Amazon Prime’s new original series The Underground Railroad vividly brings to life Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, though with a few significant changes. The Underground Railroad details the journey of Cora (Thuso Mbedu) from enslavement on the Randall Plantation through the literal Southern underground railroad to eventual life as a freedwoman in the Midwest. All the while, she is relentlessly chased across America by notorious slave catcher Ridgeway with a vendetta from failing to capture her mother who ran away years earlier.
Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins’ sublime direction gives an intense sense of life to the real stories of those who survived the underground railroad, often dedicating chilling long shots of Black people on the plantation or in free Black communities, breaking the fourth wall as they stare into the camera. These small shots are incredibly important to Jenkins’ vision, giving color, reality, and emotion to the black-and-white stills one may see of free or enslaved people from the 19th century. The panned shots are vignettes that interpret the evolution of Black stories at the time of slavery, bringing to life the nuances Whitehead mentions over Cora’s journey in The Underground Railroad novel.
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While Jenkins’ adaptation of the book typically stays true, certain details have been changed for dramatic enhancement, new interpretations of characters’ backstories, and minor introductions of Black stories not explored in Whitehead’s novel. Considering The Underground Railroad also speeds through the novel’s first half in the first couple episodes and spends much more time on the book’s latter half, Jenkins also leaves out several important facets focused on by Whitehead.
The first part of Whitehead’s novel details Cora’s life on the Randall Plantation after being (apparently) abandoned by her mother, Mabel, years before. An important recurring aspect that The Underground Railroad novel features is the small garden on the plantation that Cora inherited from her mother and grandmother, Ajarry. The series flies through Cora’s plantation life, so her garden she tends to is hardly mentioned. Instead of detailing the way that Cora keeps the garden functioning as a way to deal with her mother’s escape and loneliness, the show only explains Cora’s inheritance from Mabel as a small sack of seeds that she carries as a necklace.
Cora’s Rescue In Tennessee
In the series, Ridgeway takes Cora as his prisoner to his family home in Tennessee as he grieves his father’s imminent death. Ridgeway takes Cora and Homer to a bar and consumes an entire bottle of whiskey, not realizing a group of free black men have seen their public outing. The men happen to be agents of the underground railroad, saving Cora from Ridgeway in the middle of the night as she is shackled to Ridgeway’s bed (his intentions are left ambiguous as he falls asleep). Cora intends to kill Ridgeway before leaving, but Mack stops her, saying the house is grieving already and he’ll take care of it in time.
The Underground Railroad novel, on the other hand, documents Cora’s rescue from Royal when Ridgeway had parked the wagon overnight on the side of the road in Tennessee without any intention of returning home. At night, Ridgeway’s associate Boseman unshackles Cora in an attempt to rape her, but Ridgeway intervenes. At the same time, Royal and his anti-slavery underground railroad associates show up to rescue Cora, killing Boseman, chasing off Homer, and shackling Ridgeway to the wagon before departing for Indiana.
For those who read the book, the scene in “North Carolina” where Cora is finally led to the Wells’ crawlspace is quite jarring. Martin telling Cora “Grace will guide you,” is at first understood as a faith-based interpretation for good tidings, until she sees a young Black girl, Grace, sitting in the corner of the crawlspace. In The Underground Railroad novel, Cora was in the Wells’ attic for nearly seven months in complete isolation until falling ill.
Grace’s introduction was important for Cora reconnecting with her motherly instincts formerly seen on the Randall Plantation when she stepped in to save Chester from being abused. Cora’s sense of protection over the next generation of Black people in America is explored through sacrificing herself for Chester and Grace, and her curiosity of Homer who seems to be indifferent to, and even assists in, his boss’s cruelty to Black people.
The Underground Railroad television show even dedicates a 20-minute episode to Grace, revealing she escaped the burning house, dug through to the railroad, and told her story on the train, giving her true name as Fanny Briggs. Fanny represents the future that abolitionists, underground railroad agents, and Black activists are working for as they free enslaved people and build prospering Black communities like the Valentine vineyard.
Cora’s Relationships with Caesar and Royal
Cora never actually has a romantic relationship with Caesar in the novel, but her guilt over fleeing without him is stressed in both versions. The Underground Railroad novel details Caesar attempting to pursue Cora, but she can’t return his romantic feelings, so the two remain friends and he pairs with another girl in South Carolina instead. After her escape, Cora’s guilt makes her regret not having a relationship with him, believing at the moment that if she had loved him maybe they would have at least been captured together. In Jenkins’ show, Cora often sees Caesar in dreams and visions, though it’s unclear whether they’re due to her still fostering romantic feelings for him or the intense guilt she feels for escaping to freedom whereas he was captured and murdered.
When Cora becomes closer to Royal in “Indiana Autumn,” she is still struggling with a profound emptiness and trauma from her terrifying journey and experiences of slavery on the plantation. In the novel, her inability to fully connect with others as a newly free woman strains her attempts at intimacy with Royal. She realizes she likes him in a romantic sense and he gently pursues her, but she is never able to act on the relationship before his murder. In both Underground Railroad adaptations, as a freeborn man, Royal is compassionate and understanding of Cora’s reckoning with her past and present, giving her time and support as she adjusts to her new reality. The show gives Cora and Royal a chance to actually physically and emotionally act on their relationship, while in the novel they never had the opportunity.
Arnold Ridgeway’s (Joel Edgerton) backstory is much more fledged-out in Jenkins’ television adaptation: he is an example of how some racist white people aren’t simply taught their racist ideals, but will never understand compassion for all humans. Ridgeway’s relationship with his father is much more heartbreaking in the series, how can a father who disagrees with slavery teach his son to simply care? In the novel, Ridgeway’s father was never explicitly sympathetic to Black people, he only disagreed with Ridgeway’s profession because he feuded with the head patroller and wanted him to become a blacksmith.
The Underground Railroad episode “Tennessee” explains that Ridgeway isn’t just some white supremacist figure who has simply been preached these values by generations before him, he’s actively cruel. As a teenager he entices a young freed child, Mack, to fall into a well, permanently disabling him. He even cruelly asks their freedwoman maid, Annie, if she agrees about how “some people are meant to be in chains” and that because she “earned” her way out, she deserves to be free. Annie’s terrified hesitation seems reminiscent of how enslaved people had to be careful of their responses for fear of abuse from white people, and Ridgeway’s father sees this sadistic interaction as the final straw in their torn relationship.
Ridgeway’s final confrontation with Cora was also adjusted from Whitehead’s original ending. In both adaptations, Cora is the one who finally kills Ridgeway after he has terrorized the Valentine farm in Indiana, but how he dies changes from Cora symbolically throwing him down the railroad entrance as the floor mangles his body, to the show where Cora and Ridgeway both tumble down the railroad hatch and Cora repeatedly shoots him while both Homer and Molly look on. The book and television show versions of The Underground Railroad include a dying Ridgeway telling Homer to write down his racist “American imperative,” though the series hauntingly includes Childish Gambino’s song “This Is America” as it fades off.
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