Another thing I wrote long ago.

Over the last one hundred years since its publication The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has managed to establish itself as a controversial book in regards to its possible influences over the minds of America’s youth. Thus, it has also become a popular work to transcribe to the screen for the masses to enjoy. Unfortunately this idea has been severely abused as sappy screen versions that are vehicles for various stars and not accurate translations of Twain’s work are produced every decade or so. I was surprised to discover how many different versions have become available to the public, and I was even more surprised to find how each movie’s style and theme definitively reflected the era from which it was produced. In viewing four different adaptations of the book I discovered that not only did cinematic process evolve, but so did America’s tastes and views. The roles of Huck and Jim evolved from one movie to the next as the social and artistic ideals of the American culture changed. 

The first movie version I watched came out in 1939. That same year other popular novels, like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, were transferred to the screen, yet only Wuthering Heights fell farther in terms of cinematic disaster than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For this movie parallels the novel in few respect other than characters and location. Mickey Rooney who plays the pre-pubescent Huck, plays the role as only a short, twenty-something actor could–grownup. Rooney’s Huck “affords little, if any, insight into the realistic boyhood world of which old Mark wrote with such imperish humor” (Crister 1584). As if that deviance from the original character isn’t enough” he is a convinced abolitionist, and not only persuades the Widow Douglas to free Rex Ingram (Jim) but made a little speech allowing how it ain’t right for one human being to own another” (1584). Such changes to the fundamentals of Huck’s character lead the film away from Twain’s original theme of a boy and runaway slave’s adventures on the Mississippi, and instead it is the story of a young man’s coming of age and fighting for what is right. 

Yet Huck’s character is not the only one that the director decided to change, for alterations to Jim’s character in the 1939 version are also apparent. Rex Ingram’s Jim loses his superstitiousness and is also no longer the mothering figure as in the novel. These traits are not lost, however, for Huck embodies them. Huck builds the wigwam and brings up the subject of discriminative borrowing, and it is Huck who is bitten by the Rattlesnake. Jim also deliberately refrains from telling Huck about his father’s death, for he is afraid Huck will return to the Widow. At the beginning of the movie Jim is thus relegated to a conniving opportunist, yet at the end, when Huck is bitten by the Rattlesnake, out of left field, a complete and sudden change in Jim occurs, for he saves Huck by taking him to a doctor. Thus a now selfless Jim turns himself in to the authorities. 

Like the Huckleberry in this movie, Jim’s character is not that which Twain created. He serves more as a dramatic focus for Huck’s energies and emotions. While Rex Ingram plays the part with great emotion and remains the only highlight of the otherwise dreary production, it isn’t enough. The lack of humor is apparent, for the King and Duke only appear for a short while and only in order to support Rooney. Any original points of humor are forgotten while new little quirks are injected at will into the script. All the business with the King and the Dukes “true identities” is sped through while a bit about civilization and Huck’s shoe-less-ness is created and used to poke fun at his reluctance to be civilized. 

All of this tampering leads to the implausibility of the finale of this shoddy flick. Huck, supposedly a boy of a mere fourteen, rides upriver in a steamboat, being solicited all the way by the captain for advice on where to avoid the snags and shallows of the mighty Mississippi/(Sacramento) River. His mission is a race against an angry mob that is out to lynch poor Jim for Huck’s assumed murder. Did I miss something when I read this book? Where exactly did Twain write all that? An epilogue maybe? 

That right there is the problem with this entire film version. The director took too many liberties and made too many changes in order to deliver to the movie-goers one of their favorite stars in a socially minded film based on a American classic. The original Huckleberry Finn, however, deals with a completely different social structure than that of the Depression Era. In the movie, Huckleberry Finn is no longer a non-judgmental boy growing up on the Mississippi, but a rather whimpy young adult who lacked any spunk or flare for telling whoppers. It seems the pressures of the Depression had gotten even to our hero and made him grow up. Huck’s youth and vitality simply weren’t there. 

This same problem continued to plague other adaptations throughout the next thirty years. In particular two versions I watched, while a bit more true to Twain’s original story, also took great liberties in respect to artistic license. 
The first movie was a made-for TV version produced in 1975 starring Ron Howard. A Huckleberry played by Howard would have been fine if the movie had been shot about ten years earlier when he was Opie instead of Ritchie, for just like the 1939 version, Howard’s Huck is just too old. He’s lost is capacity to tell a good lie and he stays impeccably clean for a vagabond. By the end of the movie this Huck, while not quite as outspoken about it as Rooney’s, is a definite abolitionist. This movie is simply another vehicle for the generation’s broad-shouldered, almost stubbley heart-throb. 

Antonio Fargas’s Jim of this version, on the other hand, is a rather wimpy, figure who Huck must protect and shelter. This is easily accomplished for Huck is not only much wiser but also taller than Jim. The two actors never seem to really strike the camaraderie that Huck and Jim develop in the novel, yet according to Royal Dano who plays the omniscient narrator/Twain himself, “At the journey’s end Huck and Jim could look into each other’s eyes and see the gift that the river had given–friendship. Each had learned the humanity of the other and they’d carry the satisfaction of it all their lives” (Huckleberry Finn 1975). This connection just did not happen. 

As far as the supporting cast of the Duke and the Dauphin there isn’t really much to say either. Merle Haggard’s Duke reminds me of a mean and sober Johnny Cash, while Jack Elam overacts the King’s lying to make it seem exuberantly artistic. Neither character really injects any serious amount of humor, and what little humor found in the movie is from the terrible acting of Donny Most as Tom Sawyer. While quite able to play the moronically stupid Ralph on Happy Days, he is ill-suited for the quick-witted role of Tom. While his very poor acting did add some humor to an otherwise bland movie it was also very distracting. As long as they were trying to keep things with the cast of Happy Days why didn’t they cast Potsy, Chachi, or even the Fonz as Tom? One of them surely could have done a better job. Howard could win an Emmey for his acting in comparison. All of Most’s posturing and little intonations belong with Rooney and the pictures of 1939, not 1975. 

A second cutesy posturing can be found in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, produced in 1960 and starring a little kid named Eddie Hodges. While at least Hodges’ age is relatively closer than either Rooney’s or Howard’s to that of Huck, his accuracy of portraying the character ends there. “Hodges exhibits a disquieting tendency to posture cutely (particularly in closeup shots),” and “He fails to convey with full force the pre-adolescent confidence and ingenuity of the universally boyish ‘Huck’ character” (Mosk.). Even with an all star cast to support him, Hodges’ Huck is poor. 

The high points of this movie come with the performances of Tony Randall as the King and Archie Moore as Jim. Both actors manage to steal the spotlight from the posturing Hodges with their simple honest acting of the characters. Moore manages to play Jim as the good-hearted, mothering friend that Twain created. Randall, on the other hand, does ham it up a bit, but the humor he adds by really playing up the kissing of Mary Jane or the fear he instills by truly threatening Huck “is a delightful balance of whimsy and threat” (Mosk.). Randall even manages to sum up the King’s purpose in life when he sings “Tra-la-la-la/The world’s full of Suckers/Waitin’ around for us to take them in./Tra-la-la-la/There’s so many suckers/That a man with brains don’t even no where to begin” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1960). 

What is most interesting about these two versions is the times in which they were released. The 1960 movie starring Hodges came out during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement while the Howard adaptation was aired after the close of that movement and near the end of the Vietnam War. Even though the movies are only 15 years apart the differences between them are profound. The version from 1960 attempted to be light-hearted with a winsome Huck and all star cast, while the 1975 version sought to stress how tough life was back in the years before the Civil War. Even though I feel that neither film really accomplished these themes, they did manage to instill a general mood with their cinematography. While Rooney’s Huck was confined to black and white, these two versions were able to exist in full color. The stressing of the youth and gaiety of Hodges’ Huck is achieved by vivid Metrocolor hues as even the sound stages are painted and lit to look bright and alive. Howard’s Huck, however, is confined to a darker, more cloudy world as the conflicts and difficulties of that Mississippi life are stressed. 

No matter what tricks these films use though, none of the movies manage to portray Twain’s original Huck, nor do they accurately follow the story. None of them managed to capture the spirit of Huck and Jim’s adventures. They all seemed to peter along at a snails pace changing the plot around or adding to it at will. Needless to say I was very happy when all three of these movies began to role their closing credits. 

So after those three basically lousy renditions of Huckleberry Finn, I was delighted with the newest version produced last year by Disney. The movie is astounding. As far as cinematography is concerned it leaves all earlier versions in the dust. While the scenes are beautifully shot in the lush setting of the shores of the Mississippi this does not over-power the performance of Elijah Wood and Courtney Vance, but simply enhances it with realistic realism. While Vance captures Jim’s superstiousness and often protective mothering with ease, Wood gives “an understated performance as an independent, rascally kid whose penchant for tall-tale-spinning is his biggest talent. He extracts the subtleties from Twain’s character, never portraying him as merely cute” (Novak 22). 

Not only that, but their trip down the river is almost verbatim out of the book with only one or two minor changes, or rather combinations, and these are for the simple sake of time constraints. For example, the house and boat scenes are combined so that Jim finds Pap dead on the deck of the grounded steamer rather than in the floating house. The journey down the river starting at Devil’s Island is complete, and even the characters of the Duke and Dauphin are accurate to the point of their getting tarred and feathered. In contrast with the previous films, Huck’s scene where he pretends to be a girl is well directed with time devoted to telling the story, not just breezing through it in a rush. In terms of following Twain original characters and ideas this movie was by far the best of the bunch. 

The only disappointing point came at the very end when the movie stopped following the novel, for instead of Huck rescuing Jim from the Phelps, he rescues him from jail where Jim is waiting to be shipped back to Hannibal where he will have to stand trial for Huck’s murder. Huck springs him out right after the remains of Peter Wilks are excavated. In Huck and Jim’s flight back to the raft, however, Huck is shot, and Jim then carries Huck back to the villagers who decide they’re going to hang him right then and there. If you haven’t seen the movie yet I won’t spoil it by telling you the rest, but the one important thing that this very dramatic ending does which none of the others films are able to, is actually showing the lengths Huck and Jim will go to save the other. While this ending is not actually part of the original it does bring Huck and Jim closer together than the next hundred pages of the description of Jim’s rescue did, for it gives immediate examples of the characters’ abiding friendship. 

Unlike any of the other three movie I watched, this adaptation also focused on Twain’s original theme of the uncivilizable Huck. Wood portrays Huck’s non-judgmental attitude superbly in every scene from the harry night spent with Pap’s gun in his arms to his regret over the tragedy of the feuding Sheperdsons and Grangerfords. It is interesting to note that in all three earlier movies Huck accepts becoming civilized. He may as in the 1939 version rebel slightly even at the end, but the corner has been turned and he is on his way to becoming a proper young man. In the 1993 adaptation, however, the widow may remain bent upon civilizing Huck, but he, at the close, follows Twain’s original call. 

How could this latest, almost true to the original, adaptation decide to follow Twain’s actual plot and theme? To understand why we must once again look at what culture produced the earlier versions in comparison with our current culture. In 1939 Huck reflected the Depression Era in his more adult temperament and Rooney’s own presence and age on screen, while in 1960 Hodges portrayed a youthful exuberant version who posed innocently before the camera. Lastly, in 1975, Howard gave us a Huck Finn who had it tough. All three movies never really captured the strong relationship between Huck and Jim, for each one had to translate it into something else. In 1939 it made Huck a born-again abolitionist while in 1975 Huck is Jim’s protector. Perhaps in 1960 right before Vietnam the producers almost had it, but the version was too commercialized with a large cast of famous names and vibrant almost unreal Technicolor. It was the kind of movie that could easily have fallen under the Disney label, yet the curious point there is that the one version I watched that is, in fact, produced by Disney, tried very hard not to down scale any of Twain’s original work. This accurate portrayal of Huckleberry’s adventures is what led to its success in term of presenting Twain’s original theme. 

That is not to say this version doesn’t contain a message concerning slavery. Yet this one doesn’t make Huck into an abolitionist, but rather into Jim’s friend. Huck disagrees with Jim being enslaved, and will agree with the Widow “that just because an idea is popular doesn’t make it right” (The Adventures of Huck Finn 1993). 

Then why and how did our present culture produce this version? I think the actual genre of today’s film played a large role in it. Many people dislike movies based on previous material that fail to live up to the originals, but I don’t think that is the only cause. In today’s culture Huckleberry Finn is still looked upon as a controversial book because of Jim. Many uneducated critics feel that his character is a mockery or stereotype of the black man, but most people who do read the novel realize this is not the case. Jim is a very complex character. He’s not some fool who is content to sit out on the back stoop eating a watermelon. Jim has a wife and family of his own. He mothers and protects Huck, even concerning Huck’s dead Pap, although his motives there are a bit questionable. His dialect is not stereotypical, but defining. This latest film version of Huck Finn shows us this depth more than any previous work. Before the actors playing Jim were bound by a director’s vision that did not follow that of Twain’s. Vance, however, is not. Wood’s Huck is thus has a true equal in Jim, which then gives us a true portrayal of Jim and Huck’s adventures, showing that the American culture can now look at its history more objectively without trying to re-write it to suit the current trend. 

Works Cited 
Crister, B.R. Rev. of Huckleberry Finn. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1939. New York Times 3 Mar. 1939: Rpt. in Vol. 3 of The New York Times Film Reviews 1939-1948. New York Times and Arno: New York, 1970. 1584. 

Huckleberry Finn. American Broadcasting Companies Inc., 1975. Mosk. Rev. of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1960. Variety 6 May 1960: Rpt. in Vol. 10 of Variety Film Reviews 1959-1963, Garland: New York, 1983. 

Novak, Ralph. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” People 12 April. 1993: 22. 

The Adventures of Huck Finn. Walt Disney Pictures, 1993. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1960. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1939: renewed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1966. 

Notice a typo or other issue? Feel free to let me know.