How Amazon’s ‘The Underground Railroad’ Ratchets Up the Horror of the Book


I like to think that I’m jaded. I’ve seen so much horror and pain and gore on TV and film that I can shake off a death scene for what it is: a carefully choreographed set piece. But Amazon’s The Underground Railroad has been horrifying me to my core. Everything about Barry Jenkins‘s sprawling ten hour adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel feels calibrated to bewitch viewers and break their hearts — but not without putting them through the wringer first. The Underground Railroad is so good at depicting evil that I’ve struggled to digest it all, starting with one harrowing sequence in Episode 1, “Georgia.”

The very first episode of The Underground Railroad features a grisly death scene that will haunt me for the rest of the life. Yet the scene feels necessary to both the show and the book in different ways. The torture and murder of Big Anthony (Elijah Everett), a slave who attempts escape right before series leads Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), serves as a horrific warning in Whitehead’s book, and a shocking call to action in Jenkins’s show. The show’s depiction of this grotesque scene is also different than it is in the book. Jenkins makes decisions that imbue Big Anthony with more humanity, which makes watching his death all the more upsetting. Still the horror is necessary for viewers to comprehend the hell Cora and her fellow enslaved Black people are in.

The Underground Railroad follows a young Black woman’s dark odyssey out of slavery. The show and book pretend that the historic Underground Railroad was a real system of subterranean mass transit. We ride this leap of imagination to a Swiftian (Jonathan, not Taylor) collage of horror that may not be historically accurate, but it is brutally honest about the nefarious masks racism employs. But first, our heroine has to decide to attempt escape. Big Anthony’s death isn’t just a warning of what evil will befall Cora if she’s caught. It shows us that Cora is less motivated to run away by a sudden surge of courage than the bleak realization that she’s dead no matter what. Attempting to taste freedom even for a moment is worth the risk.

Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad
Photo: Amazon

Big Anthony is first introduced at the same plantation party as Cora, Caesar, and their cohorts when the camera lingers on the nervous Anthony as he’s making his own decision to run. Cora’s story is then interspersed with updates on Anthony’s journey, which ends abruptly and back in chains. While we’ve already seen the violence that awaits slaves on the Randall plantation for minor infractions, nothing can prepare us for Anthony’s terrifying torture and death. The poor man is whipped while Terrence Randall (Benjamin Walker) entertains guests on a sunny Southern day. (Jenkins makes the decision to include a British writer in the party who is shaken by the scene.) Eventually all the slaves are bid to watch Anthony’s murder, but not before Jenkins shows us the injuries Anthony has already sustained. Skin has been razed off Anthony’s body by a barrage of bull whips and he hangs from his vaulted chains in a crucifix position like Christ.

Then Anthony is burned alive. He screams to the heavens and is able to shout “No more masters! No more slaves!” before the flames consume him. Jenkins gives Big Anthony a voice right before snuffing it out.

Behind the scenes of The Underground Railroad
Photo: Amazon

When I went to Colson Whitehead’s text — which I started reading in tandem with watching screeners of the Amazon series — I was gobsmacked to read the same scene on the page. Whitehead’s prose is economical. He doesn’t use a lot of adverbs, complex sentences, or even metaphors to jazz up his descriptions. So when you read of Big Anthony’s death on the page, it’s almost tempting to scan past the horror unfolding before Cora’s eyes. However, what happens in the book is actually far more profane than in Jenkins’ version. Whitehead describes Big Anthony’s punishment as being meted out over the course of three days. He languishes in the stocks at first, then is whipped in front of the dinner guests. Finally, on the third day, he was doused and burned. The extended horror of Big Anthony’s torture is only made worse when Whitehead adds, almost as an afterthought, that he was castrated on the first day. His mouth was sewn up with his penis stuffed inside. The literal delay in conveying this information hits the reader like a gut punch.

Jenkins thankfully skips that part. He hastens the timeline, but lingers on the blood, flesh, and pain, showing us details Whitehead chose not to include. This — along with the fact that we meet Anthony early in the episode — helps us identify with the character’s agony. Anthony also gets to keep his voice, which is perhaps the most humanizing change of all. The horror and revulsion I feel remembering the scene? That’s the point. Jenkins wanted to build that bridge of empathy to reclaim some of Anthony’s dignity in the moment.

Big Anthony’s death isn’t the only horrifying moment in The Underground Railroad, nor is it the last scene that Jenkins changes in his adaptation. Jenkins’s Underground Railroad makes many divergences from Whitehead’s novel, all of which leave Jenkins’s mark as an auteur on the saga. While both Whitehead and Jenkins see the inherent horror of Anthony’s murder, Jenkins gives him slightly more humanity. It’s a decision that makes the pain of the scene sting even more and it’s why I just can’t shake it.

Watch The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime





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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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