I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Movie vs. Book

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' is a novel about author Maya Angelou's childhood in Stamps, Arkansas prior to the civil rights movement. In this lesson, we will discuss how the novel differs from the movie adaptation directed by Fielder Cook.


Think about a time that you felt unwelcome. Imagine feeling that way all the time. Maya Angelou, the protagonist and author, was only 3 years old when she and her brother, Bailey, who was 4 years old, were sent alone on a train from California to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother. The novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles her experience of feeling abandoned by her parents and growing up in a racist town in the South during the 1930s. In 1979, Fielder Cook directed a made-for-television movie based on this autobiography. Let's look at some of the differences between the book and the movie.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou


The main difference between any film and the book on which it is based is that books have the advantage of describing the character's internal thoughts, while movies are able to visually show the audience images that describe the character's experience. In fact, sometimes the differences are more than just showing a character's experiences visually on the screen. Sometimes, movie writers and directors take creative license and add some fictional elements to heighten the excitement of the story. For example, in the book, Maya describes hearing about Ku Klux Klan members looking for trouble and Uncle Willie having to hide in a vegetable bin all night. In the movie, the KKK actually shows up and burns a cross on their front lawn.

Eighth Grade Graduation

One scene that is significantly different in the movie as compared to the book is Maya's eighth grade graduation. In both versions, Maya is disturbed by the announcement that the improvements to the white school will be more academic than those to the black school; but in the movie, the song 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,' which has been referred to as the Negro National Anthem, was banned from the school. Also, in the book, a boy named Henry Reed leads the audience in singing the song. In the movie, the valedictorian is Maya, who defiantly leads the song.

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