nullIn November, when it was announced that the slavery-era novel won the prestigious National Book Award For Fiction last year, I joked that, given the then interest in slave-themed films and TV series on both the big and small screens, this had a very good chance of being adapted to film as well. 

But I was only teasing, as I said. I never really expected it to actually become a reality. Well, it is.

On Wednesday night in November 2013, author and screenwriter James McBride (Red Hook SummerMiracle at St. Anna) was declared fiction category winner at the 2013 National Book Awards ceremony in New York, for his novel The Good Lord Bird – the memoir of a 103-year-old black man, who claims to have served with abolitionist John Brown, while pretending to be a girl in order to do be able to do so.

Described as a work of humor, here’s a longer description of the novel via

Abolitionist John Brown calls her “Little Onion,” but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry.

And as we all know, Brown was unsuccessful in his attempt to start a slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry in 1859; however that occurrence helped fuel the movement that started the Civil War.

nullThis afternoon brings news that Jaden Smith and Liev Schreiber are set to star in a big screen adaptation of the novel, which McBride will produce.

Jaden Smith (who is prepping to reprise his role in Karate Kid 2) will play HenryLittle OnionShacklefordthe 12-year-old slave who John Brown (to be played by Liev Schreiber) rescues and frees during a saloon fight, and makes him a kind of mascot for his gang of frontier abolitionists. The story is told through Shackleford’s eyes, as the older version of himself tells a friend of his adventures in the 1850s with John Brown and how he survived the raid on Harpers Ferry. 
McBride’s loosely historical novel begins three years before the 1859 raid that helped ignite the Civil War. Brown liberates McBride, follows the broad outline of Brown’s haphazard campaign, from the massacre of Kansas farmers through skirmishes with pro-slavery civilians and soldiers, fundraising in Boston, strategizing with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to the ill-fated assault on the armory at Harpers Ferry.
No word yet on who will direct.
I should note that this news comes after last year’s announcement that Giancarlo Esposito will be directing his own feature film on abolitionist John Brown, titled Patriotic Treason (also based on a book) which will star Ed Harris, while Esposito will play Frederick Douglass
And actor Paul Giamatti has partnered with FX to develop a mini-series on John Brown as well, which will trace the true story of the abolitionist’s transformation from a lowly 50-year old farmer to a notorious anti-slavery freedom fighter in Kansas and his famed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry.

The project, itself also based on a book, is expected to be 6 to 8 hours in length.

Clearly there’s interest in on-screen tellings of John Brown’s story. 

Long-time readers of S&A will remember that, in 2009, prior to Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino revealed his plans to make a film about John Brown; although his was to be more of a reimagining of Brown’s story, as only Tarantino could tell it.

Since James McBride worked with Spike Lee on two films in the last 6 years (Red Hook Summer, Miracle at St. Anna), and Spike really hasn’t made his own slavery-set film yet, which I’m actually surprised by, maybe this – The Good Lord Bird – could be the project that brings them back together.

Or maybe not…

Has anyone read the novel yet? And if you have, thoughts?