The following review appeared 22 May 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Glen M. Johnson <email@example.com>
The Catholic University of America
Huckleberry Finn on Film is frustratingly uneven, but valuable for the amount of information it contains. We've had plenty of commentary on movie adaptations, from initial reviews to overviews like Perry Frank's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Film," published in the 1985 collection Huck Finn Among the Critics. But no account has been as detailed as Clyde Haupt's. He discusses eleven adaptations of Huckleberry Finn--six feature films and five televised versions, including a mini-series. The subject is Twain's book, not Huck the character, so Haupt skips the 1918 and 1995 films, both called Tom and Huck, based mainly on Tom Sawyer. Also omitted are stage versions, including Big River. (Bill Cosgrove informs me, via the Mark Twain Forum, that scenes from Big River were televised as part of the 1980s syndicated TV show "Fame.")
Beyond these exclusions, Haupt's treatment is still not comprehensive. Wesley Britton's Mark Twain Encyclopedia essay on "Media Interpretations," for example, lists a 1946 MGM version not mentioned by Haupt (or by Perry Frank), as well as a Soviet film, Hopelessly Lost (1973), and three animated versions. Haupt provides only spotty filmographic information for the versions he does include, and his technical vocabulary is sometimes ambiguous. He refers to the 1978 version directed by Jack Hively as both a "film" and a "teleplay," and indicates that "its release date is not public information." I had to turn to Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z to find out that this version aired on NBC in July 1981. There are other anomalies as well: Haupt was unable to locate the 1957 "U.S. Steel Hour" television production, so he writes about it based on reviews and "my scanty teenage remembrances." On the other hand, he has used the original, four-hour version of the 1985 mini-series, which has been shown publicly only once, on PBS's "American Playhouse." Haupt makes a convincing case for the long original as far superior to the edited version that has been widely available via cable and video cassette.
Haupt treats the films on their own terms, reviewing production information, summarizing plots, and critiquing uses of the visual medium before he turns to comparisons with the novel. He uses the term "adaptive distortion," but insists that changing what Twain wrote, even "in most respects," is not necessarily "to be faulted." (Twain himself encouraged adaptive distortion in attempts to get his books dramatized.) Haupt's approach to each adaptation--treated separately in chronological order--is straightforward. This is both an advantage and a weakness. Information about production, plotting, and reception is presented without the haze of "theory" that obscures much contemporary critical writing. On the other hand, the study's level of conceptualization is primitive. We get evaluations based on "a Twainian spirit" or--vaguer still--"the flavor of Twain." Haupt will explain what this spirit or flavor is, or should be, in a given instance, but evaluations based on these notions usually seem impressionistic or arbitrary.
A related problem in Huckleberry Finn on Film is the thinness of reference to Twain scholarship. Haupt's concluding bibliography contains two books by Mickey Rooney, but only two works on Twain published since 1985: Leo Marx's collection The Pilot and the Passenger (which in fact reprints a piece from 1956) and a 1990 article by John Bird in Texas Studies in Literature and Language. There are citations of major books of a generation or more ago: Van Wyck Brooks, Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler, Henry Nash Smith. And the interpretive view of Huckleberry Finn presented here tends to derive from that earlier era. For Haupt, the key is the humanistic view of Huck's friendship with Jim: he says, in fact, that this is one of two things that make for a successful adaptation. (The other is a personable actor playing Huck.)
Beyond the Huck-Jim relationship, Haupt prefers his Twain grim. For example, he calls the 1985 mini-series "a swamp of violent, necromantic, and carnal specifics"--and this is a compliment! His preference for the gory extends to praising the mini-series for going beyond the specifics of Twain's novel. So we get an explicitly filmed lynching, and a comment by Haupt that, though no such thing occurs in the book, "it is clear that lynching is something Twain craved to depict." Twain, says Haupt, "will often veer away" from dark "narrative possibilities," but the script writer will "see them through." The silliest example of Haupt's critical approach has him praising the scene where Colonel Grangerford (Richard Kiley) reads the "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd": "It's a lovely take because, . . . Kiley makes the dead boy real, and one feels tangible loss for him."
Having acknowledged the omissions, oddities, and weaknesses of Huckleberry Finn on Film, I can turn to the pleasures and insights it offers. Haupt has a good eye for visual imagery, especially evocations of the big river. He isolates a number of single shots and describes them lovingly. (It's unfortunate that there are no frame enlargements to illustrate these.) His sensitivity to the visual medium allows Haupt to praise the silent Huckleberry Finn (1919) directed by William Desmond Taylor. (He notes evidence of ham- handed studio editing of this film--not the last time that would happen.) Haupt's book also provides a good bit of fascinating trivia. For example, only one of eleven visualized Hucks has dirt on his face. And--did you know?--three directors of Huckleberry Finn films went on to make movies with Elvis Presley. Think about that. (Twain trivia mavens should go beyond Haupt and seek out Sidney Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers, which shows that the first Huckleberry Finn director, William Desmond Taylor, was a real King/Duke type, eventually victim of one of Hollywood's most notorious unsolved murders. There was even an interracial gay angle.)
Haupt's critical acumen is sharpest in analyzing how adaptations of Twain's book fail thematically. He points out how often movie and TV versions aggrandize the King and Duke as opportunities for hammy acting. (The rapscallions have been played by, among others, Eugene Pallette, William Frawley, Tony Randall, Harvey Korman, Jack Elam, Merle Haggard, Barnard Hughes, Jim Dale, and Jason Robards.) Then Haupt cuts to a key insight: turning Huckleberry Finn into a romp by the King and Duke creates an "adult white male" story, obscuring Twain's more radical focus on the boy and the slave. This discussion by Haupt made clearer to me than ever before how it may be a mistake to see Huck in the tradition of the picaresque hero: the King and Duke are picaros, but culturally Huck is something different, more radical. Other film and video adaptations, as Haupt analyzes them, pursue other "special agendas": the 1931 film becomes the story of the social adjustment of a troubled teenager, while the 1939 and 1978 versions make Huck an abolitionist from the start. Political correctness has been involved in adaptations of Huckleberry Finn for a long time.
Other observations provide handles for interesting discussion. A variety of framing devices have been used over the years: Taylor's 1919 version presents the narrative as Mark Twain's dream (and carries the dream motif through the film), while the 1975 version uses Mark Twain in a stage manager role. Then there are the various ways the film and television versions conclude: Huck ends up with Mary Jane Wilks (1920), back at the Widow's and Miss Watson's (1931, 1939), or at least back in Hannibal (1974, 1975); he plans new adventures with Tom Sawyer (1978), lights out for New Orleans (1960), or floats away on the river (1955, 1985, 1993). Interestingly, besides the 1985 mini-series, only the 1955 live performance on TV's "Climax" picks up the "I can't stand it" aspect of Huck's final position, though he's bolting from Mary Jane, not Aunt Sally; and that version fudges by having him promise "I'll be back." In the 1993 Disney version, on the other hand, Huck takes off, but instead of fleeing anything he's going "for the glory," whatever that may mean.
You can have a lot of fun flailing around in the minutiae of Huckleberry Finn adaptations, and Haupt provides plenty of it. I'm struck by how frequently these versions are filled with extraordinary actors (Paul Winfield, Jane Darwell, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Butterfly McQueen, Geraldine Page, among others), as well as by a dreary succession of cute teen idols as Huck (Junior Durkin, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Hodges, Ron Howard, Elijah Wood) or as Tom (Jackie Coogan, Donny Most). What to make of all the minutiae is still a task for scholars. The model study of this sort is Thomas F. Gossett's Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture (1985). Whoever finally produces a work on the cultural life of Huckleberry Finn worthy to share the shelf with Gossett's book--and with Louis Budd's Our Mark Twain--will be grateful to Haupt's hours in front of movie and TV screens.