Saturday, April 21, 2012

From Hannibal to Hollywood: Mark Twain on Film

By the time Samuel Langhorne Clemens died in 1910, the world was already witnessing the rise of film as a major medium. The first permanent movie theater in the United States had been built in Los Angeles in 1902; the French science-fiction film, A Trip to the Moon, had also debuted in 1902, and the original Western, The Great Train Robbery, had startled audiences with its dramatic cinematography in 1903. The great silent film director, D.W. Griffith, was already making pictures, and classics like Griffith’s controversial 1915 work, The Birth of a Nation, were only a few years away. Even in these early days of film, movie makers were drawn to cinematic adaptations of literary works; the first feature length film produced in the United States was Vitagraph’s 1909 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, and countless adaptations of other well-known novels, short stories, and plays would follow. 

Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain, was certainly aware of the new medium and its potential. The very first film adaptation of Tom Sawyer appeared in 1907, and the author himself appeared in a 1909 adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper. It should come as little surprise, then, that cinema has carried on a long love affair with Mark Twain, not merely with his literary works but also with the man himself.  Hollywood has revisited Twain’s works and life many times in the century since his death, sometimes with more fidelity and success and sometimes with less, but the appeal of Twain’s works and our fascination with his persona have never faded. What I bring you today is an overview of cinema’s romance with Mark Twain, a brief look at some of the notable films that have been inspired by his works and his life. These films help us appreciate the scope of Twain’s influence in the decades since his death, but they also demonstrate the ways in which our cultural perception of Twain has been shaped. Today, our sense of Twain’s works is probably influenced as much by film versions of his novels as it is by our experience with the literary texts themselves. 

One thing we have to understand up front is that fidelity has never been the province of Twain inspired films. From the earliest films to the present time, movies have been more interested in the premises of the novels than in their actual contents. If you read Twain’s novels and then start watching the films, you’ll quickly find that the movies rarely follow the source material with any great commitment. Deviances create tonal shifts as well as plot changes; adventure is sometimes emphasized at the expense of satire, child characters become younger and more innocent in some versions but older and more adult in others, depending on the elements of the novel that the film seeks to highlight. These alterations may irritate the purist, and sometimes they undermine the whole point of the original text as Twain wrote it, but they reflect certain attitudes toward Twain that have grown more entrenched over time. Culturally, we think of Twain as a humorist, and we think of several of his best known novels as children’s literature, even though a close reading of those texts reveals a combination of social satire, violence, and grim reality that are anything but childish. The examples that follow bear witness to this aspect of our cinematic experience with Twain.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Of course, we start with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Published in 1876, Tom Sawyer came to life on the silent screen for the first time in 1907, and additional adaptations have been coming out ever since. Mary Pickford’s younger brother, Jack, starred in a second silent film version in 1917. Pickford was really much too old for the boyish Tom; he was 22 when the film was released, but his sister Mary was playing Pollyanna at the age of 28, and the convention of having youthful looking adults play remarkably young child characters was quite common at that time. In 1930, major child star Jackie Coogan took the role of Tom, an obvious piece of casting for the young actor, who also played literary children like Oliver Twist during his early career, although he would eventually be more widely recognized by later generations as Uncle Fester on the 1960s television series, The Addams Family. 1938 saw the first big, classic Hollywood production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. With producer David O. Selznick commanding a collection of directors, the star-studded cast included Western character actor Walter Brennan as Muff Potter and The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton as Joe Harper’s mother. Thirteen year old Tommy Kelly made his screen debut in the lead role. That same year, Paramount Pictures brought out its adaptation of Twain’s 1896 sequel novel, Tom Sawyer, Detective. The relatively obscure Billy Cook played Tom, but a young Donald O’Connor, later famous for his performance in Singin’ In the Rain, appeared in the role of Huckleberry Finn. In 1973, the world saw a musical adaptation of Twain’s novel, with Johnny Whitaker as Tom and Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher. With songs and music by the Sherman Brothers and John Williams, the movie earned three Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, and Best Score. 

Today, the most widely available version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is certainly Disney’s 1995 adaptation, Tom and Huck, starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom and Brad Renfro as Huckleberry Finn. Like most Twain inspired films, Tom and Huck differs dramatically from its source material, favoring standard Hollywood action/adventure conventions over Twain’s original text. Director Peter Hewitt worked from a screenplay by writer/director Stephen Sommers, best known for his 1999 blockbuster The Mummy and other high action fare. Apparently intended for family audiences and Jonathan Taylor Thomas fans, the film wavers between light-hearted comedy, intense action, and middle school sentimentality about the nature of friendship. For residents of the Tennessee Valley, however, Tom and Huck offers a unique appeal in its locations, having been shot partly in the historic community of Mooresville and in nearby Cathedral Caverns.  While the local settings look great, the film is not particularly successful, and it leaves ample room for future adaptations to take a more serious and faithful approach to dramatizing the story. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Film adaptations of Tom Sawyer have often worked in conjunction with adaptations of Twain’s other best-known work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The original novel appeared in 1884, some eight years after Tom Sawyer, and functions more or less as a sequel, something that Hollywood has never been able to resist. The first film version of Huckleberry Finn appeared in 1920, with seventeen year old Lewis Sargent in the lead role. The first talkie adaptation came in 1931 as a sequel to the 1930 version of Tom Sawyer, with Jackie Coogan returning to his role as Tom and Junior Dirkin as Huck. Prolific character actor Eugene Pallette, a brilliant scene stealer in classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro, was a natural choice for the bombastic Duke of Bilgewater. In 1939, legendary child star Mickey Rooney played Huck in an MGM production. William Frawley, a comedic actor best remembered as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy, took the role of the Duke in this adaptation. Rex Ingram, a licensed physician and pioneer among African-American actors, played the runaway slave, Jim. Veteran director Michael Curtiz, best known for the undisputed classic, Casablanca, helmed a star-studded version of Huckleberry Finn in 1960, with Eddie Hodges as Huck and Tony Randall as the King, as well as Andy Devine, Buster Keaton, John Carradine, Sterling Holloway, and Harry Dean Stanton. Clearly, adaptations of Huckleberry Finn were seen as rife with juicy parts for well-known character actors, particularly those of the King and the Duke. That trend would continue in the 1974 musical version, in which comedians Harvey Korman and David Wayne played the King and the Duke, respectively. Jeff East, who had played Huck in the 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer, returned to the role for this sequel, while Paul Winfield played Jim. 

The most recent film adaptation of Huckleberry Finn came in 1993, with Disney’s The Adventures of Huck Finn, starring Elijah Wood as the scrappy hero. Like the 1995 picture Tom and Huck, this version was produced from a screenplay by Stephen Sommers, who also directed the film, and like Tom and Huck it is by no means a faithful adaptation of the original material, although at least here the theme of friendship need not be forced on the story, and the cast boasts a superior collection of actors who handle their roles with greater success. Elijah Wood was twelve years old when the film came out, although he looks younger and definitely much more innocent than we might imagine the rough-hewn Huck based on Twain’s novels. His co-stars include Courtney B. Vance as Jim, Ron Perlman as Pap Finn, and Anne Heche as Mary Jane Wilks. The plum roles of the King and the Duke go to veteran performer Jason Robards and Scottish comedian Robbie Coltrane, whom audiences might better recognize as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. Although The Adventures of Huck Finn is a better film than Tom and Huck, it still leaves plenty of room for future adaptations of the novel, especially since the second half of the picture departs very markedly from Twain’s novel.

The Prince and the Pauper

It is interesting to note that while Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are certainly Twain’s most famous novels, they are not, in fact, the works most frequently adapted for the screen. The Prince and the Pauper, published in 1882, has attracted more cinematic attention over the years than either of the first two novels, perhaps because its premise of mistaken identity mixed with swashbuckling action seems more tailored to Hollywood’s tastes. After the 1909 film in which Twain himself appeared, the story was again adapted for the silent screen in 1915 with 32 year old actress Marguerite Clark starring as both Prince Edward and Tom Canty. Additional adaptations followed in 1937, 1969, 1977, 1990, and 2007. The 1977 version, which was also released under the title, Crossed Swords, featured a host of well-known performers, including Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Ernest Borgnine, George C. Scott, and Rex Harrison. The 1990 adaptation was another Disney production, this time an animated film starring Mickey Mouse in the dual role of prince and beggar boy. The Disney cartoon eliminated the role of Miles Hendon in favor of greater screen time for its star mouse, an interesting decision given the fact that the heroic Miles Hendon role has tended to be the star part in many other versions of the story. Of course, The Prince and the Pauper is a perfect vehicle if one happens to have identical twin child stars handy, so it should come as no surprise that the 2007 version, A Modern Twain Story: The Prince and the Pauper, starred The Suite Life of Zack and Cody twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse as the title characters. Even the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, took a crack at the roles in the 1995 film, It Takes Two, which combined many elements of Twain’s novel with the Disney twin comedy, The Parent Trap

Of the group, the best and most entertaining of The Prince and the Pauper adaptations must be the 1937 film starring Errol Flynn as the swashbuckling Miles Hendon and the Mauch twins, Billy and Bobby, in the roles of the title characters. Directed by William Keighley, the 1937 movie  plays out much like a dry run for the 1938 picture, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with many of the same players appearing in both films. Claude Rains plays the chief villain, the scheming Earl of Hertford, while Alan Hale undertakes the role of the other villain, the Captain of the Guard.  Montagu Love, who would play the Bishop of the Black Canons in Robin Hood, makes a memorable King Henry VIII, and  Erich Korngold’s score helps to strengthen the more subtle connections between the two films. Funny, exciting, and well acted by both the veterans and the newcomer twins, this might in fact be the best screen adaptation of any Twain work yet produced. 

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Twain’s other period tale, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has also attracted quite a few film adaptations since its debut in 1889.  The first version appeared during the silent era in 1921, with another adaptation following a decade later. Known as A Connecticut Yankee, the 1931 film starred iconic American humorist Will Rogers as protagonist Hank Morgan, with Tarzan star Maureen O’Sullivan as Sandy and Myrna Loy as Morgan le Fay. Film adaptations of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tend to be just as unfaithful to the text as adaptations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and many of the movies inspired by the novel wander a long way off from Twain’s original material. Among the more wildly divergent adaptations is Disney’s 1979 film, Unidentified Flying Oddball, also known as A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court, which replaces Twain’s earthbound Hank Morgan with Dennis Dugan in a dual role as astronaut Tom Trimble and his android duplicate Hermes. Disney took liberties with Twain’s work again in 1995 with the release of A Kid in King Arthur’s Court. In 1998, Whoopi Goldberg became the accidental time traveler in A Knight in Camelot, with Michael York as King Arthur and Ian Richardson as Merlin. Martin Lawrence continued the tradition of running amok from Twain’s text with the 2001 movie, Black Knight, in which Lawrence plays a medieval amusement park employee who finds himself transported back to the fourteenth century. If this seems like an unlikely list of modified Yankees, try adding Bugs Bunny in the 1979 television special, A Connecticut Rabbit in King Arthur’s Court, and Bruce Campbell as time-traveling zombie killer Ash in Sam Raimi’s 1992 cult classic, Army of Darkness. These films demonstrate the enduring popularity of Twain’s premise in A Connecticut Yankee, but none of them adequately or faithfully capture the work itself.

One of the best known examples of the many loose adaptations of Yankee is the 1949 film starring Bing Crosby in the title role. The picture was directed by Tay Garnett, whose most enduring work is probably the 1946 noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice. With Rhonda Fleming as Sandy, Cedric Hardwicke as King Arthur, and William Bendix as a comical Sir Sagramore, the movie boasts a more interesting cast than the screenplay deserves, since the film bears very little resemblance at all to Twain’s novel, and not merely because it’s a musical. It functions primarily as a star vehicle for Bing Crosby, and, while it might amuse the crooner’s devoted fans, it offers little for Twain aficionados. The sharp social commentary of Twain’s text is completely removed in favor of light, romantic, musical comedy, but the 1949 film is by no means alone in ignoring this aspect of Twain’s work. A faithful adaptation of Connecticut Yankee would be a dark affair, as the novel gets less humorous and more biting as it goes along, and it would be almost impossible to imagine Bing Crosby or any of the other comedians who generally play the title role in the apocalyptic bloodbath that concludes the original tale. 

The Myth of Mark Twain

Just as our cultural awareness of Twain’s work has been shaped and altered by film adaptations of his major novels, so has our sense of the man himself been deeply influenced by cinematic representations of Twain as both a historical and fictional personality. When Samuel Clemens appeared in the 1909 adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper, he had already established the myth of himself as “Mark Twain,” that drily humorous gentleman with the mane of snowy hair, the grand moustache, and the white linen suit. As you probably already know, his pen name had been inspired by the terminology he picked up during his years as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, but by the end of his life there was certainly no mystery about who “Mark Twain” really was. Mark Twain was a myth, however, another creation from the complex mind of Samuel Clemens, a persona adopted and maintained by a man whose real thoughts were more changeable and more complicated than the public wanted to believe. Still, it was Mark Twain whom the public loved, and it was Mark Twain whom films and television programs continued to lionize in the years after Twain’s death. 

Twain first appeared as a fictionalized character in the 1921 adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He turned up again in 1932 in Broadway Broke and in 1925’s The Pony Express. As silent films gave way to sound pictures, Twain became a more complicated character for an actor to play, but he eventually returned to the screen in 1937 in Battle of Greed. The first film to feature Twain as the protagonist of the story was The Adventures of Mark Twain in 1944. In this film, the iconic writer was played by no less a star than the great Fredric March, supported by an A-list cast that included Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, and John Carradine. The movie was nominated for three Oscars at the 1945 awards, but it is difficult to obtain today and has become fairly obscure, despite its well-known cast. (You can order a DVD manufactured on demand from for about $28, but no version of the movie is currently available for rent.) 

As television became a dominant entertainment form, Twain began to appear more on the small screen than he did in movie theaters, with many television series featuring an episode or two where Twain played a part. Hal Holbrook’s performance on the 1967 program, Mark Twain Tonight!, would become the standard.  Over the years, Twain would be played on television by actors as diverse as Tom Skerrit, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, Jason Robards, and James Garner, among others. He has turned up on television shows like Bonanza, Fantasy Island, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.  In all of these appearances, the myth of Mark Twain has been perpetuated; audiences recognize him immediately and know what kind of person Twain is supposed to be without the program ever needing to explain anything. He is as familiar to us as any American president or Founding Father, a fact highlighted by his appearance with Benjamin Franklin as one of the two audio-animatronic protagonists of the Disney World attraction, The American Adventure. We feel that we know this person, just as we feel that we know Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but what we know is a persona, first created by the man himself but embellished and enlarged repeatedly in the century since his death, thanks in large part to the influences of television and film.


Our review of Mark Twain on film makes it clear that both the author and his works have continued to inspire the imaginations of filmmakers and audiences, but there remains plenty of opportunity left for new interpretations to better capture the spirit of his works and the complexities of his own life. No truly definitive version of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn has yet seen the light of the silver screen, which is surprising given the immense popularity of those novels in the literary canon. When we think of the great works of literature, we often think of the many great films that have been adapted from them. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet have all been brought to life numerous times, and the brilliance of the film versions has helped to introduce the plays to new generations of readers. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice enjoys continued success partly because such memorable films have been created to carry its story out into the world again and again, ensuring that each new generation has a vision of the characters to call its own. Good film adaptations lengthen the lives of literary works and strengthen their influence over the culture as a whole; ideally, they transform viewers into readers and draw audiences back to the original texts. 

As widely known as Mark Twain and his characters are, this has not really been the case with film adaptations of his works. Our cinematic experience of Twain leaves something to be desired; we need great adaptations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, films that capture the complexity and satire as well as the humor of the originals, with nuanced performances that bring these familiar characters new life in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s also time to revisit the character of the man himself, to envision Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ transformation into Mark Twain in a way that makes us see this most American of literary icons with new eyes and, if possible, with a greater and fuller appreciation for what he was and what he left behind as his legacy. 

The essay was originally presented as a public lecture for the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library as part of the 2010 Big Read program.

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