Roots: The Saga of An American Family

Roots: The Saga of An American Family Television Mini Series

Roots, a novel by Alex Haley, was published in 1976. It portrays the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the United States, and follows his life and the lives of his alleged descendants in the U.S. down to Haley. The release of the novel, combined with its hugely popular televisiontelevision adaptation, Roots (1977), led to a cultural sensation in the United States. The novel spent 46 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, including 22 weeks in that list’s top spot. The last seven chapters of the novel were later adapted in the form of a second mini-series, Roots: The Next Generations, in 1979.

Differences Between the Roots Television Series And Book

There are numerous differences between the miniseries and novel that it is based on. The differences include:

All the characters’ surnames are different. Waller is changed to Reynolds, Lea is changed to Moore, and Murray is changed to Harvey. Additionally, Murray’s first name is not revealed in the book, whereas Harvey is given the first name Samuel in the miniseries.

Kunta’s grandfather, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, is mentioned only once, at the very end of the third episode, as Kunta is describing his newborn daughter Kizzy’s Mandinka lineage to her. While Sireng, Kairaba’s first wife, is not referenced in the miniseries as in the book, it is important to note that Kunta’s narrative to his daughter is the final scene of the episode (the audio gradually tapers off with Kairaba’s name barely distinguishable). Thus, presumably Kunta would have mentioned Sireng shortly after mentioning Kairaba.

The book records the early life and adolescence of Kunta Kinte in Juffure while the miniseries covers only his birth and teenage years before his capture.

The Character of Nyo Boto is a combination of the same character in the novel as well as Kunta’s paternal grandmother Yaisa. Also Nyo Boto seems to be Kunta’s maternal grandmother in the television adaptation whereas the novel portrays her as a family friend and someone who fills the void left when Yaisa dies.

Kunta has two other brothers besides Lamin, named Suwadu and Madi in the novel, while he is only referred to as having two brothers in total in the television adaptation.

The character of Fanta is a widow at least twenty years Kunta’s senior in the novel, while she is portrayed as closer to his age in the miniseries. She also plays a more crucial role in Kunta’s journey whereas in the novel she has only one scene, and is never captured along with Kunta.

Kunta’s two half-uncles Janneh and Saloum Kinte are omitted entirely.

The subplot of Captain Thomas Davies and his crew was expanded. In the book, only Capt. Davies is twice named toward the very end of the book (pp 582-583, 1st Edition printing, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1976).

The captured men are chained nude to each other in the book, but they have simple loincloths in the miniseries, naturally. Surprisingly for American television—though realistically given The Gambia’s location in the Tropics—some of the women captured, most notably one who commits suicide in order to escape, are topless like the men.

The woman who tries to escape seemingly dies by drowning, but in the novel she is quickly attacked and killed by sharks.

An entire scene involving John Reynolds and his family is exclusive to the miniseries. Also, later scenes of Reynolds and his brother were created in order to link the story.

Kunta escapes at least three times from the Reynolds plantation during his first year there. The miniseries depicts only one escape when he is young, and one other when he is older.

The characters of Fiddler, and William and Mrs. Reynolds are expanded the miniseries.

In the novel, when Kunta is first purchased, the black slave bringing him back to Virginia is named Samson, and is cruel towards Kunta. Kunta tries to kill him and is later sold; only then does he meet Fiddler. In the miniseries, Fiddler is present from the beginning at Annapolis.

In the novel, the front half of Kunta’s foot is amputated after his third escape attempt at the age of eighteen, but in the miniseries this occurs when he is twenty-six.

Kunta’s process of counting the number of rains he has seen by placing pebbles in a gourd has been omitted.

Fiddler tries to buy his freedom in the book, something not mentioned in the miniseries, and comes to a very bad end with Dr. Waller (Reynolds in the miniseries) who won’t sell it to Fiddler except for double the originally agreed-upon price. The novel indicates, through Fiddler’s poignant dialogue, that this is due chiefly to the slave-price inflation of that day, spurred by the invention of the cotton gin and a resulting greater need for slave labor in the deep South. Additionally, slaveowners were in fact not legally compelled to keep their word to their slaves.

Kunta is somewhat more willing to engage in sexual relations with other slaves in the miniseries than he is in the novel. In the miniseries, a beautiful slave named Genelva directly propositions Kunta in his cabin, though they are interrupted when the overseer barges in. As depicted in the novel, however, Kunta is far too proud a Mandinka to engage with anyone with the lack of self-dignity to not want to be free, until his eventual marriage to Bell.

Bell and Kunta are married after just over four years from when she cares for him, but in the novel it takes nearly twenty-two years after she cares for him post-amputation before they finally marry.

The character of Missy Anne is given a unique backstory as the product of an adulterous affair between William Reynolds and his sister-in-law. In the book Reynolds (Waller) is simply Missy Anne’s adoptive uncle. Also Missy Anne is slightly older in the miniseries as opposed to the novel, and plays a much larger role.

William Reynolds’s backstory involving Bell’s admiration toward him and Missy Anne has been omitted.

Kizzy’s childhood has been omitted from the miniseries.

Bell’s knowledge of reading and writing was shared by Kizzy in the novel. Bell seems proud—though very cautiously so, given the laws of that day regarding black people and literacy—with her daughter’s knowledge, but in the television adaptation she is furious with Kizzy for learning how to read and write from Missy Anne.

When Kizzy is sold to Tom Lea (Moore in the miniseries) she befriends the cook Ms. Malizy and the two become good friends for years. In the miniseries the character’s name is slightly changed to Melissa, and only appears in two scenes. Also several characters whom Kizzy befriends including Uncle Pompey and Sister Sarah have been omitted entirely.

In the miniseries, there is only one Pompey shown. This is the drummer, whose real name is Bodeyn Bodiako, who is plotting to escape to the North. In the novel, his real name is spelled Boteng Bediako, and he is not planning escape. Rather, he is an attendee at Kunta’s and Bell’s wedding.

In the novel, Mrs. Moore is a scatterbrained but somewhat understanding woman who shows benevolence at times. But in the television adaptation, she is an aloof shrew who is very disturbed by her husband’s adultery and has a quick temper.

The romance between Kizzy and Sam Bennett, and her returning to the Reynolds plantation where she finds Kunta’s grave and scratches out “Toby” on the headstone, writing “Kunta Kinte” in its place, were both created for the miniseries.

Matilda’s father, a reverend, is seen briefly, while in the novel Matilda claims she never knew anything about her father except that his name was Virgil, and it was a reverend who formerly owned her.

Out of Matilda’s eight children, only Tom, Lewis and Julius are depicted in the miniseries.

The plot regarding Nat Turner and his rebellion is dated as occurring in 1841 but in reality it occurred a decade earlier.

Chicken George leaves for England and does not return for fourteen years, whereas the novel gives his stay as four years.

The extended Moore family is discussed in the novel including several brothers and sisters of Master Moore as well as nieces and nephews who would later be revealed as Chicken George’s half brothers and sisters.

The selling of Chicken George’s family and his later return to the Moore plantation are only referenced but never shown. Additionally, the skills that Tom Harvey shows as a blacksmith at a young age and his eventual marriage to Irene Holt are not shown.

In the novel, Irene is pregnant when she first meets Chicken George, but in the miniseries she already has at least four children, as opposed to eight in the novel.

The novel describes the final meeting between Chicken George and his father in some detail, whereas in the miniseries this meeting is only mentioned in a brief statement by Chicken George when returning to his family after living in England. The novel, however, describes how Master Moore does not grant Chicken George his freedom and then passes out in a drunken stupor. Chicken George then sneaks into Moore’s bedroom and then steals his freedom papers from a lockbox under Moore’s bed. In the process, Chicken George also narrates that for a black slave to enter a white man’s bedroom would be punishable by death.

C. J. Barnes is changed to Evan Brent in the miniseries.

In the novel, Tom is shoeing horses for Captain J. D. Cates, a former Alamance County sheriff. In the miniseries he is working for Evan Brent.

Most of the plot from the eighth episode was created especially for the miniseries and was not derived from the book.

In the film, Martha is with Ol’ George Johnson when he arrives. In the novel he goes and fetches her after a time.

Senator Arthur Johnson was created for the miniseries, as was the selling of Sam Harvey’s property and the delayed freedom of the slaves.

Roots: Awards And Nominations

Emmy Awards:

  • Best Actor – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Appearance (LeVar Burton for “Part I”)
  • Best Actor – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Appearance (John Amos for “Part V”)
  • Best Actor – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Appearance (Ben Vereen for “Part VI”)
  • Best Actor – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Appearance (Louis Gossett, Jr., won)
  • Best Actress – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Appearance (Madge Sinclair for “Part IV”)
  • Best Actress – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Appearance (Leslie Uggams for “Part VI”)
  • Best Art Direction or Scenic Design – Drama Series (“Part II”)
  • Best Art Direction or Scenic Design – Drama Series (“Part VI”)
  • Best Costume Design – Drama or Comedy Series (Jack Martell for “Part I”)
  • Best Cinematography in Entertainment Programming – Series (Stevan Larner for “Part II”)
  • Best Cinematography in Entertainment Programming – Series (Joseph M. Wilcots for “Part VII”)
  • Best Director – Drama Series (David Greene for “Part I”, won)
  • Best Director – Drama Series (John Erman for “Part II”)
  • Best Director – Drama Series (Marvin J. Chomsky for “Part III”)
  • Best Director – Drama Series (Gilbert Moses for “Part VI”)
  • Best Editing – Drama Series (Neil Travis for “Part I”, won)
  • Best Editing – Drama Series (James T. Heckert and Neil Travis for “Part II”)
  • Best Editing – Drama Series (Peter Kirby for “Part III”)
  • Best Editing – Drama Series (James T. Heckert for “Part VIII”)
  • Best Limited Series (won)
  • Best Music Composition for a Series – Dramatic Underscore (Gerald Fried and Quincy Jones for “Part I”, won)
  • Best Music Composition for a Series – Dramatic Underscore (Gerald Fried for “Part VIII”)
  • Best Sound Editing – Series (won)
  • Best Sound Mixing (“Part I”) – Best Sound Mixing (“Part IV”)
  • Best Sound Mixing (“Part VII”) – Best Sound Mixing (“Part VIII”)
  • Best Supporting Actor – Comedy or Drama Series, Single Appearance (Edward Asner for “Part I”, won)
  • Best Supporting Actor – Drama or Comedy Series, Single Performance (Moses Gunn for “Part I”)
  • Best Supporting Actor – Drama or Comedy Series (Ralph Waite for “Part I”)
  • Best Supporting Actor – Drama or Comedy Series (Robert Reed for “Part V”)
  • Best Supporting Actress – Drama or Comedy Series (Cicely Tyson for “Part I”)
  • Best Supporting Actress – Drama or Comedy Series (Sandy Duncan for “Part V”)
  • Best Supporting Actress – Comedy or Drama Series, Single Appearance (Olivia Cole for “Part VIII”, won)
  • Best Writing – Drama Series (Ernest Kinoy and William Blinn for “Part II”, won)
  • Best Writing in a Drama Series (M. Charles Cohen for “Part VIII”)
  • Best Writing in a Drama Series (James Lee for “Part V”)

Golden Globe Awards:

  • Best TV Actress – Drama (Leslie Uggams, nominee)
  • Best TV Series – Drama (won)