Book Review: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino et al. (2013)

December 20th, 2013 8:39 am by Kelly Garbato

A Must for Tarantino Fans

four out of five stars

Based on the 2012 film of the same name, Django Unchained is a slavery revenge fantasy in the vein of previous Tarantino movies, namely Inglourious Basterds (Holocaust revenge) and Kill Bill (rape revenge). Caught after an unsuccessful escape attempt, slaves Django and his wife Broomhilda are auctioned off to separate bidders. Whereas Hildi finds herself in the clutches of Calvin Candy – a self-proclaimed Francophile who is as rich as he is evil – Django is eventually acquired by Dr. King Schultz, a dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Schultz offers Django his freedom in return for his help identifying and killing the Brittle brothers, who were employed as overseers by Django’s previous owners. (Naturally, Django can’t believe his luck: killing white men, and getting paid for the privilege? Sign me up!)

Touched by Django’s love for Hildi (and compelled by his hatred for “the flesh trade”), the German-born Schultz takes Django on as a partner and apprentice. The two spend the winter training together, while Django earns the money to buy Hildi’s freedom. Come spring they make the journey to Candyland, ostensibly to buy a slave for the purposes of Mandingo fighting. When their ruse is discovered by the “head” house slave Stephen (power being relative), everything goes sideways, as they say.

Since the graphic novel is adapted from the original script, it contains some new material – including a number of scenes featuring Broomhilda. I’m pretty bummed that these were cut from the movie, as they helped to better flesh out her character, which mostly functions as an archetype of the damsel in distress. Not that this isn’t in some ways a step up from how women of color are portrayed on screen – but still, I would have liked to have gotten to know Hildi better as a person. “Little Troublemaker” hints at so many stories left untouched, don’t you think?

(In his introduction, Tarantino writes: “Django Unchained is a big epic Western. When I write big, epic scripts like this or Kill Bill, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it into the movies because they are just too f-ing big. If I were to do everything that’s in the scripts, they would be four-hour movies.” Um, I’m not really seeing the problem here…?)

While the artwork ranges from serviceable to gorgeous, and the story is faithful to the ENTIRE SCRIPT (the caps are Tarantino’s), the graphic novel sometimes fails to capture the dramatic suspense and tension of the film. I suspect that part of the problem lies in the pacing: when reading a book, the audience is mostly free to progress as quickly (or slowly) as they want – but in a film, the director sets the pace. Thus, the mood of one medium doesn’t always easily translate to another.

Take, for example, the scene in which Candy forces Django and Schultz to watch as a runaway slave is ripped apart by dogs. In the film, this scene is drawn out, stretched so thin that you can almost feel Schultz about to snap. The tension is palpable. Crackling. Unbearable. But in the comics, this exchange lasts just eight pages – eight pages that are quickly breezed through. While horrifying, it still lacks much of the visceral quality of the film.

Likewise, the final shootout scenes – the climax of the story – are surprisingly short when compared to those in the film. Consequently, the comic’s ending isn’t nearly as emotionally satisfying.

That said, I wholeheartedly recommend Django Unchained (the book and the movie) to fellow Tarantino fans. And, if you liked the comics, definitely watch the movie. It’s a much more realistic portrayal of slavery than I can ever remember reading in a high school textbook, Mandingo fighting aside. But don’t stop there! Also check out films written and produced by people of color, including those based on slave narratives, about slavery and rebellion: most recently, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, as well as Haile Gerima’s Sankofa and Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door.

Naturally, both the book and film come with huge trigger warnings for violence, racism (the use of the n-word is rampant), and rape.

(In light of the sexual exploitation of slaves, I was terribly disappointed to see Tarantino pose with a naked and hyper-sexualized Nichole Galicia – who plays the slave Sheba – in W Magazine. Disappointed, but not surprised. See, e.g., the rape joke in Death Proof, to which Rosario Dawson objected – and lost.)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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