Even though Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book. Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book's first-year sales.
Given the lax copyright laws of the time, stage plays based on Uncle Tom's Cabin—"Tom shows"—began to appear while the novel was still being serialized. Stowe refused to authorize dramatization of her work because of her distrust of drama (although she did eventually go to see George L. Aiken's version and, according to Francis Underwood, was "delighted" by Caroline Howard's portrayal of Topsy). Aiken's stage production continued as "the most popular play in England and America for seventy-five years." Stowe's refusal to authorize a particular dramatic version left the field clear for any number of adaptations, some launched for (various) political reasons and others as simply commercial theatrical ventures.
No international copyright laws existed at the time. The book and plays were translated into several languages; Stowe received no money, which could have meant as much as "three fourths of her just and legitimate wages."
On the plays
All Tom shows appear to have incorporated elements of melodrama and blackface minstrelsy. These plays varied tremendously in their politics—some faithfully reflected Stowe's sentimentalized antislavery politics, while others were more moderate, or even pro-slavery. Many of the productions featured demeaning racial caricatures of Black people, while a number of productions also featured songs by Stephen Foster (including "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Folks at Home", and "Massa's in the Cold Ground"). The best-known Tom Shows were those of George Aiken and H.J. Conway.
The version by Aiken is perhaps the best known stage adaptation, released just a few months after the novel was published. This six-act behemoth also set an important precedent by being the first show on Broadway to stand on its own, without the performance of other entertainments or any afterpiece. Most of Aiken's dialogue is lifted verbatim from Stowe's novel and it included four full musical numbers written by the producer, George C. Howard. Another legacy of this adaptation is its reliance upon very different locations all portrayed on the same stage. This reliance led to large sets and set a precedent for the future days of film. By focusing on the stark and desperate situations of his characters, Aiken appealed to the emotions of his audiences. By combining this melodramatic approach with the content of Stowe's novel, Aiken helped to create a powerful visual indictment against the institution of slavery.
The many stage variants of Uncle Tom's Cabin "dominated northern popular culture... for several years" during the 19th century, and the plays were still being performed in the early 20th century.
One of the unique and controversial variants of the Tom Shows was Walt Disney's 1933 Mickey's Mellerdrammer. Mickey's Mellerdrammer is a United Artists film released in 1933. The title is a corruption of "melodrama", thought to harken back to the earliest minstrel shows, as a film short based on a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the Disney characters. In that film, Mickey Mouse and friends stage their own production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mickey Mouse was already black-colored, but the advertising poster for the film shows Mickey dressed in blackface with exaggerated, orange lips; bushy, white sidewhiskers made out of cotton; and his trademark white gloves.
Uncle Tom's Cabin has been adapted several times as a film. Most of these movies were created during the silent film era (Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most-filmed book of that time period). Because of the continuing popularity of both the book and "Tom" shows, audiences were already familiar with the characters and the plot, making it easier for the film to be understood without spoken words. There has been no Hollywood treatment since the end of the silent era.
The first film version of Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the earliest full-length movies (although full-length at that time meant between 10 and 14 minutes). This 1903 film, directed by Edwin S. Porter, used white actors in blackface in the major roles and black performers only as extras. This version was evidently similar to many of the "Tom Shows" of earlier decades and featured numerous stereotypes about blacks (such as having the slaves dance in almost any context, including at a slave auction).
In 1910, a three-reel Vitagraph Company of America production was directed by J. Stuart Blackton and adapted by Eugene Mullin. According to The Dramatic Mirror, this film was "a decided innovation" in motion pictures and "the first time an American company" released a dramatic film in three reels. Until then, full-length movies of the time were 15 minutes long and contained only one reel of film. The movie starred Florence Turner, Mary Fuller, Edwin R. Phillips, Flora Finch, Genevieve Tobin and Carlyle Blackwell, Sr.
At least four more movie adaptations were created in the next two decades. The last silent film version was released in 1927. Directed by Harry A. Pollard (who played Uncle Tom in a 1913 release of Uncle Tom's Cabin), this two-hour movie was more than a year in production and was the third most expensive picture of the silent era (at a cost of $1.8 million). The black actor Charles Gilpin was originally cast in the title role, but he was fired after the studio decided his "portrayal was too aggressive." James B. Lowe took over the character of Tom. The screenplay takes many liberties with the original book, including altering the Eliza and George subplot, introducing the Civil War and Emancipation, and combining the characters of Eliza and Emmeline. Another difference occurs after Tom dies: Simon Legree is haunted by an apparitional vision of the late Tom and falls to his death in a futile effort to attack the ghostly image.
Black media outlets of the time praised the film, but the studio—fearful of a backlash from Southern and white film audiences—ended up cutting out controversial scenes, including the film's opening sequence at a slave auction (in which a mother is torn away from her baby). The story was adapted by Harvey F. Pollard, Thew and A. P. Younger, with titles by Walter Anthony. It starred James B. Lowe, Virginia Grey, George Siegmann, Margarita Fischer, Mona Ray and Madame Sul-Te-Wan.
For several decades after the end of the silent film era, the subject matter of Stowe's novel was judged too sensitive for further film interpretation. In 1946, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer considered filming the story but ceased production after protests led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A German-language version, Onkel Toms Hütte, directed by Géza von Radványi, was released in 1965 and was presented in the United States by exploitation film presenter Kroger Babb.
The most recent film version was a television broadcast in 1987, directed by Stan Lathan and adapted by John Gay. It starred Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, Edward Woodward, Jenny Lewis, Samuel L. Jackson and Endyia Kinney.
In addition to film adaptations, versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin have been produced in other formats. In Brazil, the adapted version A Cabana do Pai Tomás was produced as a TV soap opera by Rede Globo; with 205 episodes, it was aired from July 1969 to March 1970.
A number of animated cartoons were produced, including the Bugs Bunny cartoon Southern Fried Rabbit (1953), in which Bugs disguises himself as Uncle Tom and sings My Old Kentucky Home in order to cross the Mason-Dixon line; Uncle Tom's Bungalow (1937), a Warner Brothers cartoon supervised by Tex Avery; Eliza on Ice (1944), one of the earliest Mighty Mouse cartoons produced by Paul Terry; and Uncle Tom's Cabaña (1947), an eight-minute cartoon directed by Tex Avery.
Uncle Tom's Cabin has influenced numerous movies, including Birth of a Nation. This controversial 1915 film set the dramatic climax in a slave cabin similar to that of Uncle Tom, where several white Southerners unite with their former enemy (Yankee soldiers) to defend, according to the film's caption, their "Aryan birthright." According to scholars, this reuse of such a familiar image of a slave cabin would have resonated with, and been understood by, audiences of the time.
Other movies influenced by or making use of Uncle Tom's Cabin include Dimples (a 1936 Shirley Temple film), Uncle Tom's Uncle, (a 1926 Our Gang episode), its 1932 remake Spanky, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (in which a ballet called "Small House of Uncle Thomas" is performed in traditional Siamese style), and Gangs of New York (in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis's characters attend an imagined wartime adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin).