Many of Hollywood’s films begin life as books. Some Hollywood executive, actor, or screenwriter reads a book they enjoy, they go and acquire the rights, and they produce a screenplay based on it, which eventually gets turned into a film. And for as long as Hollywood’s been making films, there have been some books which are considered unfilmable. Once upon a time, this was largely due to technical concerns; some scenes literally could not be filmed in a way that would due them justice. This has largely gone by the wayside in recent years, though. But that doesn’t mean a book can’t be unfilmable due to other reasons…
Recently I’ve started to consider the possibility that one of the classics of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, may be one such work. Film buffs may already be raising an eyebrow, as — not counting appearances in Tom Sawyer adaptations — Huck Finn has been the subject of no less than nine films, counting foreign-language productions. But there’s a difference between there being a film, and that film being an accurate reflection of the book…
The events of the book can, and sometimes have, been reflected accurately. (But only sometimes; there’s at least one adaptation that reduces Jim’s role to a bit part — which is rather like taking Brutus out of Julius Caesar.) But the tone of the book is another question. Every version of Huckleberry Finn in cinema has been appropriate for children; none that I could find were rated above PG. There has been an assumption that because Huckleberry Finn is a child, the story must be for children. And this is simply untrue. The book, like most novels of its era, was meant for adults. (It might bear remembering that there wasn’t much else in the way of private entertainment at the time). And though its protagonist is a child and sees things through a child’s eyes, he deals with adult issues, such as the question of individual morality versus the ethics of society at large. Hence Huck’s declaration when he considers the consequences of helping Jim, an escaped slave, when his society tells him that Jim is the rightful property of Miss Watson.
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”
It’s a very abstract concept for a young person — indeed the point where a child starts to be able to have their own morality is when they realize that there’s a difference between “right” and “what I’m told to do”. And Huck is fairly turned upside down by the concept; he’s convinced he’s doing wrong by helping Jim to escape, but he can’t bring himself to betray his friend. He’s even baffled when Tom Sawyer comes along later and helps, because Tom’s a “good” kid; he reconciles it later with the revelation that Tom knew that Jim had been lawfully freed in the meantime. There are deep layers of irony here for people today, long past the era when slavery was considered acceptable in the United States. For Twain’s readers, just a little past the Civil War, it was a little less on the side of irony and more on the side of biting satire. Most of this tends to get lost in the translation to a children’s movie. Huck’s just out for an adventure, there’s not much moralizing involved, let alone deep moral quandaries.
There’s another aspect to the book’s tone that is impossible to bring into a children’s film, and that’s the language. Those who have read it know what I mean, but for those who haven’t, Mark Twain makes heavy use of the N-word. It’s not hard to picture how this would go over in film. I’ve seen a few comments about the use of racial epithets in Lee Daniel’s The Butler recently, and I remembered a lot of criticism towards Django Unchained for its use of the word. (This is actually what got me thinking about Huck Finn, in fact.) The defense for those films was that this was how people talked at the time. The counter-argument was that reality didn’t have to be reflected that accurately at the cost of offending people today. I’m not particularly keen on that argument myself, but it especially would not apply to Huckleberry Finn.
While Twain’s use of the N-word is copious, it is not gratuitous. Twain had a very particular purpose in mind by using the word so heavily. It wasn’t simply that it was how people talked at the time… it was that Twain personally found the use of the word offensive. Twain’s purpose in using the word so often, and in the situations he used it in, was to illustrated the dehumanizing effect of the word. Its use in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was intended to shock people out of their comfort zones, to start them thinking about black people as being people and not some type of lesser being. Consider one of the harshest uses in the book:
“It warn’t the grounding— that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Even at the most basic level of life and death, there’s a cultural belief among the white people in the book that black people simply aren’t people at all, and this is reflected in the language chosen. Even “slave” doesn’t go as far to dehumanize; slave, after all, is a position which could be changed (if rarely). Change the language, and the societal bias is weakened, and the tone of the story is changed. Huck’s decision to go against the grain is no longer quite as unthinkable to his contemporaries; he’s only changing somebody’s status, not disagreeing about their personhood.
It may be that in this day and age, a film version of Huckleberry Finn with full racially-charged language and tone isn’t necessary. With a few unfortunate exceptions, we do consider people of different colors to still be people nowadays. But without that element, a film couldn’t be said to be a truly accurate adaptation of Twain’s novel.
Which is why I suspect the book is, in that sense, unfilmable. The idea of Huckleberry Finn being a children’s character is thoroughly entrenched in Hollywood now. Any film which had the language and tone of the novel would earn an R-rating easily — a far cry from the PG-at-worst ratings of previous adaptations. And many people would blithely ignore the rating thinking it was kid-safe anyway, because “it’s Huckleberry Finn, it’s for kids”, only to become outraged when they saw it (consider the recurring hubbub over PG-13 superhero movies, and magnify both the coarseness of the language and the expectation of innocence). It’s doubtful any Hollywood executive would be willing to take the risk.
But that’s all right. We still have the book, after all.