You can't have The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without a proper Huck: he's the
quintessential boy rebel, rejecting the orderly, scheduled, tidy and proper
ways of his elders and "betters," wanting nothing more than freedom
from all of the oppressions of civilization. Told in Huck's own voice, Mark
Twain's original novel completely captures the wild, rough-edged, but
essentially good nature of the character.
I could understand if a film
version didn't manage to capture the essence of Huck's character, or didn't do
a perfect job of choosing which incidents to portray from his picaresque
journey down the river. What baffles me about the 1960 film version of The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that the filmmakers don't seem to have
even understood what the strengths of the story were in the first place.
I'll say it straight out: the
film's version of Huckleberry is just plain wrong. The film clearly wants the
viewer to see Huck as a sympathetic character: so far so good, since he's
appealing in the book as well. But the film decides to make Huck appealing by
throwing out his characterization from Twain's classic novel and replacing it
with a completely different one. In the film, Huck is a sweet-faced, innocent
little boy who's polite and reasonably well-spoken to his elders. Sure, he
smokes a pipe when he can get away with it, he runs around barefoot, and his
clothes are dirty and ragged... but he's being presented as a nice little boy
in tough circumstances. Our sympathy for the character is clearly being
developed through making us feel sorry for him.
Nothing could be further from
Twain's original Huck, who's a tough-talking, rough boy who is always getting
in trouble. He's appealing and sympathetic, yes... but our attraction to the
character comes from an entirely different direction. Twain's Huck embodies the
appeal of being outside of civilized society, rejecting conventions. Even
Huck's manner of speaking is entirely wrong: anyone who has read either Tom
Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn will attest to the distinctive, thick country
dialect that Huck speaks, peppered with slang, mispronunciations, and swearing
(or so Twain tells us, though he doesn't write it out). You could take the boy
out of the country, but you certainly could never take the country out of the
boy. The film Huck, on the other hand, is a bland white-bread version of that
colorful character, in speech as well as behavior; when he's in "polite
society" he doesn't really stand out at all.
All this boils down to an
utterly unconvincing character: whenever the film's Huck offers up a line about
disliking "civilized" life or being uncomfortable in proper clothes,
it rings entirely false. The Huck we see is a boy who fits in nicely to the
"civilized" world; he's just a bit dirty, that's all. There's
absolutely no spark of adventure in this Huck, and his decision to take off on
his own is simply unbelievable. Of course, in this sense it doesn't help
matters that child actor Eddie Hodges is clearly "acting" throughout
the entire film; there's not a single scene where he is actually convincing or
This 1960 version of the story
mishandles more than Huck's character, though that in itself is enough to sink
the film. The story adaptation doesn't work either. In principle, I have
nothing against a film taking liberties with the source material; in fact, I
think it's usually necessary for a film to make changes if it's going to
succeed as a film. However, that only holds true if those changes actually
benefit the film.
In the novel, the fact that
Huck's father is a drunken, abusive derelict is much more graphically presented
than in the film; the increasing violence at home is what convincingly drives
Huck to take off on the river. Contrast this to the maudlin setup of the film,
in which Huck's father confronts the Widow Douglas and says he's going to take
him back unless she pays him a large sum of money, which she can only get by
selling Jim. It actually sounds a bit better when it's described than how it
actually plays out; in the film, it's painfully contrived. Jim himself is much
more of a distinctive character in the novel, with a host of superstitions
about witches and the devil, and an extremely thick country dialect.
After the river journey begins,
the film unsuccessfully tries to straddle the fence between the original
novel's picaresque structure and a more plot-based one. For instance, the
concluding events of the story, involving Jim's final bid for freedom, form a
fantastic set-piece in the original novel, as Tom Sawyer gets involved with
Huck in a convoluted plan. In the film, all of the interesting parts of that
section of the story disappear, and the whole escape sequence becomes a poorly
executed piece of the overall plot that the film is trying to string together
from various unrelated incidents in the original novel.
Given the way that the film has
washed out all of the interesting parts of Huck's character, leaving him a
slightly dirty but very ordinary kid who would fit in just about anywhere, it's
no surprise that the conclusion of the film is a disappointment as well. It's
fairly close to the original novel in its slightly open-ended nature, except
that the novel is more open to interpretation, more in character, and more
The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, preserving the
original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Considering that the film was made in 1960,
we're evidently on the receiving end of a nice restoration process. While a
substantial amount of grain is visible throughout the film, the print is
amazingly clean, with only a few small print flaws making an appearance.
Contrast is handled very well, with both brightly and dimly lit scenes looking
the way they should. Admittedly, colors don't look completely natural, but the
faintly muted look is most likely from the original print, and even so, it
looks fine; the image won't remind you of the age of the film.
The film's soundtrack is the
original mono track; I'm not an audio "purist," so I would have
appreciated a stereo remastering, but certainly there's nothing wrong with
sticking to the original here. For the most part, the track is serviceable;
obviously it sounds flat, but it's reasonably clear and free of distortion, but
at times it does become significantly muffled. Overall it's a decent effort but
not as good as the video part of the transfer.
A French mono track is also
provided, along with optional subtitles in English, French, Spanish,
Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.
A few minor special features
are included here: a short text essay on Mark Twain and the various adaptations
of his work to the screen, a list of cast and crew, and trailers for the film
and three other Twain-related films (the 1939 Huckleberry Finn, the 1937
The Prince and the Pauper, and the 1944 The Adventures of Mark Twain).
The 1960 version of The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might be watchable if you don't know
anything about Twain's original novel, but if you find yourself wondering how
such a bland and uncompelling story has been considered a classic, remember
that this film version completely misses the boat. Lacking in all of the charm
and spark of its source material, the only thing The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn has going for it is a nicely restored transfer to DVD.
Pick it up if you are already fond of the film and want a good-quality copy for
your collection; otherwise I recommend skipping it.