Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Native Son directed by Pierre Chenal (1951)
Native Son directed by Jerrold Freedman (1986)
Native Son directed by Rashid Johnson (2019)
There is so much to get into here. Not only did I watch three different adaptations, but just to talk about the novel alone there is so much to say! I thought of filming this as two different episodes, but I decided to do it all in one go. On YouTube, as always, I have broken it up into chapters if you are only interested in certain sections.
But I will first talk about the book in detail. Then I will go over the changes in the 1951 movie as well as some of the history in how that adaptation came about. The section about the 80’s movie will be the shortest, and then I will move on to the 2019 movie which is the adaptation I will spend the most time on.
This book is so much more than just the events that take place. I will get more into the themes and the message of this novel later, as well as the character analysis of Bigger, but for now I am just going to give a quick rundown of the plot.
We are in 1930’s Chicago and Bigger Thomas is a poor black 20-year-old who lives with his mom and two siblings. He gets a job being a driver for a wealthy white family. His first night on the job he is asked to drive the daughter, Mary Dalton to the university for class. Mary instead tells Bigger to drive her to the communist party headquarters where they pick up her boyfriend, Jan.
Jan and Mary try to connect with Bigger and learn about him, but it is forced on him and they are very pretentious and are almost treating him like a different species they want to learn about.
They all drink and then Jan is dropped off. When Bigger arrives at the Dalton home, Mary is drunk and needs help getting to her room. He brings her into her room and while there, Mary’s mother, who is blind comes to the doorway calling Mary’s name. Bigger knows that if he is caught in Mary’s room the parents will assume the worst and will fire him. He tries to get Mary to not say anything and he ends up putting a pillow over her face to ensure she will be quiet and not get him in trouble. The mother smells the alcohol and assumes Mary is passed out drunk and that is why she isn’t replying.
When Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger removes the pillow and realizes he accidently smothered her. He decides to get rid of the body by burning it in the furnace.
The next day, when he is questioned by Mr. Dalton and the inspector Mr. Britton, Bigger tries to pin it on Jan. Which is easy to do, since Jan is a communist people don’t trust him and believe the “reds” are capable of anything.
When seeing Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, she inadvertently gives him the idea to ask for ransom money, pretending to return Mary after getting the money and makes the letter seem like it is from communists. He tells Bessie about this and tells her she needs to help him get the money at the drop off point. Bessie wants no part of it, but Bigger is very manipulative.
Bigger goes to the Daltons, and the press is there and they get the ransom note. The reporters end up finding some bones and jewelry in the furnace when the ash is being cleaned. When the bones are discovered, Bigger knows he is in for and runs away to Bessie.
He tells her they have to go on the run and he forces her to join him. Later that night, he rapes Bessie and then kills her because she will be a burden to him while he is on the run, and he worries she will rat him out.
Not long after, he is caught when white people are going through the black community, forcing their way in to search every house for Bigger.
Bigger is then put on trial and is represented by a lawyer Jan knows. While Bigger is in jail, Jan visits him and apologizes for how he treated Bigger. He says he isn’t mad at him for what he did to Mary, and we see that he genuinely is a kind person who is trying to see things from Bigger’s point of view and sees all the wrongs white people have done that have caused Bigger to be in the situation he is in.
In the end, despite Bigger’s lawyer trying his best, Bigger is given the death penalty.
I knew little about this book, and it kept me on my toes, never knowing what was going to happen. While being a page turner, it was also one of the most difficult books I have read. I was surprised Wright had created such an unlikeable character, assuming it would be a man who the reader could easily side on. But Bigger feels no remorse, and rather than feeling like accidently killing Mary is a nightmare situation, he instead feels this pride about having done it. He just continues to make the situation worse and he is terrible to his girlfriend Bessie, whom he ends up raping and killing before being caught by the police.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Getting back to the writing, this book created such a stressful atmosphere. You felt the tightness, that anxiety, and the fear and anger Bigger was always feeling. As the book goes on, you can understand Bigger’s actions to some extent because Wright does such a great job putting you in Bigger’s shoes.
The book could get repetitive at times, how often did Wright need to remind us that Bigger had killed a white woman, cut off her head and burned her body?? But I get that Bigger is constantly thinking about the fact that he did that, so I guess it makes sense why it is repeated so much.
The courtroom scene is also very lengthy. Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, goes on for pages and pages as his gives his speech on why Bigger should not receive the death penalty even though he admits to the crime. Mr. Max says some profound things, and I highlighted a lot, but it did go on for quite a while.
All in all, I give this book five stars. It is tough to read because of the beyond horrible racist things that are said, plus the murder scenes are written so vividly. This book is often read in schools by sophomores apparently and I think that is way too young. I think 16-year-olds are too immature to read a book that deals with such heavy topics, has such violent scenes, and so many terrible racist things that are said. Maybe a senior AP English class would be fine. But the racist talk alone I would think would be very triggering and hurtful for a teenager of color to read. Even though it is written by a black man who was showing why segregation was bad and what it was like to be a black man in 1930’s America.
It also deals with someone feeling helpless and like he has no options. But once he resorts to violence, he feels a power and strength he has never felt before. Considering the violence happening in schools, I don’t think a student who is feeling helpless, abused and who is mentally unstable should read a book like this. And since a teacher can’t know the mental state of every student in the class, I think it is best to just not read this until college.
Richard Wright was born in the south but then when he was young, he moved to Chicago. Bigger is against religion and this is reflective of Wright’s own views. He had family members that tried pushing their Christian religion on him, but the more they pushed the more he refused. Like Bigger, he felt they used their faith as a way to be content living in this unjest world. But he didn’t want to be content, he wanted it to change.
Communism is a big part of the book as well, and Wright himself was a member. “In 1932, he began attending meetings of the John Reed Club, a Marxist Party literary organization. Wright established relationships and networked with party members. Wright formally joined the Communist Party and the John Reed Club in late 1933”
“[Native Son] was an immediate best-seller; it sold 250,000 hardcover copies within three weeks of its publication by the Book-of-the-Month Club on March 1, 1940. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African Americans by the dominant white society. It also made Wright the wealthiest Black writer of his time and established him as a spokesperson for African American issues, and the “father of Black American literature.” As Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons”: “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies … [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.” The novel’s treatment of Bigger and his motivations is an example of literary naturalism.”
Native Son was a Broadway play for a season in March of 1941 and was directed by Orson Welles.
The book’s message is why segregation needs to come to an end, while also promoting some communist ideas. In the book, Mr. Dalton owns various properties, including the building Bigger and his family live in. We see how he is someone who says he wants to help the black community by donating money to the NAACP as well as donating ping pong tables and such to the youth center in the area. When he is questioned about why he doesn’t rent out his nicer homes in other parts of the city to black people, he says because he assumes they prefer to live in what is called the black belt. He also charges them a high price for the ramshackle building they are in and when asked why, he says it is just the way it is and it wouldn’t be fair to the other renting agencies to charge lower prices. We see his hypocrisy in claiming he wants to help the black community, while at the same time not actually getting out of his comfort zone and making real changes.
Bigger Thomas at the start
Like I said, Bigger is not a likeable character, and as the book goes on, he becomes less and less likeable. He is fearful, and that fear causes him to bully his own friends. Trying to make others look like a coward, in order to hide his own fear.
He feels powerless in the world he lives in and we have the quote, “He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running the Jews to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading Spain. He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape.”
In the third act Bigger does become a bit more sympathetic as we see more and more the terrible world he lives in. When they find out Mary is dead and suspect him, they refuse to believe he was alone in it, thinking a black man wouldn’t be smart enough to pull it off. The book reads, ”…They feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind. At that moment he wanted to walk out into the street and up to a policeman and say, “No! Jan didn’t help me! He didn’t have a damn thing to do with it! I—I did it!” His lips twisted in a smile that was half-leer and half-defiance.”
Bigger in the end
I saw a reviewer compare Bigger to a sociopath, since he lacks empathy, takes pride in his violence and wants to be feared, and he shows no remorse at all for what he did to not only Mary, but Bessie! He also resents his mother and family and how seeing them makes him feel guilty and so he selfishly just doesn’t want to see them. We have this line at the end though when he starts to take responsibility for the emotional toll his actions have taken.
“He had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone, and now he saw that he had not been. What he had done made others suffer. No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they would not be able to. His family was a part of him, not only in blood, but in spirit.”
We also see that accepting what he did (not that he ever denied it) is what makes him finally feel free and that he mattered, “He accepted it because it made him free, gave him the possibility of choice, of action, the opportunity to act and to feel that his actions carried weight.”
Some positive moments from the book are when Mr. Max is asking Bigger questions like what he had wanted to do with his life, what his dreams were, why he killed Mary and how her death made him feel, plus how he felt about Mary and Jan that first night. Bigger is greatly affected by these questions, and he is able to finally have answers to these questions he had never been able to ask even himself. Before he dies, he wants to see Mr. Max one last time and says what an impact that day had on him. The importance of being treated like a normal human being and having a white person actually try to understand him.
When Mr. Max is done giving his speech in the courtroom, we read, “Bigger was not at that moment really bothered about whether Max’s speech had saved his life or not. He was hugging the proud thought that Max had made the speech all for him, to save his life. It was not the meaning of the speech that gave him pride, but the mere act of it. That in itself was something.”
Mary and Jan are both well-meaning but end up being pretentious and still forcing Bigger to do what they want, not caring how it makes him feel. He hates them for it and is unable to accept their attempt at kindness because he has never experienced white people who treated him this way. Though like I said, they may have had good intentions, but it also came across as belittling. Mary would say things like, oh we are just so weird to you, aren’t we? You’ll get used to us, we’re not like other white people.
The way Bigger has been treated by white society, then his interactions with Mary are described as, “…in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and say: “I’d like to know how your people live.””
It was interesting that Wright chose to have the Dalton family seem to be decent people who weren’t racist. However, as the book goes on, we do see that they have racist ideas and are part of the systematic racism and aren’t doing anything about it. Again, treating Bigger like a species, Mr. Dalton says of his wife, “she takes a great interest in your kind”.
When Bigger helps Mary to her room that night, she is very drunk and Bigger kisses her when she wasn’t coming on to him, and she was drunk! Later, he says how he probably would have raped her had Mrs. Dalton not come in, but part of the reason why was because white people are always accusing black men of wanting white women so he was kind of just giving into that stereotype.
There are a couple quotes I want to share that show the pride Bigger took in the accidental murder of Mary I want to share. “There was in him a kind of terrified pride in feeling and thinking that someday he would be able to say publicly that he had done it. It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfill to himself in accepting the deed.”
“He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.”
I think it is interesting to note that the first murder was a mistake. Yet he still takes a pride in it. I think that is interesting because it wasn’t something he had control over and wasn’t aware it was happening. But once he realizes what he has done, he is happy about it.
As terrible as it is what happened to Mary, what happens to Bessie is so much worse. Bigger forces her into his schemes and then forces her to join him when he runs away. Then he resents her and feels as though she had it all coming to her. He rapes her in the cold rundown building, not caring about her protests because he is so overtaken with his need to force himself on her. When she falls asleep, he gets a brick and hits her head repeatedly, then dumps her body down a shaft.
The police find her body and use it as evidence against him for Mary’s death! No one really cares what he did to Bessie and he is not on trial for her murder, it is Mary that people want justice for.
In the 80’s movie and 2019 movie, he doesn’t kill Bessie and, in some ways, I am glad they made that change because Bessie did not deserve such a terrible end, however by removing it, Bigger is more sympathetic. I watched a video Life by Jo and she talked about Native Son and how what happens to Bessie shows the violence that happens in relationships. The news love to tell stories of white people that kill their SO’s, yet we never hear about that happening in relationships with people of color, even though it does happen. All these years later, our society still doesn’t seem to care when people of color do these things, they just want to report stories of racism and other things that involve a white person, even when the white person is the villain.
The only likable white people are Mr. Max and Jan, both of whom are communists. When jan visits Bigger in jail he tells him,
“I was in jail grieving for Mary and then I thought of all the black men who’ve been killed, the black men who had to grieve when their people were snatched from them in slavery and since slavery. I thought that if they could stand it, then I ought to.” Jan crushed the cigarette with his shoe. “At first, I thought old man Dalton was trying to frame me, and I wanted to kill him. And when I heard that you’d done it, I wanted to kill you. And then I got to thinking. I saw if I killed, this thing would go on and on and never stop. I said, ‘I’m going to help that guy, if he lets me.’”
The book then shows how this makes Bigger feel, “He saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan’s face.” Similar to Mr. Max later on, where he is changed when he experiences kindness from these people whom he had spent his whole life hating and assuming they were all the same.
Later, a black preacher visits Bigger when Jan is there and they have this conversation,
“’Whut this po’ boy needs is understandin’. . . .” “But he’s got to fight for it,” Jan said. “Ah’m wid yuh when yuh wanna change men’s hearts,” the preacher said. “But Ah can’t go wid yuh when yuh wanna stir up mo’ hate. . . .” Bigger sat looking from one to the other, bewildered. “How on earth are you going to change men’s hearts when the newspapers are fanning hate into them every day?” Jan asked.”
Showing that Jan sees the overarching problems and wants to help truly change them. Unlike Mr. Dalton, Jan wants to get out of his comfort zone and take action.
This book was an anti-segragation novel, showing the damages that “separate but equal” caused. White and black people viewed each other not as fellow human beings, but as this other species. That is one reason why Bigger doesn’t feel remorse for killing Mary, and it is also why Mary and other white people see Bigger as someone less than. They don’t experience your normal day to day life around each other, seeing each other as equals, and it causes such a distant between the different races. We have a quote which reads, “But Jan and Mary were not human beings to Bigger Thomas. Social custom had shoved him so far away from them that they were not real to him.”
There is a powerful ine at the beginning of the book when Bigger aaks his friend where the white people live. The friend points to the neighborhood, and Bigger replies, no they live“Right down here in my stomach,” he said. Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed. “Yeah; I know what you mean,” he whispered. “Every time I think of ’em, I feel ’em,” Bigger said. “Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too,” Gus said. “It’s like fire.” “And sometimes you can’t hardly breathe. . . .”
Bigger struggles with feeling so separate and not being allowed into the world, being kept away from things and not allowed to pursue his dreams. He sees that Bessie uses alcohol to deal with having to live out of the world, and his mother uses religion.
“What his mother had was Bessie’s whiskey, and Bessie’s whiskey was his mother’s religion. He did not want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”
When Bigger knows he is going to die, he struggles with this because he feels that he never even knew how to live. In his final conversation with Mr. Max, Mr. Max talks about why wealthy white people like keeping others oppressed-they are fearful of losing what they have. He gets into some communist ideas, and this is able to further help Bigger understand himself and his actions. He says,
‘“I didn’t want to kill!” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder. . . .What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. . . . I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. . . . It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ’cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I’m all right.”
Honestly, I don’t totally understand his conclusion in the end with that. I read someone else say that Bigger “converts” to communism and that is what helps him be at peace with himself.
The book was such a success, and after the play, Hollywood wanted to adapt it. But either the studios hadn’t read the book or seen the play, or if they had they were just incredibly dense and didn’t understand the purpose of it all. Because “MGM offered Richard Wright $25,000 (over $421,000 in 2021) for the film rights, but on the condition it have an all-white cast. He turned them down. Independent producer Harold Hecht also made Wright a similar offer, but only if Bigger was “an oppressed minority white man”, such as Polish or Italian. Wright turned this down, too. From 1941 to 1946, Wright wrote three versions of a screenplay and pitched them to all the major Hollywood studios. After being rejected so many times, Wright moved to Paris after World War II ended. There he met director Pierre Chenal and they tried to obtain film production permits in France and Italy, but to no success. Both countries did not want to upset their dependent relationship with the U.S. (via the Marshall Plan) by producing a film critical of race relations in that country. So, both moved to Argentina where Chenal had made films during the war after fleeing occupied France.”
The movie was supposed to star the actor who played Bigger in the stage production, however he had issues getting to Argentina, and Richard Wright himself ended up playing the role.
This movie may not have the best acting and we have dubbed over voices, but I was still impressed with it.
It is interesting to note the changes that were made and since Wright was so closely involved in its making, I wonder if these were all changes he liked. I will say, Wright was around 40 years old and that definitely gives the movie a different vibe. In the book he was a young guy, still trying to figure things out so it made more sense. Seeing a grown middle-aged man in the role changed the feel of it.
This movie follows the book pretty close-Bigger lives with his family and the movie begins like the book, with him killing a giant rat. He has to get a job so he takes the driving job. He meets Jan and Mary and ends up killing Mary that very night. Then he writes the ransom note. The reporters find the bones. He then goes on the run with Bessie. He is caught and put on trial. Jan tries to stand up for him. In the end, he gets the death penalty.
Overall, I did like this movie for the most part. It was interesting to see Wright in the role and the dream sequence was weird but I liked it. I don’t see myself watching it again anytime soon, but I am glad to have seen it once.
Bigger and Bessie
In the book, Bigger and Bessie weren’t in love. She used alcohol to cope with her life, and he provided it for her. In return, they would have sex. Whereas in the movie the two of them are in love. Bessie also isn’t as depressed and rundown as she was in the book. In the movie she is waitress who moves up to being a singer in a nightclub. We see the two of them going to a fair and there is a part where one of them says how life is like a roller coaster, sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. In the book Bigger didn’t have this attitude at all! And we never saw he and Bessie having a fun time.
This is the only adaptation that has Bigger killing Bessie. But he does so because he thinks she told on him and it is because of her the police know where he is. In the end, he finds out that she hadn’t informed anyone, and he feels remorse for having killed her. We also get a dream sequence where he is holding a bundle and, in this dream, Bessie tells him where to take it. He is taken to the plantation where he was from and his dad is there. His dad then turns into Britton and he takes the bundle, which is Mary’s head wrapped up and Bigger then wakes up. Kind of a weird scene, but the book also had a dream sequence. Though in the book the dream had something to do with Bigger’s own head if I recall.
In general, Bigger didn’t seem as tightly wound in this movie. When he is with Mary and Jan he seems more laid back to some extent and is even laughing with them while in the car.
This movie is the closest to the novel, until Mary’s bones are found. The actor who plays Bigger is 30 years old, so he is at least a bit closer to Bigger’s age in the book. We see him hanging out with his friends, making their pretend phone call which was a great scene in both book and movie. Seeing Bigger as a normal 20-year-old, having fun with his friends, but then getting serious about the world they live in, that prevents them from being able to achieve their dreams (Bigger wanted to be a pilot but it wasn’t allowed back then). Oprah plays Bigger mother and she was great, especially in the scene form the book where she begs Mrs. Dalton not to let them kill her son.
Yet, even though this one follows the book so closely in the first half or so, it was kind of the most forgettable of the three movies. Even the ’51 movie stands out in my mind more than this one does. It is free to watch on YouTube (it isn’t available anywhere else) and the quality was pretty bad so maybe the contributing to the watching experience.
Bessie starts put the same as in the book and was a more faithful portrayal of her than the ’51 movie had. We see how she is dependent on alcohol and how she lives a sad life and Bigger manipulates her. He writes the ransom note at her place, like in the book. But then when Bigger goes on the run, we never see Bessie again. I don’t get why they bothered to even have her in that first half, then just leave her out for the rest of the movie.
Aside from Bessie this movie plays out similarly to the book as far as the trial go and we get the scene of the mobs and the burning KKK cross which was also in the book. He had been given a cross by the black preacher, and when he sees the KKK cross, he tears the necklace off and throws it. And in the end, he once again is given the death penalty and we have the conversations with him and Mr. Max and Jan.
This adaption modernizes the story, having it take place in today’s world. I liked that they did this, however I don’t think they ended up doing the best job executing this idea. They kept the coal furnace and Mr. Dalton avoids technology and has no cameras or computers which just doesn’t make sense. I loved the visuals with the furnace though, so I am mixed. It doesn’t make sense, yet I appreciated that they kept it.
The movie was beautifully shot, I thought the acting was great, and I was engaged in the story. I also really liked the score and it really added to the atmosphere of certain scenes. I do think this was kind of made for those who have read the book because there are important moments that someone who has read the book will notice, but I think someone who doesn’t know the book might not get.
In the end, I didn’t love this adaption, despite loving certain things about it. Compared with the two other adaptations, this one strays the farthest from the novel.
For one, Bigger is like nothing like he was in the book. He is more likable; he isn’t the one trying to get the others to agree to rob a store. Rather his friend is the one pressuring him into it. He and Bessie have a better relationship than the book, though she catches him starring him at another woman at one point (a white woman).
He listens to punk rock and has a punk rock look which I actually liked. We see that he seems to make a point to not fit the racial stereotype white people have for him, while also not fitting into what other black people think he should be. The one friend, telling him he isn’t a true black person because he didn’t show up to rob the store and because of the way he dresses. Bigger than beats the guy up for saying that.
In the end, when he is wanted for the murder, he gets Bessie to come with him and says they should run away and get married. Um, what? What a romantic proposal. Anyway, he brings Bessie to this rundown abandoned building and she’s like, why are we on the run if you claim you are innocent? And he lies and says that even though he is innocent, they will assume it was him, so they need to run. (This isn’t the case in the book though either which is interesting. When Mary is missing, Mr. Dalton doesn’t assume Bigger had anything to do with it. Although, this also shows a different kind of racism, because he thought Bigger was too dumb to have done it.)
Later, he kisses Bessie and tries to get something started but she keeps telling him no and gets away. He then tries to strangle her! He says he is sorry, but Bessie throws his gun out the window and gets out of there and leave.
Mary’s death happens very early in the book. In the movie, after the first night out, Mary has been drinking and she looks at the stairs and says how there are so many to climb. He says she’ll be fine and they both go their separate ways. We then see Big putting more coal in the furnace. I loved this scene, because people who read the book assumed the movie would have him kill her that night, so I loved that they kind of lead the viewer to think it would happen, only to realize nothing happens that first night.
He spends a lot fo time with Mary and Jan and even kind of double date when he brings Bessie.
We see again that Mary seems well intentioned yet makes these racist comments and assumptions. We also see Big opening up to her and Jan though. We also see how Mary has her political ideas and wants Big to agree with her. At one point she is talking to him about the world saying, you’re outraged, aren’t you? And he’s just like, uh sure.
Near the end, they go to a party and do molly. Jan and Mary get in a fight and Big takes her home. He thinks she is in bed but then he hears her dancing outside in her underwear and goes to bring her to bed. She is coming on to him, saying she loves him. He tells her it’s just the drugs and that she needs to go to bed and be quiet because he doesn’t want to lose his job.
Mrs. Dalton then walks down the hall calling her, and that is when Big puts the pillow over her head and he then puts her in the furnace.
In this movie and in the ’86 movie, Bigger throws up after Mary’s death, but in the book he didn’t that I recall.
In this movie, it is the housekeeper Peggy, who finds Mary’s jewelry in the ashes, not the reporters.
Right after finding the jewelry, we cut to a newspaper showing that Big is wanted for the murder. And from here, everything just feels rushed. We see that he can’t trust his friends because it is clear one of them is going to try and turn him in. He sees Jan, and Jan kind of makes the same speech from the book, though it isn’t nearly as impactful. Big ends up pulling a gun on him, which makes no sense. In the book Big pulls a gun on him, but this is before the bones had been found and he is trying to pin it all on Jan.
Then when Bessie leaves him, the cops find where he is and he ends up being shot. He is made out to be a martyr, and a symbol of police killing innocent black men. But the problem here is that Bigger is guilty! And we don’t see in the book about how he is a product of his environment and that is what lead him to murder. Here, Mary’s death just isn’t as symbolic and just comes off as a murder he is trying to get away with.
We do see how after he commits the crime, he goes home and has breakfast with his family as if all is fine. He goes to lunch with friends and feels that he can finally see (his character wears glasses in the movie by the way, which seem symbolic). So we kind of get that sociopathic character who takes pride in the murder, but this just didn’t fit with who Bigger was the first 2/3 of the movie.
Jan was also a great character in the book, but here is just kind of bleh. We hear he is connected with some radical political groups in Berkeley (woohoo Berkeley shoutout!) but that’s it.
Book vs Movies
Ultimately, the book wins over the three movies. I would recommend the new one actually, because that is the one I liked the most, though a big reason is the performances and the cinematography. If you want a movie closer to the book, the 1986 movie is the one to watch. That one does have good performances by the way. Even though I felt it was kind of forgettable, it is the most faithful, aside from leaving Bessie out of the ending. The 1951 movie is also worth watching if for nothing else, to see Richard Wright play bigger!
But all in all, the book is so well written and you truly feel you are in Bigger’s shoes. It can be lengthy at times near the end, but I was always interested and had no idea where the story was going to go.
As far as reading this in schools, I think a better book for high schoolers would be If Beale Street Could Talk which was written by James Baldwin in 1974. Baldwin has some of the most beautiful prose, and it is a bit more recent as far as describing race relations in America. There also aren’t any graphic murder scenes, though the story does deal with a woman being raped. I would highly recommend Native Son to adults, but Beale Street is a great choice for teenagers and adults alike.