As any film-goer might know, Hollywood has a tendency to get inspiration from books on a regular basis. What many of them probably realize is that Hollywood has been doing that since as long as the moving picture has existed. It’s nothing new. The only dig in this system would be that you would have to do a really good job with the adaptation since much of your audience would be fans of the books. This holds most true for adaptations of novels regarded as literary classics, which would have to appease not only fans of the novels but would also have to impress literary critics as well.
Warner Bros. Studios is no stranger to adapting classic novels and has done a pretty good job with it. The studio has just released its Literary Classics Collection to highlight some of its successes.
War destroys all notions and beliefs of morality. And more importantly, one often has to fight oneself in addition to fighting against the enemy. Fighting the opposite side is the easy battle. The fight to balance the rights and wrongs of duty, war, and one’s own honor is the hardest one.
Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd takes this balance and flips it upside down. Right and wrong could not be less binary, and the world is revealed to exist in a consistent grey tone rather than the more simple black and white system.
Billy Budd is the story of a ship in the Royal Navy in 1797 when Great Britain is at war with France. On guard at all times, the “Man O’ War” is battle-ready and battle-weary under the command of Captain Vere (Ustinov). One of his officers is the cruel Master d’Arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan) who is despised by not only the ship’s crew, but also the captain.
Floggings are regular, plunging the crew’s morale to mutinous levels. Their morale is given a boost when Billy Budd (Terence Stamp in his film debut) joins the ship. Billy’s innocent nature (Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind) quickly gains him the favor of everyone on board, except for the Master d’Arms. The conflict between the contrasting personalities of Budd’s good to Claggart’s brutality is the film’s backbone, and from this, conflicts between one’s duty to one’s country and oneself sprout.
What intensifies these conflicts is the sense of isolation. The ship sails alone for the king (who is thousands of miles away) and under the burden of defending his country (that the crew hasn’t seen in months). Ustinov uses many close shots to focus on the characters as human beings trying to maintain their individuality through the haziness in their responsibilities to the ship and to each other.
It’s odd how there aren’t too many long shots of the ship alone at sea. That would have further developed the isolation that the crew and the officers felt. Under these conditions, one has to find one’s own way to cope. Could Claggart’s method of coping be the reasoning to his madness? If so, the world just got greyer.
Captain Horatio Hornblower
Gregory Peck said that Captain Horatio Hornblower was one of his favorite roles. Adapted numerous times from C.S. Forrester’s classic novel, Captain Horatio Hornblower has the perfect blend of action, adventure, and romance — all the more impressive considering real warships were used in the film.
Peck plays a ship’s captain that all nations wished they had in their navy. Lucky for Great Britain, Hornblower loyally commands for them. Under orders, Hornblower sets his ship west, which his crew trustingly follows, even when the wind dies and leaves them stranded in what seems like an abyss with dwindling food and water supplies.
Even the captain worries about whether he should continue to follow his orders or try to save his crew (some have already died of starvation and sickness). When the worst seems yet to come, Hornblower luckily predicts the wind’s reemergence and proceeds to his mission.
Throughout Raoul Walsh’s film, Peck plays a loyal, proud, and smart man. He protects his men when they need to be protected, and he out-thinks his enemies, guiding them into his strengths and never revealing his own weaknesses. He knows what his crew needs in a leader, but not even he can hide his true self (a mumbling boy who can’t swing even one understandable word) to Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo). Hornblower hesitates with his words and actions in regards to her. The lone exception is when she is stricken with yellow fever, and he never once leaves her side.
His compassion also extends to his enemy, as he spares the lives of the French officers after he takes over their ship when he could have easily killed them or given them to the rebels. He somehow balances his pride with his oath to his country. He doesn’t hesitate to disobey orders when an opportunity to destroy a French fleet arises. If Hornblower wasn’t so skillful, you’d think he was trying.
What does Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones) really want in life? Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel incites that question through his creation of a woman who searches for happiness. After spending the early years of her life reading and fantasizing about a storybook fairy tale, she wishes for that fairy tale to become her own reality.
She marries Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) in the hopes that he will give her the life that she’s always wanted. But he isn’t the man that she wanted. He’s a simple man who loves Emma and wants to make her happy. She wants a big house; he buys it. She wants to go a lavish party; he takes her. She wants a child; he becomes an equal parent. She wants him to be successful; he tries to perform a revolutionary surgery.
But nothing ever satisfies her. When you dream of things you want, you’ll always keep dreaming of new things. No scene fully captures her unknowing desires like the ballroom sequence with Emma being danced away by the dashing aristocrat Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) while her husband drunkenly looks on. She naturally fits in that world of status and money, while Charles uncomfortably drifts from dirty looks to unflinching snubs. He likes the small town life that she hates. He likes the daily routines that she resists waking up to.
She thinks she’s found a way out when she falls for Rodolphe who woos her with fancy tales of high class living. It’s amazing how selfish she is, with her husband faithfully staying with her despite her affairs and with her child slowly loving the maid over her. It’s painful to watch Emma push Charles — and his love –away. Vincente Minnelli directs Jones with such despondency that there isn’t the slightest hint of a rainbow for Emma.
The Three Musketeers
Gene Kelly plays the idealistic D’Artagnan with loads of vigor in George Sidney’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel. Set out to the join the musketeers, he at once finds himself with duels with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis while not yet an hour into his entering Paris.
The three musketeers are taken back by this brash young man’s instigation of three duels in as many hours, especially considering his opponents are three of King Louis XIII’s (Frank Morgan) finest. D’Artagnan first fights Athos, but they are interrupted by the Cardinal’s (Vincent Price) guards. The four instead join forces to resist the guards’ attempt to arrest them for dueling (it’s against the law).
Here is where this film separates itself from the countless other adaptations. The action scenes are so zany and eccentric that you’d swear if there was more of a soundtrack you would be watching a musical adaptation. The action scenes and stunts border on outrageous, and much of the musketeers’ body language was made famous by Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick comedies. One stunt involves D’Artagnan secretly breaking into the castle via swinging across a flag pole.
There is even a scene where I think Porky’s gets its inspiration from as D’Artagnan secretly spies on Constance (June Allyson) through a fallen floorboard. Kitty undresses and D’Artagnan acts like a kid who thinks he’s just found a huge treasure. These kinds of scenes are carefully balanced with the more serious and heartfelt scenes like Athos’ drunken recounting of his former love.
Even the evil Lady de Winter (Lana Turner) is able to somewhat humanize herself as she is imprisoned and even convinces Constance that she no longer cares for this world. Is she honest in her cries against living one more day? Or is she being the same villain she is reputed to be and just acting? Will the evil-doers carry out their plan to usurp the throne or will the musketeers save the day? It’s “all for one, and one for all!”
The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937 and 1952)
Like Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner Of Zenda has been adapted many times as well. On the eve of his coronation as King of Ruritania, Rudolf V (Ronald Colman) is incapacitated and kidnapped by his half-brother Michael (Raymond Massey). Rudolf’s advisers find Rudolf’s distant cousin Maj. Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) to impersonate Rudolf and keep the throne away from Michael.
It seemed simple enough that if Michael saw whom he thought to be Rudolf take the throne, then all would be well and Michael would give up his desire to be king. But there is always more to it. It isn’t just Michael who has lofty ambitions, as you’ll find that there are many others who want to share in the opportunities for power and wealth. Maj. Rudolf also falls for Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll) who is to be married to the king.
In the 1952 adaptation by Richard Thorpe, Rudolf is played by Stewart Granger, Princess Flavia by Deborah Kerr, and Michael by Robert Douglas. The most obvious difference between Thorpe’s version and John Cromwell’s 1937 version is mainly that the former is colorized and the latter is in vintage black and white.
This might look like a superficial change, but the difference helps to emphasize the two film’s contrasting styles. The 1937 film has a greater importance on the relationship between Rudolf and Princess Flavia, with the black and white look making them more intimate. The 1952 film feels quicker with it placing more emphasis on the action and adventure of the story. The color helps to enliven everything from the setting to the characters.
But what probably separates the two are the actors and their performances. I found Colman’s Rudolf more passionate and sensitive, while I found Granger’s Rudolf more charismatic. Colman also has better chemistry with Carroll than Granger has with Kerr and the latter’s final exchange feeling very rushed. With both versions, you’ll get equal levels of excitement.
Kudos to Warner Bros. for including a surprisingly large number of extras in this DVD collection. Older movies tend to not have as many bells and whistles as newer ones do (some directors even shoot pictures with DVD special features in mind). That being said, I’m not sure if many of the special features offered in this set have any remote association with the films.
The Prisoner Of Zenda includes some shorts including a Pete Smith-produced “Penny Wisdom” and a Fitzpatrick Traveltalk “Land Of The Taj Mahal.” Can someone please tell me how a short about India has anything to do with a movie about a power struggle involving two half-brothers?
Another Fitzpatrick short “Looking At London” is included with Musketeers. With Horatio, an Oscar-nominated short titled “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is oddly placed. The short is about how the United States was first formed with all of its superficial pro-American stereotypes.
A couple of audio readings of the books are included. The Lux Radio Theater provides some audio readings with Ronald Colman doing Prisoner and Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo doing Horatio. Each film has an added cartoon like “The Wayward Pup,” “Johann Mouse,” the funny “Captain Hareblower,” “Out-Foxed” (no relation to the documentary about Fox News Corp.), and “What Price Fleadom” as well as its own theatrical trailer.
Credit to Warner for included some of these features because more often than not, these shorts and cartoons would probably never have been seen again. The short doesn’t really exist anymore and it’s nice that the studio redistributed them in some, albeit non-connected, form.
The Literary Classics Collection DVD set is available now.