Thursday, February 3, 2011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This is the first book that I decided to read because of the news surrounding it.  (The Da Vinci Code doesn’t count; I had already decided to read that one and it so happened that I saw a news report.)  If you haven’t heard, NewSouth Books has released a version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with some, shall we say, edited language.  The use of racial terms that many Americans of all races find offensive, or at least are uncomfortable hearing, has been removed or changed in order to present the novel’s story and themes in a more updated fashion.  I am referring to the repeated used of the N-word being replaced by the word “slave”, as well as a term “Injun” (i.e. “honest Injun”) which is not used so much nowadays being removed or changed (I don’t know what to - I didn’t read the new version).  The N-word especially has been the target reason for the banning of this book all over the country, ranking #5 in the 90’s and #14 in the 00’s on the ALA banned books list.

I have mixed feelings about this.  My most fundamental belief is that censorship is a violation of free speech, and if some people are upset at the language used in the 19th century, then that’s their problem and they don't have to read the book.  When historical fiction is concerned, use of the language that was used in the time period of the story gives credibility and believability to the story, and removing it is almost like denying the term ever existed or was used in that fashion, especially if it did exist in the book originally.  But because some people are so upset by the N-words peppering the book – not so much with the derogatory meaning that we have come to use it today, but meaning a Black person in the manner that it was used in 1854 (free or slave)* – they have denied their children the chance to read it and get the very valuable lessons out of it.

I think it’s kind of a moot argument anyway since, seeing as that I don’t think the book is really appropriate for elementary school students due to its narration in“incorrect” grammar and use of many dialects.  And anyway, many of the children being “protected” from this book are listening to rap and hip-hop that make gratuitous use of the N-word for the modern purpose of it – to be derogatory or “shocking” and akin to courser language (which the songs often also use).  If you have never read the book, I recommend reading it or listening to its audio book in the original language as it was intended, but if you are too squeamish to encounter the N-word and not faint, then I suppose the edited version is better than nothing.  I just fear what other edits are in our future in the name of “modernizing” classics.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered one of the Great American Novels, was first published by a London publisher in England, Chatto & Windus (now part of Random House).  It was written, of course, by Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and published in 1884 in London and a few months later in the US.  The book opens with a disclaimer, but I will ignore it to find and talk about the moral, motive, and perhaps a little of the plot knowing full well that I may be prosecuted, banished, and shot (respectively) by the author.  It is a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; the first line of Huck Finn’s book is a plug for Tom Sawyer’s even.  It continues the story of Huck, who escapes from his abusive father by using some clever skullduggery to fake his own death, and Jim, a neighborhood Black slave trying to escape because he is about to be sold and taken away from his family.  And he is accused of a murder he didn’t commit – Huck’s to be exact.

Throughout the book, Huck goes through a number of moral dilemmas, conflicting what he is told he should do and what he feels is right or what gets him and Jim through situations alive or without being caught.  He questions everything that he is told is right, and his biggest moral conflict is whether he should turn in Jim for being a runaway slave.  He calls himself wicked for trying to help Jim to freedom, and ignorant because he doesn’t have the overactive imagination of his pal Tom Sawyer.  The few chapters where Tom Sawyer is involved with the story demonstrates that, even though Tom was “brought up right” and schooled all of his life, Huck is generally smarter, or at least more clever, than Tom, who tends to overcomplicate things because that’s how it’s done in the books he reads.

Jim is portrayed as an unlearned, superstitious man who, now that he sees his chance for freedom, wants to skip off to the free states, then raise money to purchase his wife and children’s freedom.  He is skeptical of all the school knowledge that Huck tells him about, like that Frenchmen speak French.  While he and Huck are floating on the river pretty much where no one can see them, the two are near inseparable.  Whenever they risk Jim being seen and therefore caught and sold back into slavery, Huck leaves Jim hiding, usually with a story to tell to deter people from approaching him, Huck occasionally going over his dilemma of right/wrong in his mind.  When the Duke and the King, a couple of con men they meet about halfway through the story, commandeer the raft and essentially make Huck work for them, Jim is left behind to just sort of wait off page for days with a sign “sick Arab” to keep people from stealing him.

Jim’s portrayal may seem to those who have not paid too close attention to be that Black folks aren’t that smart.  Jim, having been a slave all of his life, has not been educated because it was illegal to educate slaves.  There is, however, a description of a free Black man from Ohio who is smart – a professor, actually – who can speak all kinds of languages and can even vote when he’s back home.  The only reason I could see for putting that description in there, albeit from Huck’s pap complaining about him, is to show that Jim’s portrayal was not in general the way the author saw Black people, but that this professor is what was possible if it would be allowed.  Of course, I’m not Mark Twain and can’t actually speak for him, but that’s what I got out of it.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and run the risk of being prosecuted and/or banished (since I’m already gonna be shot) and say that the book tackles many social issues of the time.  Racial and slavery issues surely, futility of a family feud that no one remembers the cause of and the families continue just ‘cause, fright of illness to the point of abandoning a near orphan boy whose family is sick (although Huck uses this to his advantage), insubstantiality of blind faith (i.e. you should do something about your problems rather than just pray for good things to happen), gullibility of people at the time (how many times did Huck pretend to be a Mississippi boy or an English valet or a girl?), but mostly, how kind but hypocritical people can be, satirizing – what was it that Wikipedia called it - Southern antebellum society.  Nope, I don’t know what that means, either.

There have been many movie adaptations of this book, mostly made-for-TV movies.  The most recent is the Disney version from 1993, directed by Stephen Sommers.  This is the one I will be looking at, partly because I think Elijah Wood is adorable in it (like in a little kid way – he’s only 12 in it – and not yet in the hobbitlicious way he is in The Lord of the Rings).

Disney has a knack for unnecessary alterations in their movie adaptations.  Some may be necessary for time or budget constraints, for example, Tom Sawyer is nowhere to be found in this movie, leaving some of the things that happen to Tom up to happening to Huck.  But often the addition or changes are frivolous.  Jim in the book is hinted at practicing a non-Christian religion such as Vodun for instance, but in the movie, even though he has the mystical ox bezoar, he gives more Christian-centric explanations, i.e. a black spirit and a white spirit turns into a spirit with horns and a spirit with wings respectively.  Jim goes wherever Huck goes and ending up getting caught and then just kind of walking off the new plantation that enslaved him.  So now he’s a double runaway slave.  When the Duke and the King show up toward the end, they dress him up like a
A geographical enigma.
“Swahili warrior” for the sole purpose of comic effect, since they never do anything with him and in fact end up leaving him by the raft.  Was that really needed?  No.  No it was not.  The movie does have its legitimately humorous moments, and I do get a few chuckles out while watching it.  And I do kind of find it funny that when the King (played by Jason Robards) and the Duke (played by Hagr Robbie Coltrane) and Huck go into town pretending to be from England, that not only is the kid from Iowa better at a Cockney accent than a Missouri one, but that the only one who actually is English plays a guy who pretends to be a deaf-mute (and thus doesn't need to speak with his pretending to be put-on accent).

See?  Little kid cute.
The movie’s message is not quite the same as the books.  It’s simplified to “slavery is bad” and shoves that message in our face no less than four times.  Huck is a bit more selfish, blaming Jim for thinking only of himself at times, although still a rough rapscallion of a boy raised in a hut in the woods.  Jim’s portrayal is the most drastically different.  He’s smarter and not so accepting of the “white folks knows best” attitude, although a half-hearted attempt at showing he is uneducated is made.  He starts right off the bat talking about how he was planning to run to the free states almost as soon as he meets up with Huck in the beginning, as if that was part of the reason he ran away in the first place.  And Jim says Huck is his best and only friend as a guilt trip in the movie, not in the sincere way he does in the book.  As far as the language used… Well, I must say when I first saw the movie a few years ago (during my Elijah Wood themed movie rental week…  What?  He’s always been one of my favorite actors) I was surprised by the amount of cussing present in a Disney movie.  “Honest Injun” does make a couple of appearances, but the N-word is swapped for “slave” – I guess Disney can stretch their image only so far.

The way the movie tells the story is incomplete.  There is no antebellum society to mock (I think) and no dilemma for Huck to overcome, he’s just a “wicked” boy from the beginning (interpret with the slang meaning if you wish.  I think he’s pretty wicked in that respect myself. J)  It’s heavy handed with the message, but still has some of the lightheartedness interspersed.  And there’s no Tom Sawyer to overcomplicate things.  Internal conflict is difficult to put on screen, I suppose, but we could have a subtler message or at least not be told what the message is so many times.  All-in-all, a better movie could have been made with this story.

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.
(See!  It’s a plug for Tom’s book in the very first line!)

*Although I admit the sentiment behind the use of the N-word may have been not particularly humane, I only know that because of other books I’ve read.  Many people, especially in the south, thought of Black people as less than human in order to justify their use as slaves, as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry explains.  There is no other word in Huck Finn that denotes a Black person, and if you have read the book, or even just read this post, you’d know that Huck doesn’t think that way, even though he’s told by most of the adults that he ought to.

Also, I have nothing against rap or hip-hop, or how anyone chooses to express themselves.  I merely observe that the artists who use the N-word in their expression also use certain four letter words, and those who choose not to use those four letter words do not use the N-word.  And that middle and high school (and some elementary school) kids whose parents ban Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn listen to these artist.

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