I love Huckleberry Finn. Having just watched the 1979-80 Canadian/German television series on YouTube, I’ve been thinking back on all the different versions of Huckleberry Finn I’ve seen.
My first exposure to Twain’s characters was the 1969 television series The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which aired on Sunday evenings alongside The Wonderful World of Disney. Huck, Tom and Becky got chased through animated scenery by Injun Joe. This series didn’t last very long, but it made a real impression on me. Because I heard the name Injun Joe before I ever encountered it as a reader, I spent many years thinking he was “Engine Joe.” I always thought he was a railroad engineer. More confusion ensued when I tried to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the age of seven. I just didn’t have a big enough vocabulary yet. When Huck finds a canoe and floats downriver to get away from Pap, I read the word as “cannon” and just couldn’t imagine a floating cannon. I gave up, but fortunately I tried again later, and I’ve re-read it many times over the years, always preferring it to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The use of the ‘N’ word in Huckleberry Finn causes all sorts of problems for educators and book censors. A bigger problem is the weak ending, when Tom Sawyer re-enters the story. Most adaptations of the story try to “fix” the ending by swapping it for something more satisfying. I love these alternate endings, since there aren’t many classic stories you can watch without knowing exactly how it will conclude. (Great Expectations is another one, since Dickens wrote more than one ending to his book.) If you don’t like plot spoilers, be warned. In this next part, I’m discussing the endings of several movie versions.
One of my favorite versions of Huckleberry Finn is also one of the oddest. It’s the Reader’s Digest musical version from 1974, starring Jeff East (Huck) and Paul Winfield (Jim). It followed the more successful Tom Sawyer, with Johnny Whitaker as Tom and Jodie Foster as Becky. In both movies, the production values are high, with beautiful locations and believable period sets. Winfield as Jim probably sounds too educated, but he’s a wonderful actor, and the King and the Duke are well portrayed by Harvey Korman and David Wayne. Having all these characters break out into song is what makes this movie strange, and even though I had a big crush on Jeff East, his singing isn’t that great. He’s a good size and age (about 16) for Huck, who’s been played by actors ranging from age 10 to 30. Well, maybe 30 is an exaggeration, but there have been some actors who were too old for the role. I also like how this Huck is suitably dirty, since I’ve seen so many who’ve had too many baths and haircuts. This movie ditches the Tom Sawyer ending altogether. Huck rescues Jim from slavers, sends him ahead on the raft to Cairo with a promise to buy his wife and children, then stands on the bank of the Mississippi while a song called “Freedom” plays.
Another favorite version is The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993) with Elijah Wood as Huck. He’s the smallest Huck I’ve seen, and he’s spirited and feisty, if somewhat too clean. Robbie Coltrane and Jason Robards are great as the Duke and the King. It’s really fun to see Renee O’Connor as Susan Wilks, a few years before she played Gabrielle on Xena: Warrior Princess. Ron Perlman is genuinely scary as Pap, and his scenes, along with the death of the youngest Grangerford, make this Huck Finn pretty frightening for younger children. This one also ends without Tom Sawyer. After saving the Wilks family from the Duke and the King, Huck frees Jim from a jail cell, and they run for a riverboat. Huck gets shot in the back, and Jim stops to help him. Jim is almost lynched, but Mary Jane Wilks arrives in time, and Huck passes out. He wakes up to find Jim a happy man, since Miss Watson set him free in her will. Widow Douglas tries to take Huck back to be further civilized. He slips off, and the movie ends with him tossing his fancy clothes away as he runs back to the river.
The Broadway musical Big River, based on Huckleberry Finn, won a number of major Tony Awards in 1985. I got to see a touring production many years later, but I wasn’t that impressed. A stage musical about a river journey is going to have its limitations, even with imaginative staging and special effects.
This brings me to the 1979 series Huckleberry Finn and His Friends, starring Ian Tracey as Huck and Sammy Snyders as Tom. I didn’t see this television version when it was originally shown, but it may not have aired in Southern California. Maybe it wasn’t shown in the US at all, being a joint Canadian/German production. The complete DVD set came out in UK a few years ago, and all 26 episodes are on YouTube in 78 parts. The resolution varies but the quality isn’t too bad. This is a very faithful version of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, using much of the original dialogue and sticking close to the two books. Parts 1 through 11 cover Tom Sawyer, and parts 12-26 cover Huckleberry Finn. The ending is done as Mark Twain wrote it, although the entire storyline with the Wilks family swindle has been eliminated. Aunt Polly is played by Brigitte Horney, a German actress, and her voice is dubbed because of her accent. This is strange, but it’s even stranger that the German actress who plays Aunt Sally gets to keep her accent. Aunt Sally wears an awful wig, and so does Injun Joe. In one scene, Injun Joe’s braids are sticking out from under another tangled wig, so maybe he is wearing the second wig as a disguise? Sammy Snyders shouts his lines playing Tom, and he’s a lot shorter than his Becky (Holly Findlay). I watched this show because I’m fascinated by Ian Tracey. He demonstrates a lot of the talent he later developed more fully, although he is one of those well-scrubbed Hucks. When you watch all these episodes back-to-back, it’s pretty funny to see both Tom and Huck go from blonde to light brown to blonde again. There’s some funny business happening with the hair color here. Ian Tracey is pretty pale for a character who spends most of his time outdoors. Maybe there wasn’t that much sun where this series was filmed, which must have been unpleasant for the actors, considering all the time they spend in the water. One more minor issue: I really wish that Tom Sawyer had a scene where we see him reading one of the books he’s always talking about. I may sound too critical of this version, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, and the theme song is now stuck in my head after hearing it 26 times.
There are still more film versions of Huckleberry Finn in pre-production, according to IMDb. Maybe it keeps getting re-made because nobody has done a definitive version yet. Some folks swear by the 1981 version made in the Soviet Union. Researching it, I found that the only available DVD is drastically butchered, and the voices of Tom and Huck are dubbed by women. I can’t bring myself to watch it. The first time Huck appeared on film was in 1917, and even Mickey Rooney played Huck, back in 1939. Other actors who played the role include Brad Renfro, Anthony Michael Hall, Ron Howard, Donald O’Connor, Mitchell Anderson, and Michael Dudikoff. These last three played grown versions of Huck, in sequels like Tom Sawyer, Detective and Return to Hannibal.
Speaking of sequels, these have been written as well as filmed, by Twain himself and other writers. The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Greg Matthews takes Huck and Jim out west, but the plot device used to set things in motion is the slaughter of several beloved characters in Hannibal. The rest of the story is suspiciously similar to Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. It would be better just to read this book and leave Hannibal in peace.
So, what is your favorite version? What do you think of Mark Twain’s original ending?
[Note: My title here is from the song Moon River.]
Footnote: When watching Huckleberry Finn and His Friends, I kept thinking that the actor playing Sid Sawyer (Bernie Coulson) looked more like Ian Tracey than his “brother” Sammy Snyders. Now I’m watching the Canadian television series Intelligence, made 27 years later, and guess who plays Ian Tracey’s brother?? Yep, Bernie Coulson. And, I’ve spotted three different Huckleberry Finn actors appearing with Ian Tracey in Da Vinci’s Inquest.
Related post: Tracking Tracey