Film of the Book: In the Heat of the Night

Directed by Norman Jewison (1967)

From the review of the book by John Ball:

When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

I’d seen the film more than once before but quite long ago, so only remembered the main points of the plot while I was reading the book, and they seemed very similar. However, on rewatching the film, there are actually lots of differences, some minor and frankly inexplicable to me, while others add together to make a pretty major change to the tone.

The name of the town has changed from Wells to Sparta and we seem to have moved from South Carolina to Mississippi. As an ignorant Brit, I have no idea if there is some significance in this change of venue that may explain, or be caused by, the change in emphasis over the questions of race between the book and the film. Even more baffling to me is that in the book Virgil Tibbs works in the police department in Pasadena in California, while in the film he works in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. None of these things matter to the story nor seem to make the slightest difference but perhaps there’s some subtlety I’m missing.

A bigger and more significant change is in the name and character of the victim, but here it’s easier to guess why Jewison did it. In the book, the victim is Enrico Mantoli, a famous musical maestro who is in the middle of organising a music festival which it is hoped will bring much need employment and generate income for the town. There’s no real race element to the Mantoli part of the plot – the racial tension is mostly about the personalities of Tibbs, Chief Gillespie and Officer Wood, and over the question of a black man working with the police. It seems to me that Jewison wanted to add a more overtly political race element to the story, and so in the film the victim is a man called Colbert, who was about to open a factory in the town which would have provided well-paying jobs, many of them for the black townspeople. Jewison has changed another character, Endicott, who in the book was a fairly liberal-minded secondary character, into a racist plantation owner who was violently against Colbert’s plans, as his factory would have attracted away the cheap black labour Endicott still used to pick his cotton just as they had in the days of slavery.

Although the book came out in 1965 and the film just two years later, there’s a feeling of the time gap being much longer. The book doesn’t specify a date but feels to me like it’s maybe the late ‘50s. Segregation was still legally happening, so that Tibbs had to use “Colored” waiting rooms and rest rooms, and quite clearly had no choice but to accept much of the racism that came his way. The film feels set firmly in its own time – official segregation has gone, and black people have rights, in theory at least. The bluesy score by Quincy Jones, the title track by Ray Charles and the title graphics all place the film squarely in the late ‘60s.

Gillespie is the least changed character, although Rod Steiger’s great performance makes him rather more likeable and certainly more humorous than his book persona. Poor Wood (Warren Oates) has been downgraded from a complex, evolving character in the book to little more than a comic turn in the film, and his big romance has been completely cut. It works in the film, but he’s a much more interesting character in the book.

But the biggest change of all is in the personality of Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). In the book, he is outwardly calm and placid, accepting whatever slights and humiliations come his way as just the way things are. He has inward strength and a kind of passive resistance but he doesn’t overtly challenge either the rules or the rulers of this society, preferring to get the job done and then get on a train out of there. In the film, he takes no nonsense, frequently getting angry, giving as good as he gets verbally and even physically. Again he makes it feel as if there’s been a real shift in time and attitude between book and film.

The book is a great book and the film is a great film – if you haven’t already, it’s well worth reading one and watching the other. The book seems to me to say more about the human, individual reaction to race and racism, while the film is weighted slightly more, perhaps, towards societal and political questions, aggressively pro-Civil Rights with one scene that shocked the world at the time, when Tibbs slaps the racist Endicott. Overall, though, the film is lighter in tone with a lot of humour, and the great central performances make it highly entertaining. The book, for me, is more thought-provoking and, although Tibbs is still the central character, goes far more deeply into the attitudes and circumstances that lead the white people to behave as they do, including an insightful look at the question, still largely unaddressed, of how ignoring white poverty stokes the fires of racism.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So not an easy decision this time but, while both get the full five stars and my wholehearted recommendation, by a small margin…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

43 thoughts on “Film of the Book: In the Heat of the Night

    • I usually prefer the book too, although the film has won a couple of times – usually Hitchcock films though, which I think says more about my fan-worship of him than it does about the books!

  1. What a rich discussion, FictionFan! It’s interesting how the book and the film do have different elements of focus; yet, both have important things to say. They offer slightly different perspectives, if that’s the word, on the same incidents. So, yes, they are very different in some ways, but I thin both are well worth experiencing, I think. *Whispers* But I vote with you that the book is better.

    • Thanks, Margot, glad you enjoyed it! Yes, the film is very close to the book – closer than often happens – but still with some pretty subtle changes that do add up to a slightly different overall tone. I suspect because it was right at the heat of the Civil Rights movement, even those couple of years between the book and the film made a world of difference in how race was being discussed in America. The book is (nearly) always better! 😉

    • Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! 😀 It’s years since I last watched the film and I was really pleased it held up to my high opinion of it – sometimes revisiting a past favourite can be disappointing. The changes between it and the book are quite subtle, but they do add up to a somewhat different emphasis – I think you’d find the book well worth your time…

      • I hope to read it soon. Right now I am reading Hunger by Knut Hamsun. I have a stack of Indies calling for me, but I really love the classics more than anything else (American Tragedy a favorite to date ) so it may be awhile. Thank you again a very fine review !

        • I’m ashamed to admit to not having read either Hunger or American Tragedy, though AT’s on my long-neglected list of possible Great American Novels. You’ve reminded me that it does sound great, so I must see if I can get back on track with that particular quest…

          • I can’t recommend Hunger. Even though it is written by a Nobel prize winner and is claimed to be the beginning of the Kafka, Camus era of modern writing, I’m not impressed.
            American Tragedy is my favorite classic. It is the only book that I have read that affected me in such a dramatic way. Please read it if you get the chance. There is a 50’s movie based on it….not at all like the book. thank you!

    • That’s an excellent point, L. Marie – thank you! Yes, I wouldn’t really have associated South Carolina with this kind of racism but I definitely think of Mississippi that way. I wondered too if maybe cotton plantations were more of a Mississippi thing than Carolina? I saw Mississippi Burning many years ago and thought it was a brilliant film – I have an urgent desire now to watch it again… 😀

  2. Love that title track from the film! Thanks for including it. 🙂 I agree with the comment above that MS probably does have a worse reputation than SC when it comes to racism. I also figure having Tibbs coming from PA rather than CA is also significant in that PA is a northern state.

    I found the book versions of The Help and Gone With the Wind to be much darker, more serious takes on race relations and society in general than I did the film versions, yet I enjoyed both the books and the films. I can see how the movie-makers might have wanted to change things around here, too.

    I think I mentioned in your book review of this that although I feel sure I’ve seen this film (and never read the book), it’s the TV series that I best remember.

    • That makes sense regarding PA because I do remember while reading the book that I was surprised he was based in California rather than in what I vaguely consider the North. But I’m so confused about where all the states fit in – not so much geographically but in terms of North/South/Mid-West/Rust Belt/Bible Belt, etc.

      I usually find the books have more depth, purely because there’s more space and because in the books you can get inside the characters’ heads rather than depending on dialogue, o on visual cues which I usually miss! This film was closer to the book than most and the changes work, which is more than can sometimes be said.

      I’ve never seen the TV series – not sure if it was shown over here. But I’ve set up my Tivo to keep an eye out for repeats appearing anywhere…

  3. As a writer, I always cheer when the book wins out over the film!! Still, I’ve missed both of these — don’t ask me how. It sounds like an interesting concept, so perhaps I need to remedy my ignorance. Sigh — so many books to read!!

    • I know – it’s impossible to keep on top of them all! But this is one where watching the film is just about as good and only takes a couple of hours. And has Sidney Poitier in it! 😀

    • It’s a great film, isn’t it? I love Sidney Poitier – I had a major crush on him when I was young! Rod Steiger is great in it too – they work so well together…

  4. I’ve not read the book, nor seen the movie, but I’ve always wanted to! Interesting about the change of location. Mississippi is considered the Deep South, and the racial tensions were definitely high there… That said, they were awfully high in South Carolina as well…They also had cotton plantations in SC. The only thing I can think of is the spotlight was shining bright on MS during that time because so much of the civil rights movement was beginning there, though there was activity in SC too. I don’t really have a good explanation but as a North Carolina native who went to grad school in South Carolina, I see SC today as a very different state than my own in so many ways, and there are many things I love about SC also. It’s just different. I loved reading your thoughts and one of these days I will finally read and watch!

    • Interesting – my idea of what counts as the South has changed so much since I started blogging and reading more American fiction – it seems to come up much further north than I thought, if you see what I mean. I was staggered recently to discover that Washington was actually in a state that was borderline in the Civil War. But definitely Mississippi would be the one I would always think of in terms of all the racial upheavals in the ’60s, so that probably is the reason he changed it. And I’m intrigued that you think there’s a definite difference between North and South Carolina. I suppose I tend to forget just how huge the US is. We have regional differences here too of course, but it’s hard to be too different when you all have to share the same small space…

      • It is fascinating and I’m sure there are tons of opinions on it all. North Carolina and technically SC, too, are “mid Atlantic states” so there’s a feel from that, too, that’s different from the Deep South. I could talk (or write) for days with my feelings on it. It’s fascinating.

        • It is fascinating! No wonder the country sometimes seems so divided. Mind you, given our current political meltdown, even being small is no guarantee of being united!

    • The book isn’t really too heavy, to be honest – it’s lifted by having a really good crime story, so it’s not all about race and politics. In fact, they’re kind of secondary – it’s just that I find them so interesting so I probably make it sound like they’re the main thing!

  5. Fascinating post FF! I’ve seen the film a few times but never read the book, I didn’t realise so many changes had been made. You’ve convinced me to read the book – and then re-watch the film!

    • I was surprised at how many things had been changed because my first impression was that the film had followed the book very closely. Definitely both worth reading/watching – enjoy! 😀

  6. I have recently read the book and watched the film last night. I agree with your observations, both are very worth attention. I appreciated Virgil Tibbs’ more interior character in the book, and also his flashes of human reaction in the film. I found the film’s depiction of racist persecution more visceral. I read that Sidney Poitier refused to work in the South during the filming because of threats he and Harry Belafonte experienced on a previous visit. When he eventually did have to film in Tennessee for a few days, he slept with a gun close. Learning those contemporary realities gave even more weight to what was depicted in the film for me.

    • I agree about the more visceral approach in the film but the more I reflect on it, the more I suspect the book is truer to the reality. Even today if a black man in America slapped a powerful white man I doubt he’d get away with it. The saddest thing about that story about Poitier is that it’s so easy to believe. I remember reading in an autobiography of Paul Robeson that Robeson said he grew to love living in the USSR because it was the one place in the world where he felt that his colour was not used as a bar.

  7. I’m an ignorant Canadian so these changes in states/cities don’t mean much to me either! I don’t feel bad about it though, many Americans wouldn’t know the difference between provinces in Canada so all is fair etc.

    Its surprising to me that this book and film has some humour to it-it seems so dark! I love that you include the movie trailer because it gives me a glimpse into your review in a different way 🙂

    • *smug face* I did a project in school about Canada’s prairie provinces. so I consider myself an expert… 😉

      There’s definitely more humour in the film than the book, and it works well, but the actual story is definitely dark. However they both show that change is in the air, so there’s also a slight air of optimism. I’m glad you enjoyed the trailer – it does give quite a good feel for the film, I think.

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.