Native Son is an extension of Wright’s work in Uncle Tom’s Children, and it is not difficult to imagine Bigger Thomas as a direct descendant of Big Boy from “Big Boy Leaves Home,” but Native Son is also a reaction against the sentiment of Wright’s earlier stories. Wright himself complained that Uncle Tom’s Children had been “a book even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about.” He wanted Native Son to “be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Thus, he consciously worked to toughen his novel and the character of Bigger Thomas.
Although critics generally have felt that Wright’s existential writing marks a distinct break from his earlier work, The Outsider has many parallels with Native Son. Cross Damon is, to some extent, an articulate and educated version of Bigger Thomas. Both characters share a pervasive sense of alienation, and each resorts to violence to justify his existence.
The first significant adaptation of Native Son, a dramatization that Wright coauthored with Paul Green, was successfully produced on Broadway by John Houseman and Orson Welles less than a year after the novel’s publication. This Mercury Theater production starred Canada Lee.
The first film version was an amateurish production filmed in Argentina and released in 1950. It is notable because Wright himself played the lead role of Bigger Thomas. A controversial film version released in 1986 starred Victor Love, Elizabeth McGovern, Matt Dillon, Oprah Winfrey, Akousa Buisa, Willard Pugh, Geraldine Page, Carroll Baker, and John Karlen. Producer Diane Silver and director Jerrold Friedman fought over the inclusion of Bessie Mears’s murder, and Silver’s ultimate decision to eliminate Bigger’s brutal act caused some reviewers to complain that the film softens and distorts Wright’s novel