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Monday, September 26, 2022

Hands Off Settled Story Classics

Where One Critic Played Safe

Among reviewing cliches is assurance an author would “spin in his/her grave” to see what movies did to a novel, as w/ Otis Ferguson re The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1938. I enjoy this critic a lot, but here as with others he bowed to expectation that, of course, any film, let alone one produced by Selznick, and on lavish scale, would profane “a classic,” sacred past work defiled per usual. Certain base rules were observed, now as then. Imagine coming out of Hamlet to say, thank goodness they cleaned up that mess of a play. Reason the issue lured me was an “Illustrated Junior Library” printing of Tom Sawyer, dated 1946, colorful illustrations bespeaking the 40’s as much as 1875 when Mark Twain’s book was published. I read it as a boy, saw screen versions, so noted departures each took from 305 pages of text. Takeaway was this: Selznick’s adapt improved on the novel, at least so far as structure and pace. Had he followed it faithfully, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would be unwatchable. How long since Otis Ferguson’s last read, or did he break spine upon Mark Twain’s original at all? I think Ferguson’s review was pure reflex, words he was expected to write, and so wrote them. Brave critics part from the pack, but all know greater comfort of going along to get along. Here was once where Ferguson gave in to keep his place at colleague tables, the first time I was disappointed by a column of his.

When did Tom Sawyer become sacrosanct, or was it ever so? Mark Twain wrote in lurches, a start made, then two years before taking up Tom again. Sections were done as they came to the author, ideas spilt upon paper, then wait “for the tank to fill up again.” He took another year off after half was completed, the draft then dispatched to friend and fellow author William Dean Howells, who was asked to evaluate the lot and suggest fixes where needed. Reviews were mixed from publication start: “Slightly disjointed” said NY Times in 1876, noting “an unnecessarily sinister tinge over the story,” its appeal to children questionable (Mark Twain had stated firmly that his book was meant for adults). Tom Sawyer would be no instant classic. In fact, it sold slow for a first several years, gaining strength after to become Mark Twain’s most popular novel, declared a “landmark” by Booth Tarkington, who wrote a rhapsodic forward for a 1922 reprinting in which he called Tom “the first full-blown boy in all fiction.” The book was by then ensconced in literary canons, what with Huckleberry Finn following, plus several more Tom Sawyer stories during Mark Twain’s lifetime. My recent reading was without rose tint and mindful that here was a thing revered, but never wholly so. Was Tom Sawyer disjointed? I thought so, and Ferguson acknowledged as much (“The story of the original is shoddy melodrama at best”). Then why did he so ridicule Selznick effort to smooth out inherent weakness? Critic reflex was to assume philistinism the outcome of any Hollywood effort. This bespoke their literacy and drew a Maginot line twixt thoughtful reviewers and celluloid peddlers who would insult a public’s intelligence.

Selznick invaded cultural sanctums where he could, for Tom Sawyer instance a display at the Museum of Modern Art to demonstrate effort that went into filming a known and loved novel. Visitors could inspect among other things the memos between DOS and Code monitors wanting scenes and dialogue trimmed for public consumption. Ferguson saw the exhibit and sprang upon censor intervention as proof that films had little hope of capturing spirit of Mark Twain, or anyone that wrote freely. “Amazing resource and patience that were behind its millions of things and dollars” could not breach walls so rigidly maintained, gatekeepers’ own Maginot to separate best intentions from compromised result. It was as though any exhibit revolved around Selznick’s effort would be misplaced at MOMA, or any museum devoted to fine art. But wasn’t it Otis Ferguson who once wrote “the truth of films can be more vivid than the truth of fiction”? No critic operating outside the industry could know struggle that came with proper adaptation of a classic, or even popular, novel to altogether different medium that was movies. There would come occasion in 1941 when Ferguson got schooled, a trip to Hollywood underwritten by his employer, The New Republic, the critic invited to go behind cameras and learn what went into entertainment that by all and final necessity, had to entertain. Most impactful of time served was his with The Little Foxes, occasion for Ferguson to realize how tough a commission it was to cross gulf between a stage and screens. He would write with awe as to labor spent on a single scene, all but acknowledging what little he had understood of a complicated process (having been there to watch it being filmed). 
Ferguson gave The Little Foxes a rave upon release, at last appreciative of effort gone into a thing so fine. Did the awakened critic wish to revisit some of what he reviewed previous and perhaps be more generous? No opportunity alas, for he enlisted in the Merchant Marine for wartime duty and died later in a bombing raid (1943).

The Museum of Modern Art's Tom Sawyer Exhibit in 1938 Ties in with the Selznick Film

I was taken aback when a final third of Tom Sawyer the novel fell apart, or was that me being plebeian? Tom Sawyer was supposed to be an unimpeachable classic, though I doubt Selznick found it so, being too much the realist for all of regard he felt for literature. Mark Twain’s was merely another property he was obliged to improve upon, a process essential to make it palatable for 1938 audiences. Selznick knew in advance he would be criticized. Moviemakers got so little respect, wiser ones giving up any chase for it. Tom Sawyer would be hopeless if faithful-adapted, to wit: On page eight, Tom picks a fight with a boy he has never met, this a symptom of Tom being “not the model boy of the village.” Selznick knew that to open his story thusly would lose audience sympathy straightaway. Tom must be embraced if we are to spend ninety minutes with him. There is business with a “Pinch-bug” in church, and later a “tick-running.” Insects might register in a novel, but with movies, never, leastwise seldom. I’ve never seen drama or comedy revolved around a tick, nor would desire to, being discomfited just reading the tick chapter in Mark Twain’s book. Experienced screenwriters would jettison such as a matter of course. DOS had John A. Weaver on that job, with veteran Marshall Neilan to aid the treatment. Ben Hecht reportedly lent assist. What the novelist got right, they left alone. Tom at fence painting seems composed for film, so leave it intact they did. But his taking school punishment for Becky Thatcher seems labored in the book, complicated by another boy being the guilty party, so begged to be telescoped into a single scene.

Selznick knew what worked between pages would not necessarily do so where watched. I spent a couple days reading Tom Sawyer, saw the 1938 movie in an hour and a half, for which praise to the David Selznick team for measures necessarily taken. Here was thankless work seldom understood by a public and most critics less versed in art of visual representation, seeing as opposed to imagining, the literal in front of your eyes as opposed to what words conjure up. Otis Ferguson was too experienced and capable not to grasp this. Maybe he could have written a script faithful to all aspects of Tom Sawyer, rather than calling Selznick’s job “a colored-candy version” for “people (who) want a chocolate-marshmallow sundae with nuts.” These seem cheap shots. Selznick revered great books, but came to know what must be done to tame even the best of them. Changes had been made to David Copperfield which satisfied most, A Tale of Two Cities and Little Lord Fauntleroy to follow. The producer saw weakness in sources and confessed them to memos. Two Cities was “sheer melodrama” which could not effectively play “minus Dickens’ brilliant narrative passages,” the book’s “mechanics” tending otherwise “to creak.” How many had nerve to face celebrated literary works in so foursquare a manner, being not afraid to alter where needed? Selznick had to be a showman first, his medium not one best served by page-to-picture fidelity. Mark Twain dragged out Tom and Huck’s hunt for treasure and gave us subplots revolved around Injun Joe (his lethal designs upon the widow Douglas). There was no chase after Tom and Becky in the cave, Joe’s death taking place “off page” with faint dramatic impact. The author wrote friend Howells that little of this mattered, “since there is no plot to the thing” (the author in view of this resisted efforts to adapt Tom Sawyer for the stage, though unauthorized versions proliferated). It took Selznick to give Tom Sawyer structure that would work, tempo and pace to excite, and a climax to entirely satisfy.

PREVIOUSLY AT GREENBRIAR: A two-part visit to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from September, 2006.


Blogger DBenson said...

Saw this in 1968 in the cafetorium of Burnett Junior High School. While the 8th graders were having some kind of off-campus fun we 7th graders got to see a couple of 16mm movies and some cartoons (three on a reel).

I knew the book, having either read it or listened to it (in 6th grade our teacher would read a chapter from a book each day). I recognized the picnic being held in honor of Tom's heroism was a change -- Would Twain's adults have granted him such a moment of glory? -- and likewise Injun Joe throwing a knife in court. Joe's offstage death in the book was still plenty creepy, almost a page from Poe.

The other feature they showed us, for reasons unknown, was "Damn the Defiant". Yes, there were some naval battles. But beyond that, guys in funny uniforms talking and a sailor being ordered to eat a wormy biscuit. That last got the biggest audience reaction.

Side notes: That same year there was a TV series, "The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". The gimmick was Tom, Huck and Becky (live actors) wandering into various fantasy/folklore/scifi settings (Hanna-Barbara animation). They were pursued in the opening credits by Injun Joe (Ted Cassidy); each episode had a different animated villain who bore a family resemblance (voiced by Cassidy). Needless to say there wasn't much Twain involved.

In the earlier articles you mention Disney owning the film -- When did this happen? Disney did a minor movie adaptation in 1995, but were there earlier plans? Note that Disneyland features a Tom Sawyer's Island, accessible by raft, with Injun Joe's Cave and a partially whitewashed fence (in early years, Tom Sawyer was there to cajole kids into taking up a brush). And of course the riverboat was dubbed the Mark Twain. It could have just been Walt's enthusiasm for that world, but where else did he so heavily plug a story he hadn't adapted?

3:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Disney purchased a Selznick group of which THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER was part.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Jorge Finkielman said...

Selznick's Tom Sawyer is a terrific film, featuring a very good narrative structure leading to a very solid climax and resolution. The book, and the sequels are bland series of events tied together tied together even if they do not exactly fit one following another one. Its like the stories starts and stops with no buildup to a climax that will resolve the narration. They are pleasant to read but not memorable.

4:02 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I look at it this way, unless you're making a series (mini or otherwise), you've got about two hours, or less, to tell the story. It can't help but be the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. A wise filmmaker will retain the overall narrative, and include the best-remembered highlights. SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR became THREE, and GWTW omitted Scarlett's son, with no harm.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

It seems to me that then as now the movie industry wants to have its cake and to eat it, too; they want the built-in publicity and public good will associated with the popular literary titles to become associated with their product, but as they then face the dilemma of making a decent film from the literary work, they also have to find some way to get the public's tolerance, so to speak, of their altering the work as the film-makers see fit to make it work as a movie - and as Greenbriar points out so well, film being a very different medium from print, it is a matter of commercial necessity that the literary work be so changed in the adaptation.
People who know and like the original work prior to seeing its adaptation to film are likely to be disappointed by the film if they do not cut the film-makers at least a little slack as to their adaption of it to the screen.
A similar thing goes on with re-makes of popular films, but that's another kettle of fish.

9:49 AM  

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