Review of Amistad by

Book cover for Amistad

Sentences you thought you’d never read: Amistad (the movie) reminds me of Tropic Thunder.

This seems like as good a time as any other to read Amistad, the novelization of the 1997 Spielberg film now played in high school history classes the world over (including in my Grade 12 history class). With only fuzzy memories of the film, I decided the $2 for this book at the library-affiliated used bookstore was a bargain. This past week in my English class of adult Indigenous learners, we’ve been talking about stereotypes and, in particular, Black Lives Matter and racism. Amistad tackles these very issues in a fictionalized version of the United States just a few decades before the Civil War.

I don’t remember much about the movie—it’s on Netflix, so maybe I’ll re-watch it at some point—except that it wasn’t half-bad despite starring Matthew McConaughey. That’s why the movie reminds me of Tropic Thunder, which is another exception to my general rule that I just don’t want to watch movies with McConaughey in them. I can’t explain my completely irrational dislike of him, but there you have it. Anyway, I recall the movie as being “good” in that nineties-message-movie kind of way, plus-or-minus the hastily shellacked layers of historical commentary applied to the characters and sets. The movie and book are both very much aware that they are a story about slavery and freedom, and they are also very self-aware of the wider historical continuum, including the Civil War. The result is a kind of anachronistic imposition of twentieth-century ideas about nineteenth-century attitudes towards abolition and slavery.

This book bills itself as “brilliantly narrated by Alexs Pate”, and I spent some time trying to figure out if those awards were for writing. (Based on what I can read from his website, it looks like he’s gotten some awards for some of his other books, so maybe his writing was just constrained by an attempt to reproduce the screenplay too faithfully.) Amistad reminds me why I tend to avoid novelizations, because it feels brutally like one: all telling, no showing, with an omniscient narrator who spills everyone’s thoughts onto the page with the subtlety of a gossip columnist:

Van Buren cared about the future of America. Slavery was too complicated and too interwoven into the fabric of American life to think that it could be eradicated by simply being against it. What good would that do anyway?

This is simply execrable writing. It’s so patronizing; it sounds like someone trying to explain these issues to children. Not only overly simplistic, it’s just so obviously hammering on the book’s theme. I don’t have an issue with didactic novels, but there is a point where the narrator’s intrusion into the story becomes grandstanding on a soapbox. Pate is approaching Doctorovian levels here, but unlike Doctorow his characters lack anything in the way of depth or a twinkle of humour—and unlike the movie, they don’t have the performances of actors like Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman to enjoy.

It’s tempting to think that peeks inside the minds of characters like the narration above is adding depth to them, but it doesn’t. Instead these tidbits merely turn the characters into caricatures of their historical personae: Van Buren is a career politician who cares only about re-election; Calhoun is a dyed-in-the-wool slaveowner; Adams is an abolitionist who doesn’t like calling himself that, etc. While all or some of these representations might be accurate (I don’t know enough about the history to judge), they are still one-dimensional. A single story, no matter how true, is still just a single story.

Worse still, Amistad’s voice speaks to us from a position of hindsight. The narrator keeps dropping hints about looming Civil War, as if it were obvious to all the politicians at the time that war was going to happen. Again, not a scholar of American Civil War history here—and I’m sure that there were some politicians at the time who recognized and worried about the growing tension between the northern and southern states. But this is twenty years prior to the war, and while the Amistad played a role in exacerbating those tensions, there was still so much more yet to come. The book also grandstands on the idea that Amistad was this huge turning point in the American abolitionist movement, that it was somehow precedent-setting and opinion-changing in how people saw slavery. The narrator puts a “weight of history” tone into the storytelling, emphasizing the supposedly inherent backwardness of the anti-abolitionists and how it’s only a matter of time before the country finally does away with slavery.

Some of these flaws are faults with the movie and screenplay, and so perhaps it is unfair to criticize a novelization for replicating them. But that presumes a novelization cannot fix or expand upon what happens onscreen—isn’t the kind of the point? Novelizations can be strong companions to a movie. Indeed, this book manages to bring depth to one group that isn’t well-represented onscreen: the Africans of the Amistad. They do not speak English, and so for most of the movie they lack a voice—or the voice is mediated through a translator, later on. This makes for an uncomfortable situation in which a movie about the humanity of Black people is told through a white saviour lens, as a bunch of landed white guys debate in the finest traditions of imperial Rome. Because he doesn’t have to use subtlitles, Pate has an opportunity to flesh out individuals from within the group, to emphasize differences in tribe and character—and he uses this opportunity to great advantage. Not only do we get a much better idea of what makes Cinque such a determined figure, but we also see the differing opinions among the Africans and their perspective on the matter.

Still, even this small benefit is not really enough to save the book. I can’t recommend the novelization of Amistad. The movie itself, while far from perfect, is pretty entertaining and moving. The book, with its flat and surprisingly bad storytelling, doesn’t come close to capturing that. There are far superior works of literature available that deal with these issues in more interesting and complex ways (feel free to recommend some to me in the comments).

Engagement

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