“Most adaptations are terrible…”: Colson Whitehead on entrusting The Underground Railroad to Barry Jenkins

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad depicts the flight to freedom of a slave in antebellum America. Here the author, speaking to Devika Girish, explains why he hoped Barry Jenkins’ new series would find its way without him.

27 April 2021

Okra seeds in the hands of Thuso Mbedu as plantation escapee Cora in The Underground Railroad (2021)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ The Underground Railroad is available on Amazon Prime from 14 May 2021.

There were a few filmmakers who were interested in The Underground Railroad. The only one I talked to was Barry.

It was a month before Moonlight hit the festival circuit, so I didn’t know who he was. My introduction to his work was a link on my computer, on a tiny screen. It’s an amazing movie. The way he melds together the different voices that have inspired him is really admirable and surprising; and as someone who plays with structure a lot, I have a real affinity for the structural gambit of Moonlight, the way it picks up the main character in three different periods. So I was flattered that Barry liked The Underground Railroad.

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In our May 2021 issue, Barry Jenkins tells us about reclaiming and rebuilding America’s history of slavery in The Underground Railroad – and we talk to Colson Whitehead and composer Nicholas Britell. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview.

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As someone who hasn’t talked much with filmmakers about my work, I was asking him dumb questions like: “What are some slave movies that have inspired you?”

And he said, “Slave movies? No, I was thinking There Will Be Blood and The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson.” And I was like: “Okay, well, you got it.” There Will Be Blood is among my top ten of the century!

Being a movie fan and watching some of my favourite books be adapted over the decades, I had to make sure the book and the TV show were very separate [in my mind]. Whether the adaptation is successful or not has no bearing on the book, and the less I thought about it the more time I had to spend with my family. And most adaptations are terrible. But I always thought it would be good because it was Barry. So it was the best of both worlds.

Director Barry Jenkins, actor Joel Edgerton and author Colson Whitehead on location with The Underground Railroad (2021)

When I finally saw it a few weeks ago, I was in suspense. His changes made me worry for the characters and wonder what’s going to happen next, even though I’d written the book. So it was a weird, surreal experience.

I was struck and moved by so many tiny scenes where Barry brings out the latent metaphors in the book, whether it’s about the Great Spirit or the father-son bond between Ridgeway and Homer. All these images are abstract in the novel, and Barry provided this alchemy where they suddenly became real. I had no idea what he was going to do with the description of the town, Cora’s interior monologue, Ridgeway’s idea of the world. It was a mesmerising experience. He took these minor moments and moods and turned them into major chords and themes.

Barry took these minor moments and moods and turned them into major chords and themes.

The only movie or TV show about slavery I’ve seen since writing the book is Barry’s adaptation. My last two books dealt with institutional racism and abuse, so I avoided news and media about those subjects. Of course, I made an exception for the adaptation of my own book – I was the one who came up with all that terrible stuff.

Thuso Mbedu as Cora in The Underground Railroad

I think the hardest part in writing the book and in making the TV show is that first section in Georgia, because it’s a realistic plantation, which is a terrible, brutal place. And in order to go into the fantastical places of South Carolina and Tennessee, I had to root it in reality. I wanted it to be truthful before I started bending the truth. And so, in the book and the TV show, that first section is very rough, and then you get into Cora’s beautiful blossoming into a human being. In both cases, before you can have Cora grow, you have to see what she’s growing away from.

I’m looking forward to having the story reach people who missed it when the book came out. I also hope that high-school students who are assigned the book watch the TV show instead, and get busted for using stuff that’s in the adaptation but not in the book in their papers. I’m looking forward to some stories of that.

I feel I have a low opinion of the American public these days, so I’m not sure how much the story’s lessons will penetrate, but if even one person is like: “So this is what our country is really based on,” and they think about our past in a different way, that’s a victory.”

  • Colson Whitehead was talking to Devika Girish.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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