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“In the Heat of the Night”; Movie or Book? Essay

“In The Heat of the Night” is a gripping murder mystery story that incorporates a major issue of the time it was written at; racism. The original novel (published in 1965), written by John Ball, is a story of Virgil Tibbs, a Negro homicide investigator. The death of orchestra-conductor Enrico Mantoli and a series of other events lead up to him in charge of a murder investigation in Wells, Carolina. This is much to the dismay of Bill Gillespie, the extremely prejudice police chief. The movie version (released in 1967), also features Mr. Tibbs as the leader of a murder investigation. However, the setting is Sparta, Mississippi, and the victim is Philip Colbert, a man planning to build a factory in the town. The movie was very successful, and proceeded to win 5 Academy Awards. Despite this, I find the book is more appealing because the characters are easier to relate to, and have a chance to get well-rounded in a gradual sense.

In addition, the plot development steadily makes progress, and is overall less tense, therefore more enjoyable. Both movie and book, however, are quite impressive in the incorporation of racial equality issues, and should equally be recognized as landmarks in American media for this reason. The most prominent change in characters is the personality of Virgil Tibbs. “Instead of being stretched out on the bench, he was wide awake and sitting up straight as though he were expecting something to happen. His coat was off and laid neatly beside him. He had been reading a paperback book up to the moment Sam entered…” (Pg. 15) This is almost identical to the scene where we are introduced to Virgil in the movie. However, the quick-thinking, cold and intense version to be seen later on in the movie was very surprising.

The humble, clever and cool homicide investigator from the novel is much preferred. His collected manners also make it all the more enjoyable when seeing Gillespie’s frustration at the Negro’s wits, and all the more heart warming as Sam Wood and Virgil Tibbs start to open up to one another. Also, the movie somewhat exaggerated on Mr. Endicott as being a “bad guy”. From being somewhat a pest, however definitely not on anyone’s ‘bad books’, too being a plantation owner who sends a group of thugs to beat up Virgil is just ludicrous. It seems he is used as an excuse to bring out another foe, another bit of action to make the movie more exciting. The subtle mystery of not knowing who is “bad” or “good” in the novel is a lot more satisfying, perhaps even more once you find out who the real murderer was.

The movie, at a full running time of 109 minutes, has quite an exciting plot, with slow parts and exciting action parts. It incorporates many essential things to the original story of ‘In the Heat of the Night’, (such as the association with Delores Purdy) however it differs quite a bit as well. As mentioned above, the setting is in Sparta, Mississippi, where Philip Colbert, planning to build a factory in this town, is murdered. This change of plot on its own removes something that could be considered essential to the plot; romance. The budding relationship between Duena, Enrico Mantoli’s daughter (who doesn’t show up what so ever, seeing as Enrico Mantoli was not the victim) and Officer Sam Wood adds a bit of ‘spice’ that is lacking in the movie. On the topic of Sam Wood, his character being a relatively minor one sets a rather different way of looking at his character.

In the book, the reader gets a closer glimpse on Sam Wood’s life, and gets to enjoy his personality and forgiving character more so then the movie. As a result of this, when Sam Wood is suspected of murder, we feel all the more protest and frustration for Gillespie to even dream of this possibility. The movie makes us feel bad for Sam, as it is pretty obvious he is not guilty if Virgil says he is not, but this emotion is lacking compared to the feelings the book inflicts. However, I do prefer the ending of the movie to the book. Instead of the gallant statements of how Bill Gillespie respects Virgil Tibbs as a human, are rather out-there, (if not heart-warming, I have to admit…) while the simple good-bye of the movie shows on its own how Gillespie has come to admire and respect Virgil.

‘In the Heat of the Night’, movie or book alike, is an inspiring tale of overcoming prejudice in the backward, racist town in the south- eastern United States. In both forms of media, we see from beginning to end the trials and prejudice thrown at Virgil Tibbs, solely because he is coloured. The inhuman way of dealing with racial hate is disgusting. Virgil Tibbs, however, is always cool and collected, and is an admirable character that will be remembered by everyone who reads or watches ‘In the Heat of the Night’. In being mocked for having a classy name such as ‘Virgil’, and asked what he’s called where he comes from, he responds with the famous line, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” (pg. 36) This line is present in both film and book, a demanding statement of racial equality that sticks in the reader’s mind.

By comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences, it shows that the characters were more subtle and realistic than the movie’s stereotypical good guys and bad guys. Also, the plot of the book was better thought-out, and had many other enjoyable subplots that were lacking in the movie. Through his short stay in Wells, Carolina (or Sparta, Mississippi) Tibbs may not have altered the town’s views on discrimination against blacks, but John Ball left a definite strong imprint about social equality, and in doing so left more questions about human and social behaviour for the reader than simple answers.


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