All 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the 2016 novel by Colson Whitehead, arrive on Amazon Prime Video on Friday. Whitehead’s Pulitzer- and National Book Award–winning book follows Cora, an enslaved woman who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and flees north using an actual, physical underground railroad, complete with tunnels and locomotives and stations and conductors. Cora is pursued by Arnold Ridgeway, a slave catcher obsessed with finding and returning Cora after failing to bring back her mother, Mabel, years earlier.
The physical railroad isn’t the only element that makes Whitehead’s novel a sideways look at American history. In the book, the protagonist Cora stops in several states that have taken different approaches to enslavement and integration. In South Carolina, white people bent on “uplift” live alongside freed people but harbor sickening ulterior motives. In North Carolina, the state’s government has killed every Black person and replaced their labor with work done by Irish immigrant servants. In Indiana, pockets of free Black people live in a state of uneasy rapprochement with their white neighbors.
Jenkins’ show preserves the railroad and the stages of Cora’s journey while giving more backstory and drama to the book’s secondary characters, including Ridgeway. Here are some of the key differences between the book and the show. As you might expect: spoilers ahead.
Caesar and Royal
In the novel, Cora avoids romantic entanglements despite a few opportunities for love. Her experience of being (she thinks) abandoned by her mother, and of enslavement in general, seems to have left her unable to pursue romance. Caesar, who asks Cora to leave the plantation with him, setting her journey in motion, is a brother and comrade in the book, not a lover. The girls in the dormitory with Cora in South Carolina tease her about him, but he pairs up with another woman.
The book’s platonic relationship with Caesar shows how alienated Cora feels. When Ridgeway, the slave catcher, reaches South Carolina and sets Cora back on the run, she worries about Caesar’s risk of capture, thinking that perhaps if she had “made him her lover” they would at least be captured together. Then, she thinks better of the idea: “In the end she would have disappointed him. She was a stray after all. … Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”
On the show, Cora falls in love with Caesar, played by Aaron Pierre, in Episode 2. He decides to run after being forced to have sex while the plantation owner watches—an added plot element not found in the book—and it’s his beauty and his pride that attract Cora. He asks her to marry him; she doesn’t say no. Throughout the rest of the series, Caesar reappears to Cora in visions and dreams, before and after Ridgeway taunts her with a story about a lynch mob that killed Caesar back in South Carolina.
Cora has another love interest on the show, Royal, a freeborn man and Railroad conductor who saves her from Ridgeway and brings her to the Valentine winery in Indiana, where a group of free Black people live together. (He’s played by William Jackson Harper, in a welcome hunky turn.) While the book’s Royal likes Cora, and she thinks the two may come around to romance someday, Royal dies before Cora can act on their attraction: “Why had she put Royal off for so long? She thought they had time enough.” In the show, Royal and Cora practice shooting together, and they kiss in the firelight. When he dies, those are the memories she keeps, alongside her thoughts of Caesar on the dance floor.
Grace and Molly
The book and the show are both explorations of the maternal instinct and the way enslavers play upon and thwart that instinct, using it to manipulate and wound. Cora falls victim to this dynamic herself early in the book when she instinctually defends Chester, an enslaved boy she’s been caring for, from a beating by the plantation’s owner. In retaliation, the man beats both her and Chester, punishing the protector and the protected. This situation fouls the relationship permanently: “Chester never said a word to Cora again.”
The show gives Cora several child surrogates to tend. The first, Fanny—who doesn’t exist in the book—is living in the attic crawl space where Cora hides for the episode set in North Carolina. Fanny’s presence helps the show dramatize Cora’s dark, dull, terrified months trapped in this space more easily than if it would have had Cora been alone, as in the book. The second, Molly, is the daughter of Sybil, whose cabin Cora shares when she lives at the Valentine winery. The book’s Molly is important because the bond between Molly and Sybil shows Cora the possibilities of maternal love. But in the show, Molly—who escapes the burning Valentine settlement with Cora, goes into the tunnels with her, and runs west—symbolizes hope for the future. She’s the one connection we see Cora make that isn’t severed by white intervention.
Jenkins’ treatment makes a crucial tweak to the backstory of slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway, played by Joel Edgerton on the show. In the novel, Ridgeway is supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith, but isn’t sure he will do it: “He couldn’t turn to the anvil because there was no way to surpass his father’s talent.” When he becomes a patroller at age 14—stopping Black people for passes, raiding “slave villages,” and bringing any Black person who’s “wayward” to jail after flogging them—his father is dissatisfied because he has fought with the head patroller in the past. However, Ridgeway’s father doesn’t have a principled objection to the work.
Jenkins expands on Ridgeway’s backstory by making his father one of the only morally upstanding white men on the show. Ridgeway Senior (played by Peter Mullan) doesn’t enslave anyone, hires freemen, and has strong paternal affection for the young children those freemen bring to apprentice at his forge. Ridgeway’s turn toward slave-catching, which in the book has a sense of inevitability about it, instead becomes a personal rebellion against his father’s ethical worldview.
The sad heart of Whitehead’s book is Mabel’s abandonment of Cora. Why did Mabel—a loving and present mother, in Cora’s memory—leave her daughter behind in slavery? In the novel, the precipitating event is a series of rapes. Moses, an enslaved helper to the white overseer (“the master’s eyes and ears over his own kind”), forces Mabel to have sex with him, using her maternal feelings toward 8-year-old Cora to coerce her into it (“If you’re not game, I’ll find someone else—how old is your Cora now?”). This situation is especially traumatic because Mabel remembers Moses as a baby and knew his mother.
Jenkins’ show gives Mabel’s friend Polly a bigger role in Mabel’s flight. In the book, Polly dies by suicide after her baby is stillborn. In the show, Polly is married to Moses, and her baby is likewise stillborn; afterward, she’s forced to act as a wet nurse for a set of twins born to an enslaved mother on a nearby plantation. That situation—a horrific 10th-episode climax for a show about slavery’s destruction of family ties—drives the fragile Polly to infanticide and suicide and ultimately pushes Mabel into the swamp.
In the book, as on the show, we find out at the very end that Mabel isn’t living in Canada, happy and free, while her daughter suffers. Instead, she dies in the swamp, of a cottonmouth bite. Whitehead’s book has Mabel planning her flight, taking food, flint and tinder, and a machete, and leaving by night. (“Everything else she left behind, including her girl.”) In Jenkins’ show, Mabel instead wanders into the swamp in a state of acute despair, midday, with nothing packed. In both stories, Mabel realizes partway through her flight that she must return for Cora. Then the snake’s bite finds her, and it’s too late.