[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Hill compares the strengths and weaknesses of Childress's book A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich with those of the film version of the novel.]
The important differences between novels and films become particularly apparent when the same author treats a story in both media, as Alice Childress did when she wrote the screenplay for A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, based on a novel she had published five years earlier.
Like other novels directed at an adolescent audience, the story has an adolescent, Benjie Johnson, as its central character. Benjie, who lives in Harlem with his mother Rose, with his grandmother, and sometimes with his “stepfather” Butler, has a heroin habit. The novel follows him through his, initially, casual flirtations with drugs, his insistence that he can always kick the habit—that he, in fact, does not really have a habit—his grudging recognition of his addiction, to an indeterminate but hopeful ending in which he has at least a good chance of getting off drugs. The story is told in a series of first-person narratives, several by Benjie himself, and others by ten other characters, including members of his family, his teachers and friends. Newspaper clippings regarding events mentioned by the narrators follow the appropriate chapters and lend accent or emphasis.
The mood of the novel is stark, and the reader shares Benjie's hopelessness. He does not know where his real father is and agonizes over this fact. Because his mother is busy with her job and her new love, he feels excluded from her life. Butler makes efforts to be a father to him, but Benjie is unable to relate to him and feels that he has stolen Rose's love from him.
In school, Benjie encounters such diverse role models as Nigeria Greene, a fiery black nationalist who makes racial pride the main study in his classes; Bernard Cohen, a Jewish teacher who worries about the decline of traditional learning in general and about the influence of Greene's teaching methods in particular; and the principal, who is just trying to hold on until his retirement three years hence.
Besides narratives by these characters, we also find various other points of view represented. Benjie's grandmother believes that her particular brand of religion-superstition is the answer to his problem; a neighbor woman has designs on Butler and thinks Rose is foolish to let Benjie or anyone else come between her and such a fine man; a pusher, Walter, denies that he is doing anything particularly bad and maintains that if he didn't supply his customers someone else would. Several boys Benjie's age are portrayed in the book, including his only real friend, Jimmy-Lee, who has broken the dope habit, and with whom Benjie must then break if he is to rationalize his own heroin dependence. There are also some “dope friends,” Carwell and Kenny, and another pusher, Tiger.
The first-person narration form is particularly effective in bringing out the uncertainty and ambiguity the...