Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Mark Twain Adaptations

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called the greatest American novel by no less an authority than Ernest Hemingway (you know, the Midnight in Paris guy), who called Huck “the best book we’ve had.”  You would think Hollywood could get it right, at least once.  You would be wrong.

Previous columns have discussed the problem of adapting Kurt Vonnegut to the screen (not enough of the author’s voice) and the problem of adapting John Irving to the screen (too goddamned much of the author’s voice.) The problem of adapting Mark Twain is with genre.

Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a beloved children’s book, and rightfully so. It is the grandpappy of all “boy’s adventure” tales. It deals with fence paintin’, and pretty girls, and exploring creepy caves full of treasure. Twain’s follow-up novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is NOT a children’s book at all.  It deals with alcoholism, murder, slavery, and religious morality. Huck Finn uses true wit and bitter irony. What small child does not appreciate bitter irony? (I know my son did -- it made him the man he is today! At least, I am assuming it did. He no longer speaks to me.)

Hollywood has spent almost one hundred years adapting this amazing literary work as if it were a simple children’s book.

Twain would have found that funny.

Huckleberry Finn (1920)
The "WTF?" Version

Long thought lost, this film was recently restored and preserved by the George Eastman House and screened at the venerable Portage Theater in Chicago on the very night it premiered on TCM. This is the version that inspired this column; I anticipated the screening with great delight and even encouraged my students to join me. We had just finished studying the novel in class. 

This silent film takes forever to get started, easily spending 30 minutes on exposition. “Oh joy!” I chortled to myself, “Here comes my favorite part of the book -- the hundred or so pages of Huck and Jim’s raft adventure.”

The film dispensed of the river journey with a SINGLE title card that read, “Huck and Jim spent several weeks on the raft-- and then...”

WTF? Really? Really. The filmmakers were willing to spend 30 minutes on the first 30 pages, but then only 30 SECONDS on the next 100 pages? I guess they knew they had to “save room” for the end of the book -- which, as it happens, they also left out.

This is the way they dealt with the sensitive issue of race in 1920, by making the Jim character into nothing more than a cameo.

I am not sure if my students enjoyed the film. They did enjoy some extra credit.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939)
The "MGM Cut Off Huck's Balls" Version

MGM was so worried that young boys would want to imitate Huck (swearing, smoking, stealing, helping a Negro) that in fashioning this dull vehicle for their Number One Box Office Star, Mickey Rooney, they fell all over themselves making Huck constantly apologize for the behaviors that made him a famous literary character in the first place. This is interesting because a pivotal moment in the book involves Huck apologizing to Jim; this historic scene was one of the first in American literature that portrayed a black man as having feelings worth considering. That is the only scene in the book where Huck apologizes, increasing its dramatic impact. In the whitewashed MGM version, Huck apologizes constantly, to almost everyone -- but the pivotal apology to Jim is conspicuously absent. We would not want to risk Rooney’s star vehicle not playing in movie theaters in the Deep South, would we, MGM?

FULL DISCLOSURE: This version does get one thing right. It includes a scene that is actually in the book of Huck and Jim discussing the French and King Solomon. It is full of Twain’s jokes, and therefore very entertaining. If only the screenwriter had included more from the book -- you know, the book that people were paying their good Depression nickels to come see.

Oh, and Rooney gives it his all, but at almost twenty, he is clearly too old for the role.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960)
The "Colorful" Version

I know this version is awful because the user reviews on the IMDB all slavishly praise it. The cinematography is gorgeous, but again, this movie ain’t Twain. The bastardization of the book reaches ludicrous levels here. Rather than face some of the difficult truths at the end of the novel, the film takes a short incident from the middle of the novel (Huck briefly attends a circus) and manufactures a twenty minute sequence where Huck and Jim JOIN A CIRCUS, featuring lovable character actors Andy Devine and Buster Keaton. Because everyone LOVES the circus... right? And it is every boy’s dream to run away and JOIN the circus, right? And the circus is so... colorful. And so much more fun than dealing with the problems of colored people.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This film features a single shot revealing that a shackle around Jim’s leg has made him bleed. Either slavery is bad, or the filmmakers were finding one more opportunity to show off that glorious color cinematography.

All three film versions have one scene in common, and it is telling. They all gleefully include the scene wherein Huck disguises himself as a girl. It is another reminder that these films are more than willing to stoop to cheap burlesque laughs instead of addressing the book’s troubling social context.

Big River (1985)
The Broadway Musical Version

Okay, I know this is not a movie -- but I had to suffer through it, so you do too. With songs like “Do You Wanna Go To Heaven?,” “Muddy Water,” “Waitin’ For The Light to Shine,” and “River in the Rain,” I guess you can see what we are in for: good ole homespun cornpone. If the producers of this Broadway smash wanted to be closer in spirit to the novel, their production would have featured such immortal show tunes as “My Pap’s An Abusive Alcoholic Who Beats Me Every Single Day (Reprise),” “Killin’ Me A Pig!,” “All Right Then I’ll Go to Hell,” and “Naked On A Raft With My Big Black Friend.”

BETTER YET: Movie theaters are not open 24 hours a day. Read the goddamned book.

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