book.

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In conclusion, 'Twelve Years a Slave' is a significant work of literature that provides valuable insights into the lives of slaves in the United States of America. It highlights the harsh treatment and living conditions of slaves, as well as the institutionalized racism of American society during that period. It is an essential read for anyone interested in American history, the abolitionist movement, and the struggles of African Americans to achieve equality and freedom in the United States.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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“Twelve Years a Slave”: Dissimilarities Between the Book and Film. (2023, March 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
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