From Page to Screen: a Comparative Study of Richard Wright's Native Son and
Its Two Film Adaptations

Raphael Lambert

In 1940, Richard Wright's novel Native Son appeared on the "Book of the Month Club," and its success has continued unabated ever since. Native Son, the first bestseller by a black writer, brought African American literature in the limelight. The story was made into film twice: first in 1951 by French director Pierre Chenal, and more recently in 1986 by American director Jerrold Freedman. Through a close reading of Wright's seminal essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born," the first part of this reflection explores Wright's craftsmanship and endeavors to show how Bigger Thomas, the central character in Native Son, was conceived by Wright in terms akin to film techniques. This part suggests that the cinema, with its intrinsic qualities, may have been a better medium for the Bigger Thomas character to blossom to its full potential. The second part of this reflection focuses on both film adaptations of Native Son. Chenal's and Freedman's respective works were made more than four decades apart and in very different circumstances but both responded to Wright's provocative novel with significant modifications. What posed problem to both directors was not so much the form----i.e., the style or syntactic structure of the novel----as the content of the story itself, and both Chenal and Freedman had to put up with the political pressure of their time. Hence the second part will contextualize both films and show what elements of the novel were edited and to what ends.

Part I: What is Bigger Thomas Made Of?

In his 1937 manifesto Blueprint for Negro Writing, Richard Wright stigmatized African American literature for being under the cultural and financial tutelage of white society. Embarrassed by the outpouring of good sentiment that followed the publication of Uncle Tom's Children a year later, Wright commented that Uncle Tom's Children was a book "even banker's daughters could read and weep over and feel good about [and] I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears" ("How 'Bigger' Was Born" 454). That unyielding book is of course , which is raw, candid, and intransigent. Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a youth of the Great Depression era, whose deterministic environment----Chicago's South Side ghetto----leads to double homicide. Bigger first accidentally smothers to death Mary Dalton, a wealthy college girl he chauffeurs around. He proceeds to cut her body up and cremate her in the basement furnace of the Dalton's mansion. A few days later, and for no other apparent reason than anger and frustration, Bigger smashes open the brain of his dipsomaniac girlfriend, Bessie Mears. The last part of the novel, "The Trial," is a straightforward indictment of the American judicial system and its racist ideology. The Court focuses exclusively on Bigger's murder of the white girl Mary Dalton, while his slaughtering of his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears, is totally overlooked. As for the long, compassionate, and socially oriented plea of Communist defense lawyer Boris Max, it is dismissed as preposterous and completely ignored by the jury. Bigger is sentenced to death for an unpremeditated murder he committed out of fear.

Although the commercial success of Native Son suggested a genuine need for a more socially conscious art, many critics deplored that Wright's urban realism had done away with aesthetics altogether. James Baldwin was one of the first to pinpoint the symptomatic shortcomings of both Native Son and protest literature. Such books, Baldwin argued, "are forgiven on the strength of [their] good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility" (15). Baldwin also denounced Native Son's sordid depiction of the black community, contending that it reinforced the stereotypes it meant to challenge in the first place. In his essay, "Richard Wright's Blues," Ralph Ellison went a step further as he captured what can be viewed as an artistic lapse in Native Son:

In order to translate Bigger's complicated feelings into universal ideas, Wright had to force into Bigger's consciousness concepts and ideas which his intellect could not formulate. Between Wright's skill and knowledge and the potentials of Bigger's mute feelings lay a thousand years of conscious culture. (89)

At the exception of few scholars, such as Valerie Smith who argues that Wright's use of free indirect speech enables Bigger to find a voice, most critics concur with Ellison's observation and point out that the discrepancy between the elegant speech pattern of the literate third persons narrator and the dialect of the uneducated main protagonist tend to take credibility away from the Bigger character.[1]

The author's intrusive voice makes Bigger Thomas less plausible as a fictional character and it is this very issue Wright struggles with in "How'Bigger' Was Born," originally a speech delivered at Columbia University shortly after the first publication of Native Son and now considered an appendage to the novel. Wright wants to make Bigger a "living personality" (448), and Bigger is to be the embodiment of the black youthムメresentful toward whites, sullen, angry, ignorant, emotionally unstable, depressed and unaccountably elated at times" (448). Bigger also corresponds to actual people with whom Wright interacted when he was a "bareheaded, barefoot kid in Jackson, Mississippi" (434). In Wright's descriptions, Bigger is always associated with verbs of emotion such as "to feel" and "to sense." Bigger does not "think." He is a sort of a brute who lives in the realm of the sensory rather than in the realm of the rational. Ultimately, Wright wants the reader to feel what Bigger feels, but Bigger's inability to voice his own feeling thwarts such an endeavor: "Then I'd find it impossible to say what I wanted to say without stepping in and speaking outright on my own" (458). Tellingly, Wright finishes this statement in a quasi-apologetic tone: "but when doing this I always made an effort to retain the mood of the story, explaining everything only in terms of Bigger's life and, if possible, in the rhythms of Bigger's thought (even though the words would be mine)" (458).

This problem of character's authenticity can be inferred from the very first lines of "How 'Bigger' Was Born" as Bigger Thomas does not represent one but multiple characters. Wright starts his essay picturing different kinds of Biggers, and he numbers them: Bigger No.1, Bigger No.2, etc. The Bigger we know from the novel is a combination of at least five Bigger Thomases----a montage that tends to objectify Bigger. Wright also sees these Biggers as types more than actual individuals. Later in the essay, the autobiographical Bigger becomes more allegorical as Wright adds that not all Biggers are black and that in fact, there are millions of white Biggers everywhere. All Biggers are the same regardless of race, borders or nationalities ----a statement apparently serving his Marxist ideals. The fictional veneer of Native Son is too thin for its didactic project.

As burdensome as authorial presence may be in the text, Native Son remains a rich, multilayered story in which Richard Wright experimented with modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, and direct rendering of a dream state----so many literary tools meant to compensate the so-called loss of realism inherent to written fiction. According to Russian Formalist thinker and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the best alternative to this verbally-constructed reality is the cinema where reality materializes directly onscreen. The belief that the camera does not lie is of course a na夫e belief, since as a medium, the cinema is an agent of communication between two entities. By essence, the cinema is the bearer of messages, points of view, and ideologies. Eisenstein's opinion, however, can help understand a major distinction between literature and the cinema. What distinguishes both arts can be grasped in the difference of meaning between two verbs with the same etymology, "to construct" and "to construe." Fiction readers must interpret the words in order to picture what they read. They have to construct knowledge, to combine and arrange the elements they are given into something coherent. Film-screening is more passive. The picture first assails the viewers, who, then, must read, i.e., construe the stark reality presented to them. Therefore, film images first appeal to the viewer's sensorial system whereas the literary text first appeals to the reader's intellect.

This immediacy and this spontaneity typifying the cinematic experience must have appealed to Richard Wright as many of his remarks in "How 'Bigger' Was Born" suggest that his intention was to recreate on the page the kind of emotions the film spectator undergoes:

I wanted the reader to feel that Bigger's story was happening now, like a play upon the stage or a movie unfolding upon the screen. Action follows action, as in a prizefight. Wherever possible, I told of Bigger's life in close-up, slow-motion, giving the feel of the grain in the passing time. (459)

Earlier in the essay, Wright describes his own craft, and what he experienced during the writing of Native Son bears a striking resemblance to the qualities attributed to film. As images springing out of the screen, Richard Wright tells that "there are meanings in my book of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper" (434) (Emphasis mine). In Wright's imagination, Bigger often appears as a mere
constellation of sensations, and he intends to draw Bigger trusting his own feelings. Then, describing the varieties of Bigger Thomases that inspired him, Wright comments: "their actions had simply made impressions upon my sensibilities," and as he set out to write, "these things came surging up, tangled, fused, knotted, entertaining me by the sheer variety and potency of their meaning and suggestiveness" (457). Richard Wright's writing of Bigger's story becomes the decoding, then the rationalization of mental images, of "impressions which crystallized and coagulated into clusters and configuration of memory, attitudes, moods, ideas" (ibid.). This semantic play with cinematic terms leaves no doubt as to Wright's understanding of the power of persuasion film images carry with them. And this may explain why Native Son's plot seems to have been designed for the screen, as scholar Laura L. Quinn suggests in a recent essay:

Voice does not seem to be the source of Native Son's power. We find that source, rather in the novel's scene-making capacity, in the elaboration of such moments as the rat-killing opener, the arduous movement up the stair with drunken Mary Dalton to her bedroom and her death, that very long interval with the gentleman of the press in the furnace room when the burnt body is discovered, Bigger's capture on the roof, and the family reunion or gathering at the police station that culminate in Bigger's shame and rage as his mother kneels before Mrs. Dalton. Bigger is delivered to us not orally so much as visually or viscerally; the novel is cinematic rather than voiced. (Miller 46) (Emphasis mine)

Considering such a harbinger together with film's capacity to make us believe that we are experiencing reality, we may venture that Bigger was really born onscreen, that both his physical and psychological reality were restored when French director Pierre Chenal first adapted Native Son in 1951, with Richard Wright himself as the scriptwriter and in the lead role. Unfortunate circumstances, however, impaired the quality of Chenal's work.

Part II: Bigger Goes to the Movies

The first hurdle Chenal faced when he decided to make Native Son into a film were of political order. His intention to shoot in France was turned down by French officials for "reasons dictated by international policy" (Fabre 337). In other words, in the context of postwar relations, with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) spurred by Senator McCarthy's anti-Communism, the country that had rescued Europe from Fascism would not accept being pictured as racist. Furthermore, France was under the Marshall plan and ethics were brushed aside for obvious reasons of state. State funds were removed from the project, and Chenal moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Once in Argentina, the movie could hardly be shot in optimum conditions, not only because resemblance between sunny Buenos Aires and snowy-windy Chicago was slight, but also because the unpropitious situation favored a number of financial irregularities that heightened tensions between the people involved. However, Native Son premiered in Buenos Aires under the title Sangre Negra (Black Blood) in March 1951 and was, in spite of all its imperfections, a success. Once ready for the American market, the New York State Board of Censors cut about 25 minutes out of the original. As expected, Richard Wright, author of the novel, co-author of the screenplay, and screen incarnation of Bigger Thomas, reacted bitterly, as a letter to his agent shows:

People everywhere know that the film was cut, that the killing of the rat was cut, that making of the home gun was cut, that the real heart of the boys' attempt at robbery was cut. . . . But the cut that did the greatest damage was the cutting of the trial. . . . The trial is shown with arms waving and mouths moving, but nothing is heard. (Fabre 348)

As much as he identified with his fictional character, Richard Wright was not an actor and the rest of the cast was quite amateurish too. For instance, a young Californian tourist played Jan Erlone; an archeology major at the University of Chicago, Gloria Madison, played Bessie; and a former conductor from California who was living in Argentina, Don Dean, played Boris Max, Bigger's Communist lawyer. According to contemporary reviews, Richard Wright as Bigger Thomas was the most unconvincing and unsatisfying portrayal of all. It must be said that professional actor Canada Lee, who had embodied Bigger in Paul Green's stage adaptation in 1941, was hospitalized at the time of the film's shooting and was only then replaced by Richard Wright. To play the role, Wright lost almost 35 pounds. Unfortunately, Wright was already in his forties and his natural compunction, as well as his features, demanded too much effort and indulgence from the audience that witnessed the immature behavior of an adult instead of the desperate response of a tormented and alienated black youth to his deterministic environment.

Wright's unskilled embodiment of Bigger Thomas is not the only shortcoming in Chenal's movie. Reviewers and scholars have pointed out, helter-skelter, the embellishment of Ernie's Kitchen Shack, a modest South Side honky-tonk, which was turned into a fashionable nightclub with a ring for boxing matches, a jazz band, cabaret singers and habitu市 all dressed up; the transformation of Bessie Mears from a depraved alcoholic into "a very proper graduate of a white-gloves Southern black girl's academy" (Brunette 134); Bigger and Bessie's surreal romantic interlude in the Dalton's limousine shortly after Bigger is hired as the Dalton's chauffeur; and more conspicuously, the absence of the snow so important and symbolic in the book. However, these changes did not modify the story thematically.

There are other changes that are much more disturbing in Chenal's adaptation. As mentioned earlier, the American censorship deleted most of the trial scene. In that scene, Boris Max's defense speech stigmatizes American society and judicial system and aims at convincing the jury (and the reader) that racism is the true culprit in the Bigger Thomas affair. In the truncated version, Max seems to have metamorphosed into a complacent, almost conniving ally of Farley, a malicious, prejudiced reporter, and of American justice in general.

More surprisingly, the trial is not given prominence in Jerrold Freedman's 1986 version either. As Washington Post reviewer Richard Harrington notes: "The defense lawyer's final plea, a blistering indictment of American society, is condensed from 18 pages to 2 nonspecific sentences." Although the 1980s in President Ronald Reagan's America are marked by a revival of anti-Communism, it cannot be compared to the hysterical McCarthy years and therefore cannot account entirely for the deletion of the trial in Freedman's adaptation. The lack of action in Book Three (Fate) may be invoked on the count that it is not good film material, but the frequency of trial scenes in American movies indicates otherwise[2]. The absence of trial in the 1986 version does not seem to correspond to any rational decision. It should be noted, however, that even if Diane Silver, the producer of the 1986 version, had wanted to have the trial scene reproduced in the movie, she could have only offered a very modified version of it since she deleted Bessie's murder from the story. In doing so, Silver somehow reproduces the attitude of the Court in the novel who never shows any concern for Bigger's inexcusable raping and slaughtering of Bessie Mears.

The murder of Bessie Mears by Bigger Thomas is central to Native Son. Bigger commits his first murder out of fear. Scared by blind Mrs. Dalton, who has just entered the bedroom where he has just carried the unconscious, inebriated Mary Dalton, Bigger accidentally smothers Mary to death while trying to silence her with a pillow. Bigger has become a murderer but readers understand the strong extenuating circumstances. Readers find no such solace for the murder of his girlfriend, Bessie. It is brutal, calculated, and unjustifiable. This second murder is Wright's stratagem to force readers to confront their own prejudices, and above all, to force them to reflect on the cause of Bigger's violence, instead of contemplating in disgust the consequences of his actions. As a reviewer of the 1986 version put it, "Wright's Native Son is characterized by a furious absence of sentimentality" (Hoberman 64) and therefore any attempt to soften Bigger's character goes against the spirit of the novel. Thus, in the 1951 adaptation of Native Son, Bessie is murdered, but the circumstances of the crime are quite altered. Bigger kills Bessie in their hideout on the assumption that she 'has snitched' (sic) on him. In other words, he is given a motive for his second killing, and in fact, he even repents later when he learns that he was wrong, stating that "after all, there is love in this world." Bigger's cruelty is significantly mitigated by this re-interpretation of Bessie's murder.

It may seem odd that Richard Wright would accept such an infringement of his story but Chenal's project was the best offer Wright had been made so far: in 1947, Hollywood producer Harold Hecht offered to make an adaptation of Native Son in which Bigger Thomas would be white. Wright refused. In 1941, Wright authorized Paul Green's stage adaptation in which Clara (Bessie), is killed but by a policeman's bullet. On several occasions Wright had consented to significant modifications of his story. The publication of the unexpurgated version of Native Son by the Library of America in 1991 reveals that in order to see his novel published in 1940, Wright had been constrained to edit his own text, deleting important explicit sexual descriptions.[3] The fact that the original text of Native Son underwent so many modifications in the 1940s and 1950s by a film director, a playwright, and the author himself is not so surprising considering the socio-political pressure at the time. As the first bestseller by an African American author, Native Son surely contributed to heighten public awareness of the African American community's lot, and most certainly changed many a biased view about African Americans. Alterations of the original were unfortunate, but Wright also knew it was the price to be paid for the diffusion of his work.

When Richard Wright died in Paris in November 1960, he had been living in France since 1947, and had witnessed from afar only the premises of significant improvements in race relations in the United States. The Civil Rights movement, however, became the major issue of the next two decades and eventually spawned better, if still strained, race relations. The situation is far from perfect in 1986, when novice producer Diane Silver sets about to adapt Native Son to the screen, but real progress has been made, and Silver posits herself as one of those who want to keep the flame of greater race cooperation ablaze. In fact, one of her alleged motivations for choosing Native Son is that "it might be possible to make the human connection with Bigger as an emblem of Black unemployed youth in the 1980s, even though the setting is the 1930s" (McHenry 16). Silver's enthusiasm is commendable, but her view of Bigger Thomas ("an emblem of black unemployed youth") suggests a limited understanding of the novel's complexity. Surely, Bigger Thomas is an emblem and is timeless, but Wright's focus is not the sole predicament of black unemployed youth. In fact, this is only a pretext to hit the true target: readers----especially white readers----for whom Bigger's unbearable violence challenges the distorted (and sometimes buried) feelings towards people of color.

Just like her predecessors, but without the alibi of a similarly hostile socio-political environment, Diane Silver modified the story and her motivations are very revealing of a whole new mentality. Silver imposed on Richard Wesley, her scriptwriter, and Jerrold Freedman, her director, cuts that severely affected Wesley's script (which was quite faithful to the original). Most reviewers have pointed out Silver's oversimplification of the novel. New York Times columnist Vincent Canby wrote a scathing review: "The original work has been so softened that it almost seems upbeat, which would have infuriated Wright" (Canby C14). Richard Harrington for the Washington Post echoed Canby stating that Silver turned the novel into "a pious liberal document" (Harrington B8).

What started the controversy over the 1986 adaptation is Silver's excision of Bessie's murder from the story. Director Jerrold Freedman was strongly opposed to Silver's cut for, as he suitably explained, "By deleting Bessie's murder, Miss Silver has tampered with Mr. Wright's intended statement" (Harmetz C.14). But Freedman's disapprobation did not stop Silver. She actually fired Freedman's postproduction so that, according to Silver herself, the money would not fall apart, and managed to raise another $250,000 to modify the film at her convenience (Ms 17). There are several interpretations of Silver's decision. In her article for Ms., Susan McHenry retraces Silver's career and life until the making of Native Son. She emphasizes her feminist sympathies and reports that Silver agreed with feminists who denounced Richard Wright's misogynist prose. In order to assert his manhood, Bigger kills two women----one by accident, the other deliberately and for no good reason----and never shows any emotion or regret for it. By eliminating Bigger's murder of Bessie, Silver made it easier for feminists to respond to the story. Bessie's appalling death erased from the plot, women do not look so much as disposable tools for Bigger's self-realization, and therefore, McHenry argues, the revision favors greater compassion for Bigger's predicament. Another justification for Silver's cut came from Lindsay Law, the producer of the PBS series American Playhouse who partly financed Silver's project:

The book had more layers than you could explore in a two-hour film. Once the terrible accident has taken place, Bigger has this giddying sense of control over his life for the first time, and his freedom causes him to kill Bessie. Even when we were reading the screenplay, we asked ourselves many times, 'Why is an audience going to want to attempt to understand this man if he goes this step further?' (Harmetz 14)

As Wright was writing Native Son at the end of the 1930s, he was betting on American people's willingness to tackle a challenging novel and to question themselves about their racial prejudices. Almost five decades later, Law, a producer for PBS----the 'brain' channel on American TV----takes Wright's exact opposite view, assuming that American audience does not possess enough intellectual capacity to follow a somewhat complex story. "Why would people attempt to understand?" asks Law. Indeed, why would they, when the media can serve them a rationalized and sanitized version of an otherwise disturbing story? Why should the American movie industry stimulate the supposedly dormant intellect of its audience when all this audience asks for is to consume superficial, feel-good products? Behind Law's good intentions lies a genuine contempt for movie-goers, as well as the seeds of an Orwellian world where people's every move are monitored, their thoughts controlled, and their critical mind kept undeveloped via the use of cheap pleasures.

What happened in the years separating Wright from Law? Wright was an idealist and a fighter. Law seems to have succumbed to the sirens of political correctness----a social phenomenon whereby any painful social issue or tension is anaesthetized, so that everyone can ignore the problem in all impunity. The force of political correctness is double. On the one hand, it does better than solving problems: it pretends there is no problem. On the other hand, political correctness is not considered wrong. People who are politically correct are proud to be so. This is why, of her adaptation of Native Son, Silver says: "The most important thing is that the movie's out there. There was no other reason to do this movie, except to have people see it, discuss it, and discuss poverty, racism, the intricacies of white and black people knowing each other, and the dangers of our not knowing each other" (McHenry 17).

In her righteous, sentimentalist tone, Diane Silver tells us that her movie----made on a shoestring budget and in dire need of making a profit----is good for us, and in a way she's right: it is good for us in the sense that it leaves our consciousness unsullied. The 1986 adaptation of Native Son refuses to be thought-provoking entertainment. Silver had for her the best conditions ever combined----talented scriptwriter, director, actors, and auspicious time period----to do justice, at last, to Richard Wright's masterpiece. Instead, by making Bigger a victim only, Silver did what Wright, as quoted earlier, feared most: write a story that even "banker's daughters could read and weep over and feel good about" ("How 'Bigger'" 454).

Both Lindsay Lawユs and Diane Silverユs points of view reveal the problems at the heart of political correctness. However, what we inferred from their statements might just be the tip of the iceberg, and Silverユs justification for the cut of Bessie's murder may dissimulate much more serious motivations. In "Cinematic Censorship and the Film Adaptations of Richard Wright's Native Son," Ruth Elizabeth Burks reminds us that "Wright's Bigger exploded the myth of black male sexuality visually exploited by Griffith and subsequent Hollywood filmmakers by showing them to be racist and stereotypic constructions used by whites to deny blacks their humanity" (1). Burks implies that both adaptations of Native Son, by deleting such scenes as Mary's responsiveness to Bigger's overtures,[4] Bigger's rape of Bessie, Bigger's trial----all scenes concentrating on Bigger's sexuality----perpetuate the Hollywood pattern. Otherwise, explains Burks, why neglect the newspapermen's racial slurs and conviction that Bigger raped Mary (to the point of asking him to re-enact the rape for them)? Why ignore Buckley's cross-examination of Bigger based on Bigger's alleged animalistic sexuality and possible rape of Mary (whose skin color is strongly emphasized for the occasion)? Why not reproduce Max' s speech which exposes Buckley's blatant bigotry? Could Silver dream of better scenes to have people discuss the dangers of racial prejudices? Considering the choice to remove the trial from the movie, Burks comments: "To include Buckley's prosecution of Bigger in the film adaptations of Native Son ノ is to reveal the extent to which the white race is absorbed with the idea that black men are bent on defiling white women" (7). Burks's analysis unmasks what really lurks behind Silver's professed goals: the worst kind of racism because it is almost impossible to detect. It is anchored in each individual, it is part of the culture, and comforting good intentions are not enough to uproot such intolerance because it is often unconscious.

The unexpurgated version of Chenal's Native Son is unavoidable and cannot be assessed with fairness. Yet, if we judge by the success of the Buenos Aires premiere as well as by Wright's anger in the letter to his agent, we come to the paradoxical conclusion that there must have been less hypocrisy regarding racial injustice in 1951 than in 1986. The turmoil of the Civil Rights in the 1960s and 1970s has generated undeniable improvements, but it seems this good spirit has been thwarted in the 1980s. The fight for racial equality has not been forgotten but it has been turned, as Silver's words demonstrate, into a discourse alone. This discourse is not even negative. It is simply dull, meant to numb, and Silver's reductionist adaptation of Native Son is a perfect illustration of such phenomenon.

The problem of authorial intrusiveness in Native Son becomes acute because Bigger's inability to express himself conflicts with the very nature of literature, which is a medium of words. This disparity is exacerbated with protest literature whose discourse is rhetorical and loaded with messages. In this view, the cinema, with its seemingly unmediated way of addressing spectators, appears to be the appropriate medium for Bigger Thomas----a detail that did not elude Wright as he intended his prose to exude cinematic qualities. But Native Son proved deceptively easy to adapt onscreen.

The murder of Bessie Mears, Bigger's girlfriend, is either modified in order to look justifiable, like in the 1951 version, or completely done away with, like in the 1986 version. The murder of Bessie makes everyone feel uneasy because it is morally indefensible, and this accounts for producer Diane Silver's decision to omit it altogether from the 1986 version.

PBS producer Lindsay Law backed up Silver, but she also invoked the multilayered quality of the novel and the impossibility to explore it all in a two-hour film. Respecting the book to the letter and giving as much weight to the murder of Bessie and the murder of Mary Dalton might prove too ambitious a project for a film. It would force the film to re-center its attention on Bessie and give prominence to the trial scene used by Richard Wright to hammer home his political agenda. With two very distinct murders, the importance of the trial scene would grow exponentially and would likely become quite confusing within the frame of an average feature-length movie. In addition, while a novel can deal with several topics and swing back and forth between them at will, narrative cinema operates according to a rather linear causal structure. There is a considerable gap between both murders when it comes to Bigger's motive and it may prove difficult for the cinema to deal with both at the same time without giving the impression that it is a disorderly amalgam. Thus, the deletion of Bessie's murder is not only meant to make Bigger the object of viewers' empathy. It also streamlines the story so that viewers can easily relate to it.

One last question is left unresolved: so far, the idea of adapting Native Son with the murder of Mary Dalton out of the picture has occurred to no one. And it probably never will because, ultimately, what fascinates people in Native Son is that a poor, uneducated black hoodlum has the guts and the wits to cut out and cremate the body of a wealthy white girl. In the novel, the reporters cannot believe it. Neither can many readers today. More than six decades after Native Son was written, many in our society still associate Bigger's blackness with brutality and brainlessness. This is what Richard Wright had understood and wanted readers of his time to confront. This is what a politically correct society has understood and wants us never to confront.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James, Collected Essays, New York, The Library of America, 1998

Bloom, Harold, Ed. Major Literary Characters: Bigger Thomas. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990

Brunette, Peter. "Two Wrights, One Wrong," The Modern American Novel and the Movies. Peary, Gerald and Roger Shatzkin, Eds., New York: Ungar, 1978. p.131-142

Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. "Cinematic Censorship and the Film Adaptations of Richard Wright's Native Son." Diss. University of California, Los Angeles, 1993. DAI (1993): 4111A.

Canby, Vincent. "Rage Unleashed," New York Times, Dec. 24 1986, C.14.col 2

Chenal, Pierre. Native Son. 1951. With Richard Wright and Jean Wallace. International Film Forum, 1988

Ellison, Ralph, Shadow and Act, 1953, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, 1973. Trans. Isabel Barzun. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Chap. 15, 336-381

Freedman, Jerrold. Native Son, With Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern and Oprah Winfrey. Diane Silver Productions, 1986

Harmetz, Aljean. New York Times, Dec.23 1986, sec.3: 14

Harrington, Richard. "Diluted Native Son, Based on Wright's Novel," Washington Post, Jan. 16, 1987, B8, col.1

Hoberman, J. "Bigger Than Life," Village Voice, Dec. 30 1986, 64

Mc Henry, Susan. "Producer Diane Silver and the Making of Native Son," Ms., March 1987, 15-17

Miller, James A., Ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright's Native Son, New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997

Smith, Valerie. "Alienation and Creativity in Native Son," in Bloom, Harold, Ed. Major Literary Characters: Bigger Thomas. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

Wright, Richard. "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Native Son, 1940, New York: Perennial Classics,1998.

---------Native Son, 1940, New York: Perennial Classics, 1998


[1] See for instance, Laura L. Tanner, "The Narrative Presence in Native Son," in Bloom, Harold, Ed. Major Literary Characters: Bigger Thomas. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, and Klaus Schmidt, "Teaching Native Son in a German Undergraduate Literature Class," in Miller, James A., Ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright's Native Son. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997.

[2] The fascination with the dispensation of justice in America has been particularly virulent lately Some TV series invariably end up in a courtroom (Law and Order for instance), some sitcoms revolve around judicial cases (Ally Mc Beal for instance), and some shows simply feature real cases (Judge Judy, Divorce Court, etc.).

[3] See section "Notes" of the 1991 Library of Congress edition, 915-936

[4] For Chenal's defense, it must be said that American censorship not only cut a scene where Mary Dalton kisses Bigger, but even most likely destroyed the footage, since it is nowhere to be found in "the extant film copy on file at the Library of Congress" (Brunette 136).