The seven-part limited series The Good Lord Bird, adapted from James McBride’s novel of the same name, ended Sunday night with the inevitable: John Brown’s public execution, after his botched raid on Harpers Ferry ended in the deaths of 16 of his coconspirators, including two of his sons. The series devoted its final three episodes to Harpers Ferry and its aftermath, examining in detail how Brown’s intended goal—to spark a broader conflict about the issue of slavery—both did and didn’t work out as planned.
In the finale, “Last Words,” Brown—played in a bravura performance by the show’s creator and the cowriter of this episode, Ethan Hawke—is in military custody, awaiting trial for an attempted insurrection against the government. Through the eyes of “Onion,” played by Joshua Caleb Johnson, we watch the firebrand activist’s last days via a secret meeting in Brown’s cell just a few nights before his execution. Hawke’s performance throughout the series is extraordinary, but he really brings it home in these final scenes, where John Brown confronts his life, his upcoming death, and the legacy he is leaving behind. In the midst of what might be seen as an abject failure, Hawke’s Brown feels incredible, patriotic optimism, a clear-eyed assurance in the rightness of his cause.
For Hawke, the Gen X heartthrob who has reinvented himself into an indie-film muse, the creation of Good Lord Bird was a personal passion project—and perhaps, another reinvention. (In addition to his screen work, Hawke’s a prolific stage actor, director, and novelist.) He recommended the book to his wife, Ryan, also a producer on the show, and they were both taken with its resonance. Hawke joked on his Instagram that he originally thought of Jeff Bridges for the part of John Brown—before realizing that he was old enough to play the role himself. Hawke eventually got Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions on board with his idea, and kept the production—and his portrayal of John Brown—close to his heart. His daughter, Maya, even plays one of his character’s daughters, a young woman named Annie.
In the midst of this charged moment—and this tumultuous year, which has seen so much national conversation on the enduring legacy of slavery—The Good Lord Bird’s portrayal of John Brown’s incendiary vision is more relevant than ever. I spoke to Hawke about it a few days after Election Day, while the votes were still being counted.
Ethan Hawke: I can’t believe we’re finally here, showing it. Years have gone into creating this whole thing.
The end of the book, for me, is one of those weird moments when literature just achieves real grace. McBride has been so irreverent and wild and incendiary throughout Onion’s tale, and then at the end, it all comes together somehow. You’re sitting there constantly wondering what John Brown’s gonna think when he finds out that Onion is a boy, and then you realize he doesn’t care about his gender any more than he does about any other aspect of his [identity]. He loves him, however he wants to dress or be. When I got to it in the novel is when I knew it would make a great film.
The way James writes, it really kind of reminds me—this is a strange comparison, but it reminds me of how cinematic Larry McMurtry’s writing is. He really writes from a character point of view, and he writes beautiful scenes. The scene where Onion comes to the jail cell the night before John Brown is hanged, it’s just a brilliant dramatic scene.
Adapting is so different than writing, because what we were really trying to do is stick a syringe into the novel and pull out the spirit of it and then inject it into celluloid, right? We didn’t want to lose anything from the spirit, and there’s so much of the way the novel is built, the actual architecture of the novel, that is so exciting and so well-made that the limited series allowed us to adjust our form to fit the same architecture as the novel. Normally, when you’re adapting, you’re either taking a slight short story and beefing it up, or you’re taking a great novel and you’re reducing. Trying to take Anna Karenina and turn it into a two-and-a-half-hour movie is quite a challenge, you know? But instead, what we got to do is maintain the architecture of the novel and just tell the story the exact same way McBride did.
It’s sad about the end. We were doing the final mixing of this episode in the days of George Floyd’s death, around it. There’s a whole line that—it’s a John Brown quote—where he says, Onion tells him that he’s sorry he has to hang, and John Brown says, “It takes six to nine minutes to die from strangulation. I’ll do more for the cause in those moments than I’ve done with my whole life.”