Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Dear students:

If you are here because your teacher asked you to write a comparison of the Hidden Figures movie and book, please be aware that using any part of this review — quotes, paraphrases, summaries, or taking my ideas  — without proper credit constitutes plagiarism (which is illegal). You may cite this blog post in your paper using the following MLA citation:

Page, Melanie. “Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book.” Grab the Lapels, 11 Feb. 2017. Blog. https://grabthelapels.com/2017/02/11/hidden-figures/


Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016

If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.


  1. Really thoughtful and informative review! It sounds as though the book tried t do too much, perhaps? And the film didn’t show a big enough picture? Perhaps I”m not expressing that well, but I hope you understand what I mean. Whatever’s the case, I know what you mean about the big differences between the film and the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, I think you’ve said it clearly. The author is part of the world she researched; her dad worked for NACA. She grew up around the people she researched, so she may have felt personally obligated to cover as many people as she met, which doesn’t always work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An example of why the skills of people who can find the best elements of a book and turn it into something new. Doesnt always do the original book justice of course but maybe in this particular case it served these women better than the book which – from your experience – isn’t that accessible

    Liked by 1 person

    • I almost wish the book had covered each woman’s experiences in three separate sections because they really didn’t work together much, based on how their lives are presented in the book. Then again, if Shetterly did three sections, she may miss out on other important women who weren’t necessarily friends with Jackson, Johnson, or Vaughan, but whom she deemed important.


  3. I was sort of on the fence about reading/watching this but now I don’t think I will. The movie doesn’t seem like it’d be for me and the book seems like it’d confuse me with the math. haha. Great post though, so clearly written.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never heard of this book or movie until today (thank you!) although that doesn’t say much considering I never hear about any movies anymore. I’m too busy watching netflix and reading books. Anyway, I like this format of comparing a book to a movie in the same post-nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to see the movie tomorrow! I’m very much looking forward to it. I heard the folks at Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast discussing it recently and so I kind of knew that it was more of a “Hollywood” version of events than a strictly autobiographical one. This doesn’t diminish my excitement about seeing it, though. Nice review comparing the movie and book. I may read the book but now I know that it’s more about the science and less about the people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t seen the movie, so I cannot comment on that, but I did read the book. I also felt the book was a little hard to follow at times with all the info dump.

    “I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians…”

    I listened to the audiobook and think this was my saving grace. I am not sure I would have made it through the book otherwise. I did enjoy the book and learned a lot from it. I thought it was very inspirational and empowering. I do agree that the target audience is very much history lovers.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating comparison! I think there’s a tendency at the moment to make too many “points” in fiction and film at the expense both of the truth and the story. As you say, there are plenty of true examples of serious racism, so why make up a rather silly one about a bathroom sign. The real story here is surely that black women did contribute, but have been airbrushed out of history – much as women in general have often been in science through the ages. Still, it sounds as if the film is quite entertaining – must look for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I found this super curious to read because when I watched the movie I thought the thing about the bathroom sign would’ve never happened in real life. It felt too “cinematic” haha And of course they had to be best friends in the movie… I think that’s why I love movies and books more than reality haha Everything clicks and stories make more sense 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s very interesting to read your criticism of the book and your comparison between the book and the film. I haven’t seen the film or read the book yet, but both are my “to do” list (I’ll get to the book before I see the movie).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is an incredibly well-written comparison! Personally, I saw the film and I DNF’d the book. I didn’t post about it because I didn’t want to discredit the novel. I think it’s important that we read the source materials for things such as TV and Film, but this, to me, was a better film. I understand the goals of these medias are different. But I couldn’t get past the awkward sentences and the, as you so accurately defined, Where’s Waldo game.

    I did start the book before I saw the movie; I find that reading the book first provides me a better experience. I couldn’t keep track of all the people and I didn’t know enough about what the NACA did to really follow what was happening. I also struggle with visualizing things in my head. Like you said, there was comaraderie between black and white women– I sometimes got their races confused and had to re-read passages to better understand the context.

    In the end, I’m glad that Hidden Figures the film turned into what it did. It brought the public eye to explore something forgotten and brought science back to the fore. It was a powerful and moving film for me. Not accurate to the book, but, well, what film is? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree; the film is incredibly important. I cried probably half a dozen times when I saw it because I not only put myself in the characters’ shoes when I thought about all the times I was told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl or woman, but how horrible stereotypes of black women persist in the media when in truth the history and culture clearly demonstrates black women are some of the strongest, smartest, most resourceful individuals out there. You can see it in slave narrative all the way up to contemporary writers and thinkers today.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I didn’t know about the book though I have heard about the movie and have been planning to get it. I think I will struggle with the reading so I will just do the movie though I wish it wasn’t so different from the book. Thanks for the comparisons. This was definitely informative.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the recommendation. I will look for fences. Do you know any movies set around the 50s about race relations in the South? I recently watched The Help after reading the book. I would like to watch similar movies or documentaries.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I actually changed the time of my review/comparison and stopped getting so many hits on this post, which I’m fine with! It used to say clearly “review/comparison of Hidden Figures movie and book.” Ohhhhh, cheating with the internet.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for the comparison; I have been conflicted on whether I should read the book or see the film for this one (normally that’s easy but the film seemed especially good in this case). From your description it seems like the book would anyway be a better match for me.


  13. This is a fantastic thorough comparison of this book and movie! I had a lot of similar feelings as you did, although I didn’t mind as much that the movie dramatized and added things that weren’t in the book. Even though it’s based on nonfiction, I don’t expect a movie to be as historically accurate, but that’s just my personal taste. In this case, it gave me the opportunity to enjoy the “story” before digging deeper with the book. If I’d read the book first, I may not have finished it.


    • I think that if I had read the book first I never would have finished it. I think my concern with overly-dramatizing historical pieces is that people take films as accurate — especially war films, it seems — and I get concerned that events in civil rights are reduced to big heroic moments, when there were loads of movers and shakers who did small things every day in the fight for civil rights. I actually took a whole class on the civil rights movement and was surprised by all the people I’d never heard of. Americans love a sound bite, and some of the best history doesn’t come in sound bites.

      Liked by 1 person

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