12 Years a Slave is the film adaptation of the acclaimed slave narrative by Solomon Northup entitled Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, A Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River in Louisiana (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853). Solomon Northup was a free black man living with his family in Saratoga, New York. He was hired as a violinist and lured to Washington, D.C., where he was taken prisoner and sold into slavery. This memoir has a unique weight in that over one hundred years after its publication, Dr. Sue Eakin researched and provided historical evidence to confirm Northup's account. The screenplay was written by John Ridley, who is known for his work on such other realistic films as Red Tails and Jimi: All Is by My Side. From working on these films, Ridley was able to gain the experience which to work with Northup's story and create a screenplay that closely encapsulated the spirit of the original text.
Overall, while this film adaptation does not follow the events of Northup’s narrative to an exact degree (in the interest of running time), the film successfully portrays such themes found in the narrative as survival and dehumanization as well as the brutality of the domestic slave trade in the antebellum United States. The film omits and condenses scenes, including the series of confrontations between Tibeats and Solomon, which was condensed to just two scenes. There is also an entire sequence in which Solomon escapes into the swamp that was also skimmed over. The film successfully condenses these events while adding to the overall intensity of the scenes and capturing the essence of their meaning.