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Amistad: Film and Book Comparison

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Published: Thu, 21 Sep 2017

Jinchen Zhao

After watching the film Amistad and read the book of this story, I feel like they are both valuable to study the history of America in 1840s. Meanwhile, from my point of view, the book is more academical than the movie while the movie can give you a quick idea about what is really going on in the story and you can feel the story more directly than the book. Now, let’s compare them in different aspects.

  1. What can the student more readily learn from the film as opposed to the book?

After watching the movie, the first thing that I feel different from the book is the mood that those actors behaved were really shocking. From the movie, we can directly feel the eager of those black people whom lead by Cinque want to regain their freedom.The time that Cinque yelled out “Gives us free” make me feel the power of those black people and this can’t be shown in the book. Furthermore, the visual appeal it emanates to the audience, and we all can feel the frustration as the Africans when they want to say about themselves but they cannot due to they are unable to speak English, meanwhile, we all can feel the happiness when they finally have their freedom back. That is hardly to feel when we only read the book.

  1. Do the different mediums tell the same story or are there sufficient reasons to argue they do not?

This question is pretty hard to tell, in my point of view, they are neither telling the EXACT same story nor they are telling the different story. First of all, the book is more academical resource of the story, and the book is telling us the story more in direct ways. For example: There are a lot of examples about the effect to people, city, countries if the Africans are freed. E.g. Van Buren was more thinking about the influence about his re-election if he choose to free those African people.(p.47) The Cuban Planters always considering the number of free black people they would like to give as they do not want the uprising of them and at the same time, they want profit. (p.19) All those examples made the book a perfect resource for research and the book gives us more details about the environment in the society as well as introduced many political jargon. On the other hand, the story line in the movie is almost the same as the book. From the uprising to got caught and finally earned their freedom in the end. Yet there is some difference. As we all know. The movie Amistad is a typical Hollywood film, in this case, there is inevitable changes to the original story in order to let people pay to watch the movie and be entertained by the film. For example:In the book, Roger Baldwin was interested in free the African people before the Amistad trial and he was trying to help them in a previous court base. Yet in the film, that’s not what the person is, the film want to make the character: Roger Baldwin, have a good turn-around and make the story more interesting,Roger Baldwin only begin to fight for the African people at the end of the movie, he was more caring about his career advancing in the beginning.(p.37 and film). Cinque did not kill the captain of Amistad in the book(p.25), instead he let his friends strangle him. This can be reasoned as the Hollywood movie usually want to build a hero in the film and that is Cinque. The most different thing about the film and the book is the procedure of the trial. Although they reach the same conclusion: The Africans earned their freedom, but in the book, there are long long story that they used many words to convince that the Africans should earned their freedom while in the movie, it is more likely that all people are persuaded by John Quincy Adams in a matter of time.(p.193)

  1. Since the film version of this historical event cannot contain the same amount of detail as the book version, do the details omitted from the film essentially presented different account to the extent that the history portrayed is essentially different from that depicted in the book?

From my opinion, the details that omitted from the film does not produce a different story. They are more likely to be a additional remarks to each other. Basically, the book and the film shows us the same story, from the beginning of the uprising to get caught again and through the trails then finally get their freedom back, the main story line are pretty the same,yet there is still differences. The people in the book are more accurate to describe what they really are, their personality, the thinking, the attitude is clearly described in the book. On the other hand, as the major goal of a film is to make audience pay and make them entertained, there are some difference in the film. But in general, the film cannot be called a “different story”.

  1. Is one medium more suited to academic study? Does this make one medium superior to the other when it comes to teaching history in university?

To this question, I think the answer is: Yes, the book is more suited to academic study. First of all, the book is extremely informative as it is based on the research those who are extremely well-known in the Amistad subject, legal materials and records from archives. All this gives Jones plenty of valuable information to write a accurate book and provide a deep analysis about the whole story around Amistad. The detail provided by the book is extremely valuable and this makes the book a much more suited to academic study than the book because when people read the book, they can know that this is what really happen in the past rather than thinking which part is changed in the film in order to make people like the movie more. Jones remains neutral in the book and he only gives us the facts of the story. He clearly described how Amistad trial affect the people who were fighting for black people’s rights(p.27), he told us the divide between the North and South of America during the election, and the problem between Spain and America. On the other hand,  the film did present the story to us, but to be honest, although the main story line are the same, yet the details are inaccurate. In academic study, you want to teach students the truth about history and let students know the details of the whole trial. It is just not quite well to use the film to teach in academic study due to the inaccurate and lack of details.

  1. Do both mediums use the same sources? And What sort of sources do the film and the book rely on?

In my point of view, they are using the different sources, as I said earlier, the book is based on the “professors” research of Amistad project, court records from archives and legal materials etc. It is more detailed and accurate while the film is almost totally based on the book and made some adjustment to entertain audiences more while earn some profit in the film.

6. If you would be given the task of teaching the history of this subject, is using one medium more preferable than the other for teaching a first-year university class?

In this case, as we are teaching a first-year university class. To be fair, it is not easy for students to read a 280+ page books in a short time. In this case, I would say I will use the movie as the primary resource to teach first year students to let them have a general idea about the story. At the same time, I will tell them that there is some problem with the film which is inaccurate and lack of details, I might assign homework or assignment to let student have a research on the books about the difference between the real story and the story that presented in the film. Of course, I will provide a small range of page on the book to help students quickly locate the main points. E.g. Pg20-25. Meanwhile, it is good to write a small essay around 300-400 words after finish watching a 2 hour film. The film is a perfect resource to let first-year students know the general idea of the story and at the same time, it won’t be too hard to understand. Although I do believe that reading the whole book is much more accurate and full of details. To be fair, it is still not good enough to be a teaching material as we cannot spend whole term on a single story.

In conclusion, Amistad is a good story to study the past of 1840s in America, the book is more detailed and accurate about the history and make it a perfect choice of academic study or research while the movie can let us have a wonderful two and half hours of history feast while still can get the main story line. Both material are extremely valuable, we cannot decline any of those two in the function of helping us learning the past. To best describe the relationship between the book and the movie, I think the movie can be the best “attachment” to the book.


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