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 natural.
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 memorable.
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.