I Wrote That?
by Steven Utley
The story goes that, on hearing The Marcels’ rave-up 1961 recording of “Blue Moon” — which so memorably begins:
Ah bomp ah ba bomp, ah bomp ba bomp bomp,
Baba bomp ah ba bomp,
Da dang da dang,
Da ding ah dong ding Blue Moon!
Blue Moon! Blue Moon!
Dit ta dit ta dit!
— composer Richard Rodgers said, “I wrote that?”
I have always been fascinated by the process by which a single creative individual’s work is adapted by a committee. (A do-wop group is, after all, only a committee that harmonizes.) Indeed, movie and comic-book adaptations of written works of fiction lured me at a tender age to those very written works, with the result that I now categorize the entire contents of my house as either A Book or Other Stuff. And, as we shall presently see, I seem able to think like a committee, or at least to aim for the lowest common denominator, which is often the chief result of committee thinking.
Some creative individuals have had to put up with more than their fair share of adaptations. We can only wonder what Mary Shelley would think of such cinematic gems as I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, both of which laid responsibility for their existence at her (no doubt) dainty feet, or what Bram Stoker’s take on Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula might be, or if William Shakespeare would be able to discern the bones of The Tempest within the flesh of Forbidden Planet. We do know that H. G. Wells cared little for the 1930s Hollywood films of his Invisible Man and Island of Dr. Moreau; it seems very likely that he would also have objected to the 1953 War of the Worlds, which recast his novel as a religious parable, and to the 1965 Village of the Giants, a brainless teen-oriented comedy allegedly derived from The Food of the Gods.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ love/hate affair with Hollywood lasted more than thirty years. According to his daughter Joan, he “found it hard to reconcile himself to the movie versions of the Tarzan stories and never did understand the movie Tarzan. He wanted Tarzan to speak like an educated Englishman instead of grunting. One time we saw a movie together and after it was over, although the audience seemed enthusiastic, my father remained in his seat and kept shaking his head sadly.” Burroughs vented a little in an essay published in Screen Play Magazine in 1934, writing of screen Tarzan No. 2, “Gene Polar, a mighty nice chap who was induced to give up a lieutenancy in the New York fire department to play the part. As an actor, Gene was a great fireman. His selection is an outstanding example of the acumen of a certain type of motion picture producer...”
Burroughs passed up few opportunities to skewer the movie industry. The Girl From Hollywood (1922) told of a drug-addicted screen actress who “finds love and the strength to quit” on a ranch removed from the seamy world of sin and cinema: Burroughs’ version of Going Into Rehab. In Tarzan and the Lion Man (1934), the Ape Man rescues members of a film company shooting on location in Africa, then, in his John Clayton identity, visits Hollywood and tries out for the lead in a Tarzan movie:
The casting direction sized Clayton up. “You look all right to me; I’ll take you up to Mr. Goldeen; he’s production manager. Had any experience?”
The casting director laughed. “I mean in pictures.”
“Well, you might be all right at that. You don’t have to be Barrymore to play Tarzan....”
They proceed to the production manager’s office, where the casting director tells Mr. Goldeen, “I think I’ve got just the man for you.”
Goldeen’s eyes surveyed Clayton critically for an instant; then the production manager made a gesture with his palm as though waving them away. He shook his head. “Not the type,” he snapped. “Not the type at all.”
Clayton does, however, get “the part of the white hunter that Tarzan rescues from the lion”; the part of Tarzan goes to an adagio dancer. Complications ensue.
Among dead writers, Jules Verne is a champ. His extensive filmography includes, among other things, an astonishing number of versions of Michael Strogoff as well as some adaptations of The Mysterious Island that are just, well, astonishing. The novel chronicles the adventures of a small band of Union soldiers, led by Captain Harding, who escape from a Confederate prison by balloon, are carried off to the South Seas and the mysterious island of the title, encounter pirates and Captain Nemo (revealed herein to be Prince Dakkar, of Indian extraction), and escape again as the island is destroyed in a volcanic eruption. Seems straightforward enough.
Well. The 1929 version starring Lionel Barrymore actually began production in 1926, went three million dollars over budget due chiefly to studio politics, and emerged a mish-mash of ingredients from several Verne novels not titled The Mysterious Island. The island now appears to be located in some mythical body of salt water lying off some mythical Eastern European coastline; moreover, it is a peaceable worker’s paradise with no class distinctions, where Barrymore and his loyal mechanics labor side by side to create submarines, and where his daughter, the Countess Sonia, may dare to love a common engineer named Nicholai. Plot complications are provided by a treacherous baron who wants both the submarines and the countess, and a race of mermen who look like Donald Duck’s nephews.
The 1949 Columbia serial bore more resemblance to the source novel than its predecessor — up to a point. The same band of escapees from a Confederate prison are carried off in the same balloon to not quite the same island. True, they still encounter Captain Nemo and battle pirates, but there is also a native tribe known as the Volcano People, yes, and Rulu (played by a former Miss Oklahoma in the Miss America pageant, Karen Randle), who is a princess from the planet Mercury and has wicked designs on our world.
A British-made 1961 feature-length Mysterious Island dispensed, probably wisely, with Princess Rulu and the Volcano People in favor of giant critters supposedly created by Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) but really animated by Ray Harryhausen. We can guess that Verne’s reaction might echo Richard Rodgers’ to The Marcels, only in French: Est-ce bien cela que j’ai écrit?1
This is not to say that all authors necessarily hate the movie versions of their works. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was utterly delighted with The Lost World (1925), featuring Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion-animated dinosaurs, and even Vladimir Nabokov, gazing down from his chilly aristocratic heights, admired Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita.
Nor are all or even most of the wrong-headed movies ever based on, adapted from, suggested by, or in any event blamed upon books that deserved better, science-fiction or horror movies. There is The Sea Beast (1926), a silent version of Moby Dick according to which Ahab (John Barrymore) competed with his stepbrother for the affections of a minister’s daughter; at a crucial moment during an early encounter with the fabled White Whale, the stepbrother treacherously pushes Ahab overboard, practically into Moby Dick’s maw — whence, you see, the pegleg and the unhealthy obsession. Herman Melville undoubtedly spun in his grave, but the film proved so popular that it was remade in 1930, with sound and with Barrymore again portraying Ahab .
So, too, must the 1929 Taming of the Shrew have caused Shakespeare to spin: it featured Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” And the Demi Moore Scarlet Letter (1995) just goes to prove that the “certain type of motion picture producer” of whom Burroughs complained is alive and well in our own time.
But, oh, wrong-headed adaptations of science-fiction and fantasy stories certainly do seem to generate a special badness, dear to every devotee of bad cinema. A. Merritt wept when he saw the 1929 Seven Footprints to Satan, and Keith Laumer claimed that whenever The Monitors (1969) turned up on television, he tuned in only long enough to admire his name in the opening credits, then changed channels before he could see any of the movie.
Stephen King, who has had more bad movies based on his works than 999 out of a thousand other living writers, tells us that the best movie deal is one that pays you a lot of money which you don’t have to give back even when the movie never gets made. Some authors simply prefer to play it safe. Harlan Ellison, who has butted heads with many a producer over the visual interpretations of his stories, categorically refuses to let filmmakers anywhere near his most famous story, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” on the grounds that it is literally unfilmable — this despite my having argued, persuasively, I thought, that sheer Hollywood star power could carry the project. “Harlan,” I said, “Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Ticktockman! Pauly Shore is the Harlequin! And, making her dramatic debut — Paris Hilton as Pretty Alice, the woman who loves them both!”
Although Ellison said he thought I have what it takes to be a certain type of motion picture producer, he isn’t returning my calls.
1. Of course, Verne, good bourgeois and devout Catholic though he was, might have simply have delivered himself of a succinct and heartfelt Merde ! The gentleman to whom I refer all my questions about the French language as she is spoken writes, "I have no idea what [Verne] would have said, but Quelle chiasse ! sounds good. Literally it refers to insect excrement; popularly, it's ‘the trots’, or diarrhea.” As for The Marcels, they took their name from Proust. But we digress.
Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley