New titles from others and research in progress

Kent Rasmussen’s research-in-progress on Mark Twain film adaptations

December 5, 2017

Tags: Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Turner Classic Movies

Unlike the Yankee played by Bing Crosby in this scene from The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain's Yankee doesn't use a watch crystal as a magnifying glass to set fire to the proclamation ordering his execution; in fact Mark Twain's Yankee doesn't have a magnifying glass or even a watch and never sees a written proclamation.
This past year, I’ve been researching film and television productions adapted from Mark Twain’s writings. One of the first questions anyone studying this subject asks is how “faithful” the production is to its source. As I’ve gotten deeper into my research, I must confess I’m finding that question increasingly elusive. Perceptions of how faithful films are to their sources have much to do with what viewers see as the essence of the sources. What, for example, is the essence of Huckleberry Finn? Several years ago, John Grisham was on Turner Classic Movies to help introduce the 1939 version of Huckleberry Finn (with Mickey Rooney). Grisham told host Robert Osborne that as an adaptation, he thought that film was “wonderful ... the characters are all there, and the story is all there,” adding that the film is “faithful to the plot” (his words). A curious assessment, I thought, as many of the novel’s major characters--including Tom Sawyer--are not in the film. Moreover, nothing in the first 25 minutes of the film has much to do with the novel. Not exactly what I’d call “faithful to the plot.” Perhaps I can persuade Grisham to tell me what he regards as the novel's essence. Major changes are typical of films made from Mark Twain's books. Recently, something I read while studying the 1949 version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (with Bing Crosby) at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, I came across a remark that made me laugh out loud. Robert Fellows, the film’s producer, was quoted as saying that the film “differs in only two important respects from the book: the author’s violent anti-clericalism has been expunged and music has been added.” Part of that is true: The film contains no hint of anticlericalism, and music has been added. However, it might have been more accurate for Fellows to say the film resembles the book in only two important respects: It sends a modern American back to King Arthur's time, and that character’s first name is "Hank." Otherwise, the film differs from the book in almost every important respect. I'm guessing that Fellows never read Mark Twain's book and was merely told that his film would be close to it.