About BMC 277: Media and Diversity

This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Midnight Express : An Example of Meaningful Adaptation of Diversity

By: Louis-Auxile Maillard

The original Midnight Express (1)is a true story : an American guy, Billy Haye, is put in Turkish jail because of drug trafficking. He was sentenced to spend thirty years in jail, escaped a few years later (2) , and wrote his story. The movie Midnight Express (3) is the film adaptation.

However, according to the original author's testimony (4) , the movie changed several points. For example, the Turkish cruelty is increased in the movie, his evasion is improved to make him look like a hero, and the homosexual relations he had during the time he was in jail are denied in the movie.

The point here is not to focus on quantitative differences like omissions, due to the fact it is impossible to tell as many facts in a movie than in a book. The point here is to focus on transformations comitted by the movie. These qualitative differences between the movie and the original story underscore a specific vision of diversity that has to be shown in a popular movie.

It's instructive to notice that the transformations in the movie have been publicly admitted by the director, who apologized for them (5). Billy Haye himself apologized for the consequences of the movie on the Turkish stereotype in America (6) . It is another evidence of the movie's willingness to influence.

Table 1 shows the four main qualitative differences between the original book and the movie:

Table 1 : Facts in the book and in the movie

FactOriginal storyMovieComparison
Hero's citizenshipAmericanAmerican=
Place of ActionTurkeyTurkey=
Hero's MaritalStatusSingleHas GirlfriendHero should havegirlfriend
Hero's Sexual OrientationHas homosexualrelations in Turkish jail.Only heterosexualHero should be onlyheterosexual
Violences comitted against the heroNothing more than expected violence in a jail.Rape committed by other prisoners and guardians. All the atmosphere is more violent than in the originalstory.The more violent the Turkish, the better it is.
The evasionEscapes without violenceKills the guardians bossThe hero has to kill his enemy's boss.

Table 1 shows the four main qualitative differences between the original book and the movie.

In the original story, Billy Haye is single. In the movie, he has a girlfriend, who attends to his arrestation and tries to help him all along the film. She represents the link between Billy Haye's former life and his life in prison. She also corresponds to the typical sterotype of the faithful lady waiting for her lover, despite he is sentenced to spend a very long time in a foreign jail. Her presence show that an American guy, even if he is trafficking drugs, is human and can have a romantic life, which is not the case of Turkish people in the movie.

Billy Haye told that he had homosexual relations in jail with other prisoners. In the movie, he is tempted to do so, but finally refuses it. Despite the movie does not present homosexuality as a bad thing, the construction of an American hero seems to have to avoid homosexuality. Notice that the movie could avoid this topic to express that it does not mind. Nevertheless, it is not the case. Furthermore, Turkish people are sometimes homosexual, as if this simple fact could create a huge difference between American and Turkish.

According to Billy Haye's interview, Turkish people are more violent in the movie than in the original story. It allows the movie to be more punchy, but it also dramatizes the action. It maintains an orientalist stereotype, according to which Turkish are violent and immoral. This is not a question of politics, because Turkey and United States of America had a very good relationship when the movie was produced. It perpetuates a racist view of Turkish people seen as barbarious.

In the original story, Billy Haye escapes from an island without any violence. But in the movie, he kills the guardian's chief who was attempting to rape him, and this death allows him to escape. At first, it means that an American hero only uses force when it is necessary, because the character is very wise and delicate all along the movie. It also means that ruse is not enough for an American hero to escape : he has to use force and to take revenge against his enemy. This final scene represents the victory of strength and wisdom against violence, and the victory of America against Orient.

These comparisons underscores that the movie wants us to believe some precise information about Turkish people and what an Amercian hero has to be, shaping the spectator's view of sexuality, country of citizenship and some other issues about diversity.

Such comparisons can only be done when a movie is supposed to follow an original story. In Table 1, the column "Comparison", which gathers all the interesting information, could not exist if the column "Original story" didn't exist. In other terms, the original story is a necessary reference to understand the movie's meaning better.

The theorical idea here is that it is possible to emphasize all the politicaly oriented issues in a movie by juxtaposing it with the original novel or true story which inspired it. A lot of examples can be found and studied in this way : Catch Me If You Can, Ian Fleming's James Bond... It concerns particularly commercial and well-known movies, where the author accords a great importance to what the spectators think.

This method could also be applied to theater plays, like Romeo+Juliette, which is a modern interpretation of the famous Shakespeare's play. Current critics about theatrical production of older plays also use the same method.

Comparing movies and their source of inspiration can provide great clues about what the media wants us to think, especially about society and diversity issues. Midnight Express is one of the best examples: when you see the movie, you don't feel how it tries to influence you. But if you read the book, then the movie's own opinion about diversity becomes obvious.


[1] Billy Hayes, Midnight Express. Dutton, 1977. ISBN 0-525-15605-4 (First edition)
[2] The real story of his evasion. National Geographic website.
[3] Alan Parker, Midnight Express, 1978.
[4] Interview of Billy Hayes part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMsNPCVbNhw 1999
Interview of Billy Hayes part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JTRs8e-FRk 1999
[5] Smith, Helena. Stone sorry for Midnight Express. Guardian. December 16, 2004.
[6] Real-life 'Midnight Express' character visits Turkey to 'make amends' :

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