Category Archives: Evolution of Character

Evolution of Character – Emma Woodhouse

There exists a stereotypical viewpoint over the works of an author like Jane Austen.  The books that she wrote over the course of her all too brief life have been the inspiration for many costume period dramas that more often or not are targeted towards middle-aged women heading to the movies with their friends after an afternoon lunch at a local wine bar.  Sure, Austen’s fan based has skewed female over the years, but it is such an underestimation of her impact on literature.  Her works are evocative of an era in pre-Victorian England, but the themes therein throughout her novels are just as provocative today as they were back when she wrote them.  On the surface, her novels are comedies of manners, but they also tackle harder issues such as class differences, the roles of women in society, and perhaps most pointedly, the manners of sexual activity.  She was not afraid to point out the abuses that men enact upon the “fairer” sex, and also challenge the definitions of masculinity and femininity in her novels.  Though still bound by the constraints of her time, Austen still managed to prove her free-thinking ideals through her writing.  It’s probably why she has endured so long as a favorite writer to many, because her writing was so ahead of it’s time.  As women have gained more equality over time, Austen’s novels take on a far more nuanced poignancy, as modern day critics begin to view Jane Austen as a pioneer for cementing a feminine voice within the canonical institution of Western Literature.

What particularly stands out in Jane Austen’s writing are her heroines.  In contrast to her contemporaries, Austen wrote about women burdened by societies expectations and constructed narratives that gave her female protagonists more control over their own destinies.  In the single most famous sentence of any of her works, the opening passage of her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, she wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  In a few simple words, she diminishes down exactly what men expect of the women in society, so that throughout the rest of the novel, she can focus far more on the complexity of her female characters, and how they challenge these “truths.”  In her short lifetime, Jane only published four novels, with two more (Persuasion and Northhanger Abbey) published posthumously.  Each of her novels focuses on much of the same thing, women torn between their independence, societies expectations, and falling in love.  But for the most part, she also goes out of her way to draw sympathy from the reader towards her heroines throughout the narrative.  Except for one.  With her fourth, and last published novel, Emma (1816), Jane Austen set out to in her own words, “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  With the character Emma Woodhouse, Jane created what may end up being her most richly complex character overall; spoiled rich and hopelessly naive, and yet endearing in her pursuit of self-realization and personal satisfaction.  What is interesting about Emma is that she is a character so far ahead of her time, that translating her story to modern day diminishes nothing from Jane Austen’s original vision of the character.  That is what has given Emma Woodhouse such an interesting presence on film throughout the years.  What follows is an interesting collection of some of her most noteworthy screen appearances, with some interesting contrasts that enrich the character and Austen’s writing even further.

JUDY CAMPBELL from EMMA (BBC FILM) (1948)

It may be surprising to know that Emma’s cinematic presence actually emerged relatively recently, as opposed to the other works of Jane Austen throughout the years.  Pride and Prejudice famously made it to the big screen in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, but Emma would have to wait another half century before that would happen.  Instead, the story of Emma Woodhouse made it’s debut mostly through the medium of television.  The first ever adaptation of the novel outside of theater was this televised production put on by the BBC network in England.  Unfortunately, because the BBC never kept back-ups of their aired content due to their routine of recycling old tapes (Doctor Who fans know about this all too well) the original broadcast of this film is lost to us, surviving now only in scant still photographs like the one above.  It’s hard to judge how well this version translates Austen’s story, but it is interesting noting how this version came to be.  The project was spear-headed by actress Judy Campbell, who played the title role in addition to writing the teleplay adaptation.  A colleague of notable playwright and actor Noel Coward, Campbell was popular performer in her native England and she used the new medium of television to give herself a creative spotlight in the post-War years.  No doubt she viewed Emma Woodhouse as an ideal role to play, showcasing her knack for comedy as well as drama.  Other roles of hers that have survived throughout the years give us a sense of her talent, and you can imagine what she likely brought to the character in her performance.  Sadly, the lack of forward thinking on the part of the BBC has prevented this very first adaptation from surviving to the present day.

DOARN GODWIN from EMMA (BBC MINISERIES) (1972)

Given a couple decades to learn that it’s better to preserve for posterity, the BBC finally revisited the story of Emma Woodhouse again, this time with a version that was intended to last.  The lavishly produced mini-series (which also aired here in the States the same year on PBS) leaves no stone un-turned in the 6 episodes devoted to telling this story.  With that amount of time, the series does give an extensive amount of time to developing all the characters within the fictional village of Highbury.  The character of Harriet Smith, Emma’s friend and “pet project”, gets far more extensive development of character here, as we see the effects of Emma’s meddling in her advancement take a hold over the prolonged story-line, played effectively by actress Debbie Bowen.  Where I think that the mini-series falters slightly is in the depiction of Emma Woodhouse herself.  Actress Doran Godwin’s portrayal is perhaps a bit too restrained for the character.  Emma has to be nosy and at times very rude, but Godwin’s Emma is a bit too refined.  It’s perhaps because the BBC was churning out all these similar themed period dramas, including others based on Jane Austen’s other novels, that Doran Godwin was just filling in that expected Austen heroine persona, which she does convey well enough.  But, remember, Emma Woodhouse is not the same kind of character.  Her growth as a character is in discovering her own faults and that’s something that I don’t believe comes through in this telling of the story.  Emma, as a character, is Jane Austen’s critique of misplaced confidence among the idle rich, and it’s something that in many ways calls for a less conventional portrayal.  As classy as Doran Godwin’s performance is, it’s perhaps too refined for what the character needed.

ALICIA SILVERSTONE from CLUELESS (1995)

Of course, this is as far from conventional as you can get for adapting a Jane Austen novel, and in doing so, it managed to hit a bullseye.  Writer and Director Amy Heckerling took Jane Austen’s Emma and brought it up to date with a very contemporary re-telling.  To capture the essence of Austen’s vision of wealth mixed with naivete over gender roles and sexual destinies, she changed the setting to the one place that still fits within those conventions today; Beverly Hills, California.  In doing so, she transformed Austen’s high-spirited but naive heroine from a rosy-faced pre-Victorian debutante to a dim-witted but open-hearted American teenager.  A lot of the comedy comes from the different ways that Heckerling examines the “clueless” bubble in which her characters exist within.  Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher Horowitz (played to perfection by Alicia Silverstone) whose ambition to improve the lives of others clearly is over-matched by her lack of actual expertise, and whose focus is often dictated by fashion trends.  Despite the difference in time periods, Cher’s story is nearly beat for beat what Jane Austen imagined for Emma.  She spends the movie delighting in playing matchmaker and giving social outcasts their time to shine, such as the Harriet Smith stand-in Tai (played by the late Brittany Murphy).  But like Emma, she only realizes later on that her ambitions have taught her nothing about actual love, and that part of her loneliness has come from misjudging others.  Her crush turns out to be gay (already wed in the book), and the one she really discovers feelings for is the one who always pushed back against her attitude, that being her ex-step-brother Josh.  One improvement that Heckerling made from the book was reduced the age difference between her heroine and her ultimate love, which she did well by casting the ageless Paul Rudd in the role (seriously, 25 years later, he still looks the same).  It’s amazing that the best adaptation of Austen’s novel is the one least like the book, and yet it’s faithfulness to the ideals of the character as absolutely spot on.

GWYNETH PALTROW from EMMA (1996)

Of course, it only took a year later for us to get a film adaptation of Emma that actually sets itself in it’s original period.  In contrast to Clueless, this version of Emma is far less focused on pointing out the absurdities of it’s main character.  For the most part, Emma’s flaws come about more out of her tireless ambition that her lack of knowledge.  This version, played by then rising star Gwyneth Paltrow, is extremely assertive and intelligent, but is shown to be unfocused or perhaps too stubborn to understand what effect her meddling in other people’s affairs is actually doing.  Following a string of lavish productions based on the works of English classics during the 1990’s, including the many Merchant Ivory productions as well as Ang Lee’s lavish adaptation of Sense and Sensibility  (1995) written by Emma Thompson, this adaptation of Emma was a no-brainer.  Given the recent popularity of Clueless a year prior as well, the works of Jane Austen were experiencing something of a revival, and many people were anxious to see how this movie would indeed stand up.  While the movie itself is wonderfully produced and looks beautiful, and also has some great supporting performances from the likes of Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor, it’s portrayal of Emma herself unfortunately suffers, and there is something of a tragic reason for that.  American actress Gwyneth Paltrow was still fairly fresh in Hollywood at the time, and hadn’t quite mastered the British accent at this point, though she would improve by the time she played her Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love (1998) a couple years later.  At the same time, she was being haunted on the set by Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein who was grooming her for stardom and “other things.”  Now that we’ve seen the disgraced former producer finally be brought to justice,  Paltrow has come forward detailing  her own awful encounters with the predatory Weinstein, and it explains in a way the cloud that hangs over this movie and her performance.  It would have been interesting to see where she might have gone with the character had she performed under better circumstances.

KATE BECKINSALE from EMMA (ITV FILM) (1996)

Not to be outdone by their American counterparts, but British television also offered up their own new adaptation of Emma in the same amount of time.  Produced by independent British cable company ITV, this adaptation is a beautifully lavish production that does indeed feel true to the time period of Austen’s England.  Though lacking the budget of Miramax’s version, this television is still impressively mounted and features a stellar cast of British character actors.  But, what makes it stand out even more is Kate Beckinsale in the title role.  Long before Pearl Harbor (2001) and the Underworld series, this was the role that launched the actress into stardom.  She was celebrated for her performance, and it’s largely what got her attention in Hollywood soon after.  With regards to how it stacks up to Jane Austen’s vision of the character, her performance is certainly closer to the book than any other we’ve seen up to now.  She is less restrained than Gwyneth Paltrow and Doran Godwin’s portrayals, but is not a caricature like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher.  She balances both the comical and the dramatic with ease, and captures the gentility of the character perfectly well, but at the same time shows a bit of edge that helps to ground her in present.  Of all the earnest adaptations of the novel, this is the version of Emma Woodhouse that feels the closest to what is on the page, and that is a testament to Beckinsale’s range as a performer.  She would of course have a prolific career on the big screen, including a role in another Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship (2017), based on Jane Austen’s last posthumously published novel, the unfinished Lady Susan.  Given the crowded market of new films all adapting the same novel in a two year span, it’s a special thing to have this one stand out as well as it does.

SONAM KAPOOR from AISHA (2010)

It seemed inevitable that Jane Austen and Emma Woodhouse would find their way to Bollywood eventually.  Set aside the troubled influence of the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent, but English literature has found an interesting niche within Indian society, and in particular, has been a reliable source for adaptation in their vibrant film industry.  Jane Austen’s stories in particular fit very well with Bollywood’s love of melodrama and glamour, and of course Emma would be among them too.  Indian society is still grappling with issues of class strata and the expanding roles of women in society, and the plot of Emma lends itself very well to this dynamic.  I also wonder if the movie Clueless also influenced this adaptation, as it sets the story in the present day and it also a movie centered on fashion and pretty people living in pretty houses.  But, the essence of Austen’s story is still there, and the portrayal by actress Sonam Kapoor does follow the exact same attributes that we expect from the character.  She’s open-hearted, but also oblivious to what she really needs to do in order to find happiness, and obviously that involves her looking beyond superficial status.  Integrated society is something relatively new to India in the last couple generations, so seeing the heroine here using her influence to help out her lower class friends is something bold to show in a Bollywood film.  Kapoor herself probably identifies a lot with the character given that she is Bollywood royalty herself, being the daughter of one of India’s most famous actors, Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire).  What her portrayal definitely shows is the universality of Jane Austen’s work across the world, inspiring women from all walks of life to define their own destiny, while also holding onto their ideals.

ANNA-TAYLOR JOY from EMMA. (2020)

The most recent adaptation of the novel brings the character far more into the 21st Century with a decidedly more cynical take on Austen’s narrative.  This new film enjoyed a brief theatrical run in the early Spring of 2020, before theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and largely got overlooked as a result.  Which is a shame, because it’s probably the film version that more closely follows Jane Austen’s intentions with the character than any other adaptation we’ve seen thus far.  In this version, we do get a version of Emma Woodhouse that is hard to like.  She is dismissive to others that she finds annoying, often rolls her eyes at inconveniences, and is clearly out of her depths with regards to what she believes is best for those around her.  It’s like filmmakers made this earnest, straightforward adaptation of the novel, but with the awareness of the movie Clueless.  The satire of Amy Heckerling’s modern adaptation certainly influenced this version, which places the story back in it’s appropriate setting, but combines it with a knowing wink to it’s audience about all the absurdity of it’s era as well.  Anya Taylor-Joy certainly relishes her time in this role, and she conveys so much through just her facial expressions alone.  I especially like the fact that she captures Emma’s unwarranted superiority in the early part of the film, showing the smugness of the character that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other version to date.  Through this, we see much more of an evolution that the character undergoes throughout the story.  In many ways, it’s a brave thing for the actor to do in starting off their performance by making the heroine less appealing and more spoiled.  If done correctly, the actor can earn far more goodwill from the audience when they see the hard edges of a character soften throughout the film, and Anya does that very well here.  It’s still fairly new, but already I feel like this version of Emma Woodhouse has cemented her place in the albeit short cinematic history of the character.

The work of Jane Austen is likely not going to diminish anytime soon, and surprisingly it has been the inspiration for not only some lavishly produced period adaptations of a long ago time, but also some rather sharp social commentaries of our own times as well.  Clueless for one thing holds up remarkably well today on it’s 25th anniversary as a satire of a specific class of people that still exist in our society; the idle rich.  When Austen first conceived of Emma Woodhouse as a character, she imagined this well-to-do upper class lady who felt that her own station in life granted her this authority to determine the destinies of those around her.  Though done without malice, Emma’s naive notion of thinking that she can make the best choices of partners for all the people in her life comes out of her lack of awareness over her position.  People in lower class can figure out love for themselves, they don’t need the guidance of an “enlightened” girl with very little to distress her.  Too often we see today people with wealth and influence try to inject themselves into an issue, and despite them meaning well, it only leads to more complications than what might have existed before, and in turn, reflects badly on said wealthy individual.  I think that is why Jane Austen wanted to write Emma as an experiment.  She wanted to shift the focus away the traditional “lowly” girl elevated to high standing through a dream husband that defined so many novels at the time, including her own, and instead show the flaws of a rich individual who understands so little while proclaiming to be an “expert” in love.  Emma Woodhouse as a result remains Austen’s most layered character and a character that remains surprisingly and disturbingly relevant to today’s society.

Evolution of Character – Peter Pan

There are just some characters that were meant to soar across the silver screen.  Naturally, one of them is well known for his power of flight.  Since his debut on the London stage in 1904, Peter Pan has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  The boy who never grows up and whisks the Darling children off to an adventure in the magical realm of Neverland has remained almost perennially popular for over a century.  Indeed, Peter Pan is timeless, and he continues to remain popular to this day.  Created by author and playwright J.M. Barrie, Pan takes his inspiration from the ancient greek god of nature, and has become a symbol of youthful exuberance.  He’s both an aspirational hero for young children and also a negative reference point for describing an immature adult.  And for his entire existence, he has always belonged to the visual medium.  Before the movies existed, the stage was the greatest venue for entertaining the masses, and Barrie’s masterwork was what in those days would have been considered a blockbuster.  There was probably nothing more breathtaking at that time than seeing the performer playing Peter Pan (most likely a girl, especially in the early days) flying across the stage, supported by unseen wires.  That act of onstage magic would continue to inspire audiences for many years, and carry over into the medium film.  And as advances in cinematic techniques improve over time, the magic behind Peter Pan and the wonders of Neverland looks and feels more spectacular.  It didn’t take long for Pan to work his way onto the silver screen, and his journey through cinema has remained a consistent one.  You rarely see any of his cinematic adventures stray very far from Barrie’s original text.  In many ways, the differences come less from the story, and more from what each performer brings to it.  So, let’s take a look at some of the more notable cinematic interpretations of the boy who could fly, Peter Pan.

BETTY BRONSON from PETER PAN (1924)

There were several silent productions made with Peter Pan in the earliest days of cinema, but this Paramount Pictures production is the most noteworthy.  The movie is pretty much a direct adaptation of Barrie’s play, carrying over many of the conventions from the stage.  The lead role is played by a woman, in this case actress Betty Bronson.  The actor in the role of the villainous Captain Hook does double duty, playing the role of Mr. Darling as well like in the play.  There is even an actor still dressed in a dog suit playing the role of Nana, the Darling children’s pet canine.  But, what separates this from the stage version is more substantial production values.  The flying sequences have more weight to them, because for one thing the actors can fly higher and further on a sound stage than on theatrical one.  Early processing effects also presented things that you could never do on the stage; like showing Tinker Bell for instance, who only appeared as a flashing light on stage before.  Other than that, the movie still feels very close to it’s stage origins, which is particularly true about the titular character himself.  Betty Bronson fits into the green tunic-ed hero perfectly, capturing the spunkiness of the character, as well as his strong willed determination.  Anyone who had been familiar with the play in it’s early days would have been satisfied with her performance here.  Though limited by the lack of sound from this period, Bronson still manages to convey the personality with a plenty of lively pantomime.  She also works comfortably with all the visual effects that are on display, never once looking like she’s out of place.  The movie represented the right kind of way to bring Peter Pan successfully to the silver screen, and it would remain influential for years to come.

BOBBY DRISCOLL in WALT DISNEY’S PETER PAN (1953)

When we think of Peter Pan as a character, this is likely the first image that’ll pop into mind.  Like many characters from classic literature, it’s the Disney version that ends up becoming the definitive take on the character, and rightly so in this case.  Through animation, we are able to see the character leap fully out of his stagebound origins and take actual flight; no wires required.  Peter Pan was pretty much destined to be an animated character, and thankfully Walt Disney did him justice.  Disney himself believed very much in the character, recalling his early childhood days when he performed as Peter in a school play, with his brother Roy pulling the ropes backstage to help him fly.  When Walt had his production slate firing up after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Peter Pan was a logical choice for development.  The war years would delay it’s premiere by a decade, but once Disney returned to it, the movie solidly fell into place.  Peter was animated by one of Walt’s trusted Nine Old Men, Milt Kahl, who brilliantly imagined the way Peter Pan takes flight; not so much soaring as floating in midair, something which only animation can convey.  Also, in breaking from the stage tradition, Disney cast a boy in the role as opposed to the youthful actresses used in the stage productions.  Bobby Driscoll, who had been a favorite child actor at the studio for films like Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), was just reaching that point where his voice was beginning to break, and it’s a perfect match for the youthful yet authoritative Peter.  He’s a child, but one with responsibilities, which Driscoll captures perfectly in his spirited performance.  The whole movie is probably the main reason why Peter Pan remains a popular character to this day, as it still holds up several generations later.  Peter is still a fixture in the Disney canon, but even at the same time, it does so while still honoring the character J.M. Barrie created long before.

MARY MARTIN from PRODUCER’S SHOWCASE: PETER PAN (1955)

For the same generation that grew up with the Disney production, this was the other Peter Pan that defined the character.  Famed Broadway director Jerome Robbins took the original Barrie play and added songs to it from famed lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (of Singin’ in the Rain fame) and crafted this new musical adaptation.  The musical became an instant Broadway hit, and catapulted it’s star, Mary Martin, into a household name.  Because the Disney version was still fresh in people’s minds, it prevented a full movie version from getting the greenlight, but that helped to open the door for television as a result.  The live broadcast series Producer’s Showcase, which helped to bring little seen stage productions to a mass audience, decided to bring Peter Pan onto their show in it’s entirety, complete with all the original cast members from the shows, including Martin who was still in the middle of her legendary stage run.  The broadcast was also historic in that it was one of the first ever live broadcasts shot in color, despite color television not being available yet to the public.  This would become useful in later re-broadcasts years later, but it represents an exceptional forward thinking idea on the producers part.  The production values are pretty limited compared to other Pan adaptations, as unlike most others, this one is clearly stagebound, but it makes up for it with Mary Martin’s magnetic presence as Peter Pan.  Her depiction of the character is rightly seen as one of the greatest ever.  Just the way she spreads her arms and legs out as she flys around the stage just shows how much she is trying to convey a sense of weightlessness.  Her role would remain a high-water mark for generations.  Even the recent live tv version starring Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Hook can’t quite capture the same exuberance that Martin brought to the role.  It shows just how much a gifted performer can bring to a role.

ROBIN WILLIAMS in HOOK (1991)

The premise to this Spielberg directed fantasy is a fascinating one.  What if Peter Pan did leave Neverland and grow up?  What kind of person would he be?  And the movie presents us with an interesting answer; he becomes an asshole lawyer who’s emotionally distant to his wife and kids.  The first act of Hook is actually quite brilliant as it builds up this interesting story of a man having to confront the childhood he left behind, and find his way again, with Robin Williams delivering a strong performance as the grown up Peter Banning.  And then, the movie beings to loose it’s way.  I know many people love this movie, but for me, it falls apart after that strong opening.  It’s happens when Peter makes it back to Neverland, and it’s this drab, ugly place.  And from that point, all the promising magic drains out of the movie.  Even when Robin Williams finally emerges in all his Peter Pan glory, it’s kind of a let down, because his buffoonish Pan is not as interesting as the character he had already been establishing himself as.  I honestly get more out of the scenes with Hook and Smee, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman and a perfectly cast Bob Hoskins.  Mostly, my disappointment with this movie says more about me with my transition into adulthood.  I find that I like this movie less as I get older, because I see more of the flaws.  The ugly production design probably is where the movie looses me the most, because I have this colorful view of Neverland in my mind, that no doubt was influenced by the Disney version.  But also, I feel like having the normally rambunctious Robin Williams in the role of Peter Pan should have been a slam dunk, and yet he’s so much better when he’s not in his green tights.  It’s not a good sign when Robin Williams gets upstaged by Rufio (played by Dante Basco), who yes is a standout, if somewhat cliched character.  I hold it against no one if you like this movie, but to me, it’s a lesser depiction of Peter Pan and his story; even made more disappointing by what it could have been based on how it starts out.

RICK SPARKS in NEVERLAND (2003)

Although Hook may have missed the mark in it’s story, there is another version that completely departs from Barrie’s tale entirely.  Here we have a modern retelling of the story, stripping away the childhood wonderment of the the original story, and giving it a seedier, adult oriented makeover.  This micro-budget, avante garde depiction from Queer Cinema auteur Damion Dietz reimagines the fantasy world of Neverland as a run down amusement park that attracts outsiders and social outcasts, like prostitutes, drug addicts, hustlers, and con artists.  There’s a satirical point made in this somewhere, but it gets drowned out by the filmmakers grungy style.  It’s no more apparent that the director cares little about the essence of Barrie’s original story than with his choices with regards to the character himself. Peter is very much a character of this world, in that he’s an immature man child, indulging in the dark depths of this Neverland. Actor Rick Sparks is fine in the role, but his character is far from likable. It’s definitely not a version of this story that is appropriate for all ages and should only be seen by the morbidly curious. But it does illustrate how the story can be adapted to a different place and time, and still remain familiar. But unless you want to see a coke snorting Tinker Bell and a BDSM obsessed Captain Hook, I’d say look elsewhere for a better version of this story.

JEREMY SUMPTER in PETER PAN (2003)

Though Peter Pan has had a long history on the silver screen up to this point, it’s surprising that it took this long to actually get the character portrayed in live action as he’s written on the page. In this P. J. Hogan directed feature, we get a Peter who’s actually played by a young male actor, and not just in voice. A then pre-teen Jeremy Sumpter does look the part, though seeing an actor this young in a costume this skimpy is unsettling at times; evoking the idea of the wrong kind of Neverland. Sadly, he’s not given as much development as past versions of Peter, because despite what the title says, this isn’t his story. This movie actually focuses more on the character of Wendy Darling. It’s her journey into blossoming womanhood that fills out most of the movie’s runtime. Peter is more reduced to an ideal love interest for her, which I guess might explain the outfit. Sumpter is also overshadowed by an over-the-top performance from Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. But given how little impact he has, Sumpter still gives Peter a presence. We see more of Peter’s cunning instincts in this version here; the kind of strong awareness that has allowed him to remain alive in a world where he’s constantly hunted by pirates. His playful side is there too, but the movie does a capable job of showing why he is so revered by both the Wendy and the Lost Boys. Though the movie itself is unfocused and scattershot, it does a fine job in portraying its central hero, and especially gives much more importance to the bond between him and Wendy.

LEVI MILLER in PAN (2015)

Now this is a strange one to be sure. At a time when classic family stories are constantly being rebooted, I’m surprised Disney was beaten to the finish line with this one. Although, it didn’t quite benefit studio Warner Brothers either. Pan was a costly flop for the studio, earning back only 20% of its original cost. Not only that, it put off a lot of audiences who were expecting a faithful adaptation of the story. Instead, it offers up an origin story as it were, with young Peter being kidnapped by pirates from a London orphanage and taken to a post-apocalyptic Neverland where he and his other “lost boys” are expected to work as slaves in a vast mine controlled by the power-hungry Captain Blackbeard (a very campy Hugh Jackman). Oh, and the slaves pass their time by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit.” I am not kidding. There are many baffling cinematic choices like that one in the movie, and it’s surprising that a quality director like Joe Wright (Atonement) was behind this mess. For me, the movie is to the point where it’s so weird that it becomes fascinating to watch, like a guilty pleasure. But oddly enough, the one thing that is not interesting in it’s weirdness is Peter himself. Levi Miller unfortunately is a little boring in the role, somewhat lost in all the movie’s insanity. He’s age appropriate enough, but the movie seems less interested in his character than it is about his world, and it becomes clear that he’s just there to fill out a role rather than be the character. There is little else to indicate that this young kid is going to become the character we all know. It pretty much just sets up the origin story tropes, while at the same time forgetting to make it’s hero all that interesting.

So, it’s been an up and down journey for Peter Pan as a character on the silver screen. In many ways, the character has kind of been lost in more recent years, as many filmmakers have needlessly tried to adapt the story to more modern sensibilities. And it really is unnecessary because the character is at his very core timeless. The Disney classic proves this, as it still remains a popular film almost 7 decades later, and as a stage production, the story has changed very little from J.M. Barrie’s original text. There really is no need to do a deconstruction of the whole narrative. As a character, Peter Pan remains very relevant. He still inspires the adventurous side in most younger audiences, while also making older viewers reflective of their own childhood ideals, and how they’ve changed as they’ve gotten older. It’s something that at one point the movie Hook was building an intriguing narrative towards, until it gets undone by the films spectacle and unfocused execution. Still, Peter remains popular and its because he’s a character that remains constant through all generations. Though we may grow old, he remains the same youthful spirit that stays as a part of lives, no matter who fills out the role. I myself still consider him one of my favorite characters, and may or may not have dressed up for Halloween as the character when I was still a kid (green tights and all). Think happy thoughts, and let’s all continue to fly to Neverland with Peter Pan.

Evolution of Character – Mowgli

The name Rudyard Kipling brings up a lot of talk in the world of literature.  Often seen as one of the fathers of modern action adventure, whose work has inspired everything from Indiana Jones to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, his most notable contribution to the medium would largely be the theme of the conflict between civilization and the wild.  This juxtaposition is what defines most of his writing, and has led to him to be a widely discussed and sometimes controversial figure in literary circles.  Though Kipling is largely responsible for exposing the Western world to cultural traditions and folklore of exotic places like India and the Middle East, he also did so with a distinctly British point of view.  Having been born and raised in Colonial India during his early years, the land no doubt left an effect on him.  He was drawn to the geographical wonders of the subcontinent, and as a child he no doubt absorbed the many folk tales that were spoken about by the native Indians.  But, he was also of the belief that it was in the Indian people’s best interest to live under British rule.  His strong Imperialist views has often clouded modern perception of his work, and though he admires the nation and people of India very much in his writing, his naivete towards the cruelty that the Indian people endured under the British rule is still problematic.  Still, Kiplng’s influence is still felt in modern literature, as well as in cinema.  Many films have been made of his novels and short stories like Gunga Din (1939), Kim (1950) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  But none of his works has lent itself better to the big screen than the collection of short stories that he is probably best known for called simply enough The Jungle Book.

When people think of The Jungle Book, they probably think it tells the singular narrative that we’re all familiar with, but that’s actually not the case.  The famous story of the man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle is actually only about half of the entire book, taking up three of the book’s seven short stories.  The rest of The Jungle Book is filled with lesser known stories like Rikki Tikki Tavi, The White Seal, Toomi of the Elephants, and Her Majesty’s Servants.  But the first 3 stories are what people remember the most because they center on what is ultimately the most compelling character that Rudyard Kipling ever created; the man-cub named Mowgli.  It’s interesting that through the character of Mowgli, we see Kipling telling the most personal of stories and utilizing all the important themes that would define most of his work.  Like Mowgli, Kipling was an orphan raised in a strange land where he felt out of place, and likewise, he is caught between two colliding worlds, wanting to indulge his love of the exotic while at the same time staying loyal to Queen and Country.  It’s that theme of Freedom and Control clashing in the metaphor of Civilization and the Jungle that defines Mowgli’s journey and it makes him a compelling figure in fiction.  Though Kipling often paints his non-white characters in problematic broad strokes, he thankfully devotes a lot of love and care to Mowgli, whom he clearly identifies with even despite the racial differences.  And this treatment has helped Mowgli endure as a figure on the big screen, making his mark even today, over a hundred years after he made his debut on the page.  Like other articles in this series, I’ll be looking at some of the most notable interpretations of the character, and examine all the interesting ways he has evolved as a character over time.  So, let’s take a look at Rudyard Kipling’s boy of the wild and his long cinematic journey.

SABU in RUDYARD KIPLING’S JUNGLE BOOK (1942)

Though not the first cinematic re-telling of the story, coming after a string of long forgotten silent and single reel shorts, this lush Technicolor version would mark Hollywood’s first adaptation, and it’s one that very much helped to popularize the story for mainstream audiences.  Made by the Korda bothers, Zoltan and Alexander, this version is expectedly melodramatic and cheesy in the classic Hollywood extravaganza sort of way, but what is most interesting about it is the appropriate casting of an authentic Indian actor in the role of Mowgli.  Sabu Dastagir, who often went credited by the single name Sabu, was the first ever Indian movie star to gain international fame.  Discovered by the Korda brothers, he first appeared as the titular Elephant Boy (1937), which was also based on a short story from the Jungle Book.  It was with the lavish production of Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) that Sabu became a household name, and soon after, the Korda brothers saw fit to give him a starring vehicle in their next film based on the Mowgli stories of The Jungle Book.  Though Sabu, who was in his twenties at the time, may look a tad bit too old for the part, he still maintains a charming presence throughout the movie.  The movie treats his story more as a traditional action adventure, with none of the book’s more important themes explored, and less importance placed on the animal characters as well.  But, Sabu manages to carry the character along, giving him a dignified presence that normally wouldn’t have been given to a Indian character in a typical Hollywood epic of the time.  Had he not put such a strong, culturally authentic face to the character of Mowgli, we might have had a whole different cinematic history for this character, and that in itself made a big impact; both for the character and for the exposure of Indian people on film in general.

BRUCE REITHERMAN in THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)

Like other famous fairy tales and fables, this was likely most people’s first exposure to the story of The Jungle Book.  The last film that Walt Disney personally worked on before his untimely death, this animated Jungle Book is in many ways the best possible medium for the story, while at the same time being the least faithful.  Animation made it possible for the interactions that Mowgli has with his animal companions to be fully realized, since it’s more natural in an animated film to have a talking bear or panther than it would in live action.  But, at the same time, Walt Disney made the risky choice of making The Jungle Book without using Kipling’s original story as the basis.  Instead, the movie is more of a showcase for the characters of the book, and not the actual plot itself.  And that works to it’s advantage.  Though it’s the least faithful, this Jungle Book has still become the most beloved, and that’s because the characters are so strongly defined.  For the first time, characters like Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Panther, and Shere Khan the Tiger take the spotlight, all voiced by well known entertainers from the time.  Disney even added another character that fit well into this version named King Louis, an orangutan very heavily influenced  by his voice actor Louis Prima.  Even still, Mowgli emerges as a relatable character.  Though far more Americanized than Sabu’s interpretation, no doubt based on the casting of young Bruce Reitherman in the role (the son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman), he still retains a bit of the passion that Kipling had originally imagined for him in the book.  His touching, paternal relationship with Baloo is especially expanded upon here, which is an important factor that would play out significantly in future adaptations.  It may not be Kipling’s Mowgli, but this is one version of the character that no doubt remained a crucial part of his legacy.

RODDY MCDOWALL in MOWGLI’S BROTHERS (1976)

Only a decade after Disney made their version of The Jungle Book, famed former Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones took his own stab at adapting Kipling’s story.  This was actually one of three adaptations of the Jungle Book stories that Jones made in the mid 70’s, with animated shorts based on Rikki Tikki Tavi (1975) and The White Seal (1975) released before it.  Here, Chuck Jones adapts the first of the Mowgli short stories, called Mowgli’s Brothers, which chronicles Mowgli’s upbringing as part of a wolf pack as well as his first encounter with Shere Khan, his mortal enemy.  It’s short and sweet, done in that distinctive Chuck Jones style that he was continuing to refine with his independent studio.  The use of color and impressionistic backgrounds are really astounding to watch on screen.  But what is even more distinctive about this version is that it is a very earnest and faithful adaptation of Kipling’s version of the story.  This short film is far darker in tone than it’s Disney equivalent, and utilizes far more of Kipling’s own writing in it’s script.  The movie also dispense with a lot of character dynamics of Disney’s Jungle Book, instead focusing on Mowgli’s own coming of age, as well as his relationship with his adopted wolf mother.  The entire film is narrated by acclaimed actor Roddy McDowall, who also plays ever role except for Mother Wolf (played by the late, great voice actress June Foray).  McDowall brings a lot of intensity to the portrayal of Mowgli, especially in delivering his warning to Shere Khan at the finale, and captures the a strong sense of what the character on the page might be like fully realized.  It’s a briefly told version of the story, but one that is truer to it’s source than most of the others we’ve seen on the big screen.

JASON SCOTT LEE in THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994)

After many years existing in the medium of animation, Mowgli finally made a return to live action in this epic adventure version of the story.  Though it takes the setting and the characters from the original story, this version is nothing like what Kipling wrote.  It instead becomes a story about the effects of civilization coming into a once untamed jungle, and how this affects Mowgli, who himself is a creature of two worlds.  It’s more Jungle Book by way of Tarzan, and you might see more similarities with the latter than the former in this movie.  Which in a way is an interesting angle to take on the story of Mowgli.  How would this character interact with other human beings after living among wild animals all his life.  Can he learn to be civil, and in turn, is becoming civil really what Mowgli wants.  As to the portrayal of Mowgli himself in the movie, well, you first have to get over the fact that Mowgli is being played by a twentysomething Chinese American actor; I’m guessing that the filmmakers were clueless to the fact that Chinese and Indian are two completely different ethnicities.   But apart from this, Jason Scott Lee does make Mowgli a sympathetic hero, with plenty of charm and humor. In many ways, his performance is like an updated version of Sabu’s Mowgli, which is appropriate as the movie is very much a throwback to old Hollywood adventure films, only with slightly more depth and hindsight when it comes to the themes, which casts more skepticism over the idea of Imperialism.  Interestingly enough, this movie was made by Disney, though it carries no similarities with the animated original, standing pretty independently as it’s own retelling.  But of course, it wouldn’t be the last time Disney would revisit this tale.

KYUTA in THE BOY AND THE BEAST (2015)

Japanese anime has taken on the tale of the Jungle Book before, but with this recent film, they turn Kipling’s tale completely on it’s head.  The story has always been about a young boy taken out of civilization and raised in the wilds of the jungle, and The Boy and the Beast follows that same idea as well.  Only this time, the wild jungle is civilization, as the Mowgli-esque protagonist Kyuta is thrown into a world where all the people are anthropomorphized animals.  While stuck there, Kyuta befriends a gruff, warrior who just so happens to be a bear, who eventually takes the young boy under his wing and turns into a surrogate father.  It’s very much like the bond built between Mowgli and Baloo, only here the Baloo equivalent, named Kumatetsu, is strict and disciplined as opposed to carefree.  Kumatetsu and Kyuta form their bond in a very master and student way, typical of those who train in art of samurai combat.  It’s a very different take on these character types that what is found in The Jungle Book, but at the same time it’s very much in the same spirit.  Mowgli, like Kyuta, learn to be more humane and honorable because of his relationship to the animal kingdom, and that is very much the key to his development as a character.  The same applies when the world is populated by animals who act like humans.  It may be a loose interpretation of Kipling’s story, but the essential elements pertaining to the central protagonist are still there.  It’s also just interesting to see how this story plays out in a different cultural setting, with the jungles of India being replaced with feudal Japan, and the Mowgli and Baloo relationship explored more deeply than we’ve ever seen before. It may not be Kipling, but it does honor the spirit of the original story and offers up an example of how the same themes can work even within a different, and more fantastical setting.

NEEL SETHI in DISNEY’S THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Despite having already made a live action version of The Jungle Book in 1994, Disney felt that it was time to revisit the story again, only this time sticking closer to the formula of their animated version.  This version of The Jungle Book was one of the earliest releases in a trend now dominating the production schedule at the Disney company of taking their animated classics and remaking them in “live action.”  It’s been a practice that has produced mixed results, with some of the movies either being passable or unwatchable.  Thankfully, this version, directed by Jon Favreau, falls more in the passable category, and this is largely due to the incredible, ground-breaking effects that helped bring it to life.  The entire movie, from the environments to the animals, was crafted using photorealistic CGI, and the only thing you see on screen that is 100% real is the actor portraying Mowgli.  And the overall effect is impressive, as is the cast that Favreau put together.  You have Bill Murray as Baloo (perfect choice), Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken of all people as King Louis.  And the animators all did an incredible job of believably bringing these characters to life with the actors voices matching the realistic movements of these animals.  Strangely enough, the one thing that doesn’t work as well in the movie is Mowgli himself.  Sure, Neel Sethi does a fine job, and he is authentically of Indian descent.  But, because they are working more off of the original animated version, this Mowgli isn’t so much out of place but rathr out of time.  He acts more like a typical American child of today than a boy raised in the jungle in the late Victorian era.  Because of this, he feels far removed from Kipling’s original Mowgli.  They even added a strange character trait that Mowgli is an inventor, which feels very out of place in this story.  Even still, the movie is an impressive visual feat, and the characters are still entertaining, including Mowgli.  It’s just not for purists of the original story, because it takes it’s cue from Disney’s own version of the story.

ROHAN CHAND in MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

Strangely enough, while Disney was putting together their own live action version of The Jungle Book, Warner Brothers was also developing another version as well.  Directed by actor Andy Serkis, this version was intended to stick closer to the tone of Kipling’s original stories, while at the same time using the same photo-realistic animation to portray the various animals, all brought to life through motion capture technology.  Serkis himself would fill the role of Baloo, and a full all-star cast portrayed the many other iconic characters including Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa the Snake, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan.  But, probably in response to the film’s darker tone, and the fact that Disney’s version performed so well as the box office, Warner Brothers got cold feet and ended up dumping the expensive production onto Netflix, where it premiered to surprising little fanfare.  And this is a shame in the long run because though it is a movie with several flaws, it may in fact have the best portrayal of Mowgli we’ve seen to date.  Here he’s played by a young Indian American actor named Rohan Chand who not only looks authentic, but he also plays the character appropriate to his time period.  This version of Mowgli really does capture what Kipling originally imagined, which is a child of two worlds, and how he comes to accept his place in the world.  Interestingly enough, the movie has the opposite strengths and flaws of the Disney version, where this version has a far superior portrayal of Mowgli and inferior depictions of all the animal characters.  There’s a reason why Disney chose to animate their animals as opposed to motion capture, because you can exaggerate expressions through animation.  Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle almost uses it’s motion capture too well, as it becomes distracting seeing Christian Bale’s mannerisms appear through the mask of a photo-realistic panther.  Even still, it’s a version of the story that will please many fans of the book, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Mowgli, who has never been this faithfully adapted to the screen before.

Overall, Mowgli is not an easy character to correctly adapt to the big screen.  How does one imagine the life of a child raised by the jungle.  In many ways, this has been a story that has best lent itself to the medium of animation, as it allows for Mowgli to commune with the animals without feeling unnatural.  That’s probably why Disney’s multiple adaptations are so beloved, because they make the story about the community of the jungle that Mowgli is a part of, and lets the personalities of the characters be the thing that drives the story.  However, in doing so, it departs significantly from the original narrative that Rudyard Kipling wanted to tell.  Kipling was fascinated with the clashing of cultures that manifest through Mowgli’s own coming to terms with his own identity, and though his ultimate assessment that one should dominate over the other has turned problematic over the course of history, he nevertheless gave these themes resonance through his youthful hero.  Mowgli’s exoticness and boundless spirit has certainly helped him remain popular over the years.  No doubt the spirited, and groundbreaking performance of Sabu in the Korda classic helped to solidify him as an action adventure icon, and Disney’s version of the character has helped him retain a mainstream familiarity that has helped him live on in modern interpretations.  I certainly wish that more people knew about the Netflix film made by Andy Serkis, because it seemed to, more than any other version, try to portray the character more honestly than ever before.  It’s still there on the platform, so if you haven’t seen it yet, do it now.  Mowgli’s story is a complex one, and it’s great to see that even a hundred years later, he is still enjoying a healthy existence on the big screen.  Even more pleasing is the fact that his story has also transformed with the times, as it’s escaped Kipling’s own Imperialistic ideals and has instead been an effective tool of teaching young audiences about the people and culture of India and also a lesson about respect for the natural world.  In many ways, like Mowgli himself, the story of The Jungle Book has helped to bridge that divide between society and the wild, and in turn made the world more civilized by showing how all of these things have their own value.  Like Baloo the Bear says, at least in the Disney version, “Look for the Bear Necessities in life.”

Evolution of Character – Santa Claus

When I started this series 5 years ago, I spotlighted a popular character associated with Christmas time; the curmudgeonly Ebeneezer Scrooge.  But, he’s of course not the only seasonal icon that has enjoyed a long time presence on the silver screen.  You don’t have to look any further than the symbol of the Holiday himself, Santa Claus, for a wide array of cinematic interpretations.  The interesting thing about the cinematic evolution of Santa Claus is that they have both shaped and reshaped his image across every iteration.  There really is no clear set of rules for portraying the story of Santa Claus; he pretty much is whatever your story needs him to be.  There are of course some universal standards that the portrayal adheres to.  He’s got to be rotund, wears a red suit, live up at the north pole, and drives a sleigh propelled by eight flying reindeer.  A lot of these rules, however, were established through some of the most noteworthy literary and cinematic interpretations over time, and most of the Santa myth cannot be derived from just one source.  That’s been the case throughout history.  The real life Saint Nicholas really bears little resemblance to the character that now carries his name today, and the image of Santa borrows mainly from Western European legends.  It wasn’t until Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that we received a definitive description of this character named Santa Claus, and this has been what has stuck in most people’s minds ever since.  The Coca-Cola corporation further reinforced the image of “Jolly Old St. Nick” in their advertising, and that has largely been the image that Hollywood has drawn from as well.  But, even with that, it is interesting how the character changes from genre to genre, and also through different actors’ performances.  What follows are some of those unique cinematic versions of Santa that I think really represents the broad spectrum that has surprising followed Santa through his history on film.

EDMUND GWENN from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

Though Miracle on 34th Street may not have introduced the character of Santa Claus onto the big screen, it certainly did leave a significant mark on the character.  If Coca-Cola managed to popularize the definitive image of Santa in pop culture, 34th Street cemented it forever into  the minds of generations to come.  Here he is portrayed by Edmund Gwenn, who looks every much the part.  Apart from capturing the look of Santa Claus, he also brings out a great amount of charm in his performance; maintaining a sense of purity that every child would want to see in their ideal Santa Claus.  There’s an especially sweet moment when he’s confronted by a cynical young girl (played by a very young Natalie Wood), who believes he’s wearing a fake beard.  He offers to let her pull it to prove it’s real, and when she does, he feigns a sneeze to playfully remove her doubt.  But, the other interesting thing about Mr. Gwenn’s performance is that it is also grounded as well.  There is a question left up in the air by the movie whether or not he really is Santa Claus, and the movie does leave the answer open to interpretation.  Gwenn does just enough to make you question it, but never dismiss one side or another either, and that makes his role as the enigmatic Kris Kringle all the more effective and layered.  It’s so effective that to this day, Edmund Gwenn is the only actor who has won an Academy Award for portraying Santa Claus.  There have been two attempts at remaking this classic film, and I feel that both fall short of capturing the mystery of the original, mainly because they fall too heavily for a more whimsical side (although Richard Attenborough’s Kringle in the 1994 remake is still charming).  For the character of Santa in pop culture in general, you can see a lot of groundwork laid here through Edmund Gwenn’s endearing version.

JOHN CALL from SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)

Quite a dramatic departure from the usual adventures of Santa Claus.  This B-Movie cult classic has Santa abducted by Martians who take him back to their home planet where he can make presents for the Martian children.  Yes, this is a real plot to a real movie.  And it’s just as ridiculous as you would expect.  A favorite of the Mystery Science Theater crowd, this movie has just the right amount of campy charm and the Santa Claus at it’s center is portrayed with the same amount of oddball camp.  Character actor John Call’s Santa is still a jolly old soul, but with a slight bit of surliness to his portrayal.  Some of the movie’s attempts at humor involve Santa clumsily forgetting the names of his reindeer and telling bad jokes that only illicit a laugh from the audience because of the absence of laughter from the other characters.  Even still, his passion for the season is infectious, and it’s easy to see how taken the Martians are by his charm.  The movie more or less tries to see how well a character like Santa Claus could fit into the Sci-Fi genre that was all the craze at the time, and though the result is a bit of a trainwreck, it nevertheless has withstood the test of time.  Call’s performance as Santa Claus is just quirky enough to make the whole weird experiment work, and the movie is worth checking out just for the surreal aspect of it all.  Santa doesn’t quite conquer anything so much as fits in well with any company he finds, and surprisingly that even includes visitors from outer space.  It certainly shows that there is a lot of versatility in when and where you could plant a character like Santa into a story, and still have it work as a subversive take on a holiday icon.  Hooray for Santy Claus.

MICKEY ROONEY from RANKIN/BASS’ SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970)

If there is a name in Hollywood that is synonymous with the holiday season, it would be the team of Rankin & Bass.  The animation duo of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were responsible for many of the most beloved Christmas specials that aired on television through the 1960’s and 70’s; most of them in stop-motion animation.  Their most famous production, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) did feature a Santa in it (a skinny one), but he filled a more supporting role.  Santa would play much larger parts in future Rankin/Bass specials, including two where he was given voice by legendary character actor Mickey Rooney.  There was 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus, where Santa decides to take a break from his yearly duties in order to nurse himself out of a sickness.  And then there’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which tells an imagined backstory for the Christmas icon.  The interesting thing about this version is that for most of the film, we are presented with a much younger, beardless Santa Claus.  Seeing a sprite, youthful Kris Kringle is something of a departure from other versions of the character we’ve seen, and the voice of Mickey Rooney really captures that jovial energy that a pre-Claus Santa would have.  Even still, he does transition into the older Santa that we all know very fluidly by the end, and Rooney is equally up to the task of capturing that part of the character too.  Though it’s all fanciful and a bit corny, it is neat to see a movie imagine exactly how this kind of Santa came to be, separated from all the true historical context.  We see the reason for giving out toys, the reason he’s named Kringle, and why he wears the red coat.  Like most of Rankin/Bass’ work, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town has a rich nostalgia feeling for most people, and it’s still on most people’s holiday must watch lists.

DAVID HUDDLESTON from SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (1987)

Much like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, this 1987 flick tries to invent an origin story of it’s own for Santa Claus.  Only, this time, the origin has more in common with someone like Superman rather than Rudolph.  Santa Claus: The Movie is a strange but interesting film that treats Santa Claus almost like a super hero.  We find out his mortal beginnings as a simple toymaker who is taken in by a kingdom of elves who grant him special powers like immortality and super speed in order to spread their toys across the world on Christmas Eve.  The Santa in question is not too much different from past Santas, but the way the movie lays out his becoming Mr. Claus almost feels like it owes a bit of inspiration to the likes of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978).  He even has a Lex Luthor-esque antagonist he must deal with in the form of John Lithgow’s corporate weasel out to best Santa at his own game.  The movie has some strange turns, but it’s lifted by a grounded performance by David Huddleston.  In between portraying one of the bigoted residents of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles (1974) and the wheelchair-bound curmudgeon barking orders at the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), Huddleston left his own distinctive mark on the character of Santa here, and quite frankly, this is one of the very best.  The girthy actor with the booming voice just feels like he was born to play the part, so it’s only fitting that he’s given the chance to portray the character at his most epic.  Like most fantasies from the 1980’s, this was a movie that relished in going over the top, and thankfully it had it’s own Santa that could easily be larger than life to match it.  Make no mistake about it; when you call you film Santa Claus:The Movie, you are making your case for cinematic grandeur, and while some of the movie falls short of this, the portrayal of Santa does not.

TIM ALLEN from THE SANTA CLAUSE (1994)

Perhaps even more imaginative than a origin story for Santa is the idea that the role of Santa has been passed down through generations, and not always by choice.  Even weirder, is seeing someone like Tim Allen filling that role.  But, to Tim’s credit, he does a capable enough job of filling Santa’s boots, which is coincidentally the basis for this movie’s unique, and kind of disturbing premise.  After causing the accidental death of Santa Claus, Allen’s character puts on the red suit and finishes the job so that Christmas won’t be ruined on account of his mistake.  Unfortunately for him, by putting on the suit, he inadvertently signed on to become Santa’s replacement, a contract (the titular Santa Clause) that he’s now cosmically linked to, and pretty soon he’s gaining the weight and growing the beard.  The fact that the role of Santa must be carried over, even without the full consent of the person in question, is a little on the extreme side, but the movie benefits a great deal from Tim Allen’s comedic presence here.  Allen smartly avoids going heavily into Santa Claus shtick and plays the role pretty close to his own comedian persona; which is exactly what the movie calls for.  This is about the average man transforming into Santa Claus, so it makes sense that even as he physically changes into Santa, he’s still the same man underneath.  Even the snarky grouchiness remains, although tempered enough to match the sweetness of the movie.  Thanks to that, the movie remains funny and charming, and it still remains Tim Allen’s most memorable screen role (minus his voice work as Buzz Lightyear).  Just don’t think too much about the unforgiving implications that constitutes the initial “Santa Clause” premise.

ED ASNER from ELF (2003)

Here we come to one of my favorite Santas from one of my favorite Christmas movies.  Though he doesn’t feature very prominently in the overall plot, Ed Asner’s Santa is a wonderfully realized version of the character.  I love the fact that he is knowledgeable enough to give Will Farrell’s Buddy the Elf advice about New York City, like avoiding Peep Shows and knowing that the real “original”Ray’s Pizza is on 11th.  But, Asner also brings a warm sense of unconditional love to the character as well.  He recognizes the clumsiness of Buddy within the workshop and the fact that he just doesn’t fit in, but he doesn’t answer this with scorn but with encouragement.  He helps Buddy find his real place, while still treating him like one of the family; essentially making this Santa feel much more like a very open-hearted grandfather.  Ed Asner, who’s made a career out of playing lovable curmudgeons, from Lou Grant to Up’s Carl Fredrickson, brings out a lot of charm in his performance, and the fact that he’s playing the role contrary to all the other character types he’s played fits very well with the movie’s tone.  Elf is a movie that in some ways parodies a lot of Christmas classics, while at the same time attempts to be one itself; poking fun while also embracing it’s identity.  You can easily understand why Buddy shouts like a mad man when hearing Santa’s name, in one of the movie’s most hilarious moments.  Asner channels his curmudgeon personality, but fills it with the pure heart of Santa Claus and it works incredibly well.  In many ways, he’s one of the most well rounded and endearing versions of Santa, and unless you are a member of the Central Park Rangers, you can always find a friend in this Santa Claus.

ALEC BALDWIN from RISE OF THE GUARDIANS (2012)

Dreamworks Animation tried their best to create an Avengers style super team of holiday icons, but the effort mostly fell flat and has not been revisited since.  This is mainly due to a film that lacked cohesion and characters that were never fleshed out fully; the clearest example of trying too hard being the somewhat “sexy” makeover of Jack Frost.  But, if there was anything that the movie got right, it was the portrayal of Santa Claus.  Named North in the movie, Santa is transformed into a double sword wielding, Russian accented warrior, and he is incredibly enjoyable.  He stands out mainly because he’s the character with the most personality in the entire film, and actor Alec Baldwin thankfully is hamming it up with his performance.  The design of the character is also appealing, still maintaining a traditional look for Santa with the white beard and red coat, but re-imagined with a Russian Kosack influence and warrior tattoos all over his arms.  In many ways, I wish the movie had dispensed with all of the other holiday characters and just focused on Santa instead, because he’s deserving of his own story on the big screen.  It’s clear that the animators had the most fun with Santa as well, giving North the wildest expressions and the most erratic of movements throughout the film, no doubt trying to match the energy of Baldwin’s vocal performance.  In many ways, after seeing so many traditional takes on the character of Santa, it’s refreshing to see one that is entirely different, and I just wish that more of the movie was devoted towards exploring that further, instead of focusing on boring Jack Frost.  Still, the attempt is worthwhile and the movie is worth seeing for the most bad ass version of Santa Claus we’ve seen yet.  Santa Claus: The Movie drew inspiration from super hero myths to give Santa an intriguing origin.  Rise of the Guardians just makes him a super hero, and that’s kinda cool in the end.

So, you can see that Santa’s history on the big screen has been a wildly diverse one.  Amazingly he can be planted into any genre, and still maintain his identity throughout.  He’s conquered martians, fought demons, survived wars, fixed marriages, went on killing sprees, been sued, was  kidnapped by the Pumpkin King, and was even saved by Ernest.  While some movies try to twist the image of Santa a little bit, there are several things that remain the same throughout every iteration.  Santa remains the symbol of the holiday season, a kind soul whose only mission is to spread gifts and cheer to all the people of the world.  That’s why he is often presented as this ideal of charity in so many films.  While many movies present the incredible feat of spreading gifts to children across the world, what really makes Santa stand out is his heart.  What movies like Santa Claus: The Movie and Miracle on 34th Street in particular capture is the essence of why Santa does what he does every year; because someone has to.  He doesn’t just bring gifts to everyone; he’s a living reminder of why we give gifts in the first place, as a way of showing someone else that they are loved.  The greatest gift given out during the holidays is from someone who you don’t even know, especially when you are in your lowest place at that moment.  Santa encourages all of us to be a Santa to someone else, and spread charity throughout the world, especially to those who need it most.  That is why he’s an especially valuable character in movies today, because he sets the example for all of us to live by during the holiday season.  Sure, he may be a mythical creation that’s been commercially exploited for decades, but the essence of Santa Claus is still something that is worth presenting generation after generation.  That’s why it’s worthwhile to have our children believe in a Santa Claus, because it might encourage them to want to continue his example in their own life.  So as we hear him exclaim as he drives through the night, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Evolution of Character – Alice in Wonderland

If there is any piece of literature that has endured nearly unchanged in it’s popularity over the years, it would be Lewis Carroll’s imaginative Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or more commonly known today as Alice in Wonderland.  Written in 1865 by Reverend Charles Dodgson under his pseudonym of Carroll, the books of Alice in Wonderland and it’s sequel Through the Looking Glass (1871) became landmarks for the progression of English literature.  Carroll’s nonsense style of writing was in stark contrast to romanticized and refined literature of the Victorian period.  It was also a revolutionary book with regards to fantasy, as Carroll’s visions of Wonderland were unlike anything imagined before, with his cast of anthropomorphic creatures and a fantasy world which doesn’t play by any logical rules.  Ever since it’s original, and often controversial publication, the Alice novels have been embraced by people from across the world, particularly those with counter-cultural tastes.  It received a particularly notable revival in the psychedelic sixties, being referenced in many different art and media from the time, including Jefferson Airplane’s seminal tune, “White Rabbit.”  But there is one constant from the books that has helped it endure through the ever changing cultural landscape, and that’s the character of Alice herself.  Alice is the ultimate audience surrogate in literature as she acts as our eyes into the madness of Wonderland, and as a result becomes the one we identify with the most, no matter who we are.  But, adapting such a character for the movies proves to be difficult, because you have to find the right kind of actress who can embody that passive, every person quality and still manage to stand out as their own personality.  Alice has managed to maintain her popularity over the years and what follows is some of the most notable cinematic versions that have left their mark over time, and helped keep Alice a continued icon in both literature and in cinema.

MAY CLARK in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1903)

Even in cinema’s infancy, Alice proved to be an ideal choice for showcasing the new art of film-making to the world.  Despite the limitations of the form, this silent short uses every trick available at the time to bring Lewis Carroll’s visions to life, including some very early forms of film compositing.  The movie may look primitive today, but you can still see a noble attempt by the filmmakers to do their best to recreate iconic parts of the story, using the famous John Tenniel wood engraved illustrations as inspirations.  Filming on location in the gardens of an English estate also help to give the movie a definite fantasy quality to it as well, as it’s not far off from the world that Carroll know himself.  Despite it’s groundbreaking aspects, it’s clearly not a definitive retelling of the story itself.  Every scene is merely a tableau recreating moments from the book, often disjointed from one another.  It doesn’t help that much of the film has been lost to time, and only 9 minutes of the original 15 survive to this day.  Character development is minimal, but the one who stands out is easily Alice.  May Clark is notably older than what you’d typically think the young girl from the books would look like, but she does her best to perform, even against all the special effects around her.  She was not a professional actor, working instead as a film cutter at the Hepworth Studios that made the film, but some of that inexperience still makes for a decent Alice, as she does capture some of that passive quality about the character.  This would mark the first ever cinematic telling of the classic Alice story’s, and it’s an interesting artifact of cinema’s early days, particularly with regards to how famous stories were first made into movies.

CHARLOTTE HENRY in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Despite it’s international popularity, Alice in Wonderland would remain a mostly English institution for most of it’s earliest cinematic adaptations.  That was until 1933 when Hollywood finally took it’s shot at portraying the Alice stories for the big screen.  This lavish production directed by Norman McLeod and written by future Oscar-winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz features a fair mixture of some imaginative old Hollywood production values, some of which seem like precursors to what we would see in a couple years with The Wizard of Oz (1939).  But what this film version is notable for is introducing the notion of making Alice in Wonderland a showcase for an all-star cast, something that future film adaptations would continue even up to today.  Some of the biggest names at the time appeared in this film, even in very minor roles.  You’ve got W.C. Fields playing Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper playing the White Knight, and as strange as it might be that is actually Cary Grant inside that Mock Turtle costume you see in the picture above.  Though the movie is visually interesting, the production unfortunately hasn’t aged well over the years, mainly by the fact that it doesn’t grasp the full strangeness of Carroll’s novels.  The best part of the movie though is Charlotte Henry in the role of Alice.  She does capture the wide-eyed wonder of the character and her charming smile does make her presence on screen worthwhile in every scene.  she also does carry the movie even through all the disjointed episodes that the movie desperately tries to connect into one fluid narrative.  Interesting tidbit, this production caused producer Walt Disney to cancel a live action/animation hybrid film that he was working on, even before Snow White (1937), with Mary Pickford in the role of Alice.  This cancellation would of course would be short lived as we would find out some years later.

KATHRYN BEAUMONT in WALT DISNEY’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

When most of us think of the character Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, this is usually what pops into mind first.  Disney’s animated version of Lewis Carroll’s tales is without a doubt the most famous version ever made, and I would also argue it’s the best cinematic version as well.  The animated medium is really the only possible way to do the work of Lewis Carroll any justice, because much of his nonsensical leaps of logic are not all that dissimilar from the way that cartoon logic works.  Here the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the March Hare can portrayed as actual animals without any other signs of humanity other than their voice.  Alice can indeed change in size without any special effects.  The Queen’s guard can actually paper thin playing cards.  Wonderland was made to be animated and the Disney company managed to bring out the true madness of the Carroll’s writing.  At the same time, it’s also the best version because it’s the most streamlined and linear, making it the most cohesive version we’ve ever seen on film.  Much of Carroll’s side characters are excised, so no Griffin or Mock Turtle and no White Queen or White Knight.  Instead Disney chose to center the story on Alice herself, making her a much more active character than usual.  Here she’s motivated by two goals, following the white rabbit into Wonderland, and then finally finding her way home.  This helps to make her a much more engaging character, given wonderful personality by her voice actress Kathryn Beaumont, who also modeled for the character.  Since it’s premiere, this version of Alice has become the standard by which most others are judged by, and has gone on to influence her visual looks ever since, particularly with he iconic blue dress.  The movie was also instrumental for the story’s resurgence during the psychedelic sixties, no doubt due to the often surreal imagery found in the movie.  Interesting enough, this was one of the few movies of his that Walt Disney personally didn’t like, which is odd given that it has since become of the studios most enduring popular titles.

CORAL BROWNE in DREAMCHILD (1985)

This very unusual film takes a different approach to the story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland.  The movie addresses the true life story of Alice Liddel, who was the real life inspiration for the character.  In the film’s story, we find Alice visiting America in her later years as she accepts a special honor from Columbia University.  During her trip, she begins to look back on her early childhood which she spent in the company of Reverend Dodgson (played by Ian Holm).  Her close relationship with him inspired the stories that have since followed her throughout her life, and as she has grown older, they in some way haunt her because she is always going to be tied to this fictional girl who is not at all who she is now.  This leads to some surreal hallucinations where she believes she’s seeing Reverend Dodgson and various characters like the Mad Hatter and March Hare in her daily life.  The movie connects these moments with early childhood memories of Alice (played as a young girl by Amelia Shankley) spending time with Dodgson in what some would say is a tad bit uncomfortable way.  The movie attempts to examine some of the more questionable aspects of Dodgson’s life, namely the rumored pedophilia of which Alice might have been the subject of, but it’s undermined by the movie’s frequent flights into fancy with the hallucinations and the various recreations of moments from the book, brought to life with some rather grotesque puppets from the Jim Henson workshop.  These frightening versions of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare would feel more at home in something like Labyrinth (1986), and not in a serious drama that examines the toll of loss of innocence over several years.  Even still, the portrayal of Alice is still endearing, with Coral Browne giving a solid and dignified performance as the aging Alice.  It’s fascinating to look at the real life inspirations behind famous characters, and how their lives were affected by the popularity that endured afterwards, especially if they overshadow something darker underneath.

NATALIE GREGORY in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1985 MINI-SERIES)

Taking a cue from the classic Hollywood version, this made-for-TV musical version of Alice in Wonderland certainly follows the idea of filling every role with an all-star cast.  And it seems like even the most minor of roles is filled by a known name, whether it makes sense or not.  You’ve got Sammy Davis Jr. as the Catepillar, Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat, Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle, and even future Full House star John Stamos shows up in the most minor of roles as the Jack in the Queen of Heart’s court.  But it is noteworthy that at over 3 hours this is one of the most comprehensive versions of the story we’ve ever seen, adapted from both Alice novels.  But at it’s center is the performance by newcomer Natalie Gregory as Alice, who appears in every scene of this long production.  One noteworthy thing about her casting is that she is decidedly younger in age than most Alice’s we’ve seen before, who have usually been more pre or early teen in age.  Gregory’s Alice is very much a child and it makes the peril she finds herself in all the more frightening.  There are some rather disturbing moments in the movie, like when Alice finds herself in an alternate version of her home where she sees her family on the other side of a mirror with no way of letting them know she’s there.  Latter she finds herself all alone when confronting another one of Lewis Carroll’s creations, the fearsome Jabberwocky, and Natalie Gregory manages to hold her own in these moments, making us actually fearful for her safety.  She captures the very real innocence of the character, which is put to the test in this topsy turvy world that has no place for logic, which she increasingly realizes is what sets her apart.  This version’s Alice stands as one of the more engaging, and you’ve got to hand it to a young newcomer who can stand out in a huge cast like the one that this version has.

KRISTYNA KOHOUTOVA from ALICE (1988)

Of all the versions of Alice in Wonderland that have been filmed over the years, this may be the strangest one of all, and that’s saying something.  This very bizarre movie comes from Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, who is a pioneering animator in the stop motion form.  But, Svankmajer’s style doesn’t utilize the charming clay and wood crafted puppets that we normally associate with stop motion animation.  Instead, his animation uses bizarre puppetry involving creatures made out of household appliances, scrapbook cut outs, and most disturbingly animal carcasses and skeletons preserved through taxidermy.  Seeing these things in still life are disturbing enough, but they take on a whole new level once they are animated.  And this is the format that Svankmajer decided to bring the story of Alice in Wonderland to life with.  In a way, this style might have been to Lewis Carroll’s tastes, given it’s bizarre nature, but to the casual viewer, this is certainly not a version of the story that is suitable for all ages.  The interesting thing though is that the animation is balanced out with a real life actress playing Alice; a very young performer named Kristyna Kohoutova.  Svankmajer’s minimalist depiction of Wonderland, which seems to exist within the same drab interior room, takes on a surreal aspect as it appears to be all part of Alice’s dream state, or rather nightmares.  Kristyna’s Alice merely acts as our guide from one surreal moment to another, including providing her own third person narration.  The most distinctive moments occur when live action Alice shrinks down and becomes an animated doll and also when she encounters the shockingly murderous White Rabbit, which is one of Svankmajer’s more disturbing creations.  Not for the faint of heart, but interesting for those curious to see a really unconventional take of the classic Lewis Carroll stories of Wonderland.

MIA WASIKOWSKA in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

After many years Disney decided to revisit the works of Lewis Carroll with a lavish production directed by visionary filmmaker Tim Burton.  It would be a wildly successful film at the box office and would jump start a recent trend at the Disney Studio to do remakes of all their past animated hits.  But, much like the remake craze at Disney, this production would end up being a mixed bag.  On the one hand, I do like this version of the character of Alice.  Mia Wasikowska’s performance may be a little on the under-acting side, but I liked how her version of the character was more assertive, inquisitive and intelligent than past versions.  The problem is, everything else about the movie is entirely wrong and completely misses the point with regards to what Lewis Carroll’s stories were about.  Alice in Wonderland was a satire about the social confines of Victorian society and Carroll created Wonderland as an examination of a society where all the rules were flipped upside down and nothing made sense.  But for some reason, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton decided to normalize Wonderland, making it a society that steers away from Carroll’s nonsense vision and more closely to something like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, which not surprising the film tries to hard to emulate, because of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies.  This also leads to a trend of recent adaptations of classic tales that I hate, which is the desire to put a sword in the hero’s hand and make them a “savior” figure.  You see this again in other films like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and no other character looks more out of place in a suit of armor than Alice.  She’s a strong character to be sure, but not everyone is destined to slay a dragon, and yet this movie desperately tries to make us believe that Alice is the only one capable of saving the day.  Of all the adventures we’ve seen of Alice, this is the one that misses the mark the most, and it’s a sad given that Wasikowska’s portrayal isn’t terribly bad and could have been amazing if Tim Burton wasn’t forced to Tolkeinize Wonderland.

Though the styles have changed, Lewis Carroll’s Alice still remains a strong presence throughout her many cinematic outings.  There’s something about her “stranger in a strange land” character that we identify with strongly and it’s through her eyes that the incredible world of Wonderland comes to life.  More than often, the most interesting cinematic versions of the story are imagined through the medium of animation, whether it be Disney’s classic version or Jan Svankmajer’s surreal version.  It’s also interesting how many times a cinematic version of the story often involves an all-star cast.  Even the two Disney versions fill their casts out with notable names, and it sparks some interesting debates about who played the role better; like which Mad Hatter is the crazier one, Ed Wynn’s or Johnny Depp’s.  What I like best though is when the film’s do their best to capture the true madness of the story that Lewis Carroll had written.  The Alice stories were really ahead of their time and have provided the basis for every surreal adventure into unknown worlds that have come since.  You can find elements of Alice in Wonderland in everything from The Wizard of Oz (where a girl from our world travels to another magical one), to The Chronicles of Narnia (magic portals that link our world to another) to even something like Planet of the Apes (where society is satired through a re-imagined world, visited by someone from our own world).  Carroll’s stories continue to influence movies, art, music and more and will probably see many more interpretations in the future.  But as for the character of Alice, it is interesting to see how much this young girl has been embraced as an icon of literature and of movies.  As a result, she is often the one that filmmakers take the greatest care to get right, and this has resulted in some of the most interesting choices of casting that we’ve seen in many of these movies.  She may always continue to fall down that rabbit hole forever, but the strength of her character always comes from how clever she can be to find her way back home.

Evolution of Character – Oliver Twist

When we think of the work of the great writer Charles Dickens, what usually strikes our memories are the colorful cast of characters that inhabit his stories.  Of these, there are a couple that instantly spring out as the defining Dickensian characters.  Ebeneezer Scrooge of course would be one, but the other character that also stands out as the one that instantly comes to mind when discussing Dickens is Oliver Twist.  The little orphan boy who dared to ask for “more” has become an iconic character in literature, and the quintessential image of a Victorian era outcast scrapping by on his own in an oppressive, unforgiving world.  Naturally, his story is one that has been given attention to by Hollywood, who have continued to mine Dickens’ tale for several generations.  What’s interesting about little Oliver’s journey on the big screen is that it actually delves deeper into the character of Oliver than Charles Dickens ever did in his own book.  The literary Oliver is purely just a catalyst for Charles Dickens to explore larger themes within Victorian society, including class divisions, squalid inner-city conditions, incompetency and cruelty by social services, and the cut throat nature of the criminal underworld.  Oliver is a rather passive character through most of the book; a pawn in a game much larger than himself.  And yet, he has proven to be a powerful symbol, representing the often forgotten outcasts of society who face persecution everyday purely because of their placement on the social strata.  In cinema, Oliver fulfills that symbolic role too, but is also given the grace of a more rounded personality depending on the film.  The interesting about the character and his story is that they can also be reinterpreted in many different ways, like using a different time or place, and still retain it’s primary essence.  In this article, I will be looking at 7 of Oliver Twist’s most notable cinematic versions, and seeing how time has changed the character and story of this iconic character.

JACKIE COOGAN from OLIVER TWIST (1922)

Though not the first cinematic outing for young Oliver, this was certainly the first earnest attempt by Hollywood to adapting Dickens novel.  For the role of Oliver, young Jackie Coogan, the most famous young actor of the time thanks to his star making turn in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), was cast.  Coogan’s involvement was natural given how his part in Chaplin’s classic comedy was in some ways inspired by the character of Oliver.  Here, Oliver is somewhat limited in character mainly due to the constraints of the silent era, but Coogan does a descent job of filling the part.  Bright eyed and broadly mannered, his Oliver is every much the precocious youth that you would imagine him to be for a silent retelling like this one.  His best moments are those he shares with the raggedly dressed and decrepit ringleader of thieves, Fagin, here played by none other than the “man with a thousand faces,” Lon Chaney.  The film, more or less, is purely another showcase for Cheney to disappear into another character with his groundbreaking make-up and physicality, though it is far from Cheney’s most impressive work.  Still, him and Coogan have great chemistry as Fagin and Oliver, and seeing the two play off each other does represent the best subtleties of silent era performances.  Coogan’s young orphan Oliver more or less falls into line with Dickens original, becoming a catalyst for the rest of the plot to revolve around, and his innocence is perfectly conveyed in the film.  Being only 8 years old at the time of the film’s making, Coogan remarkably already hit a high standard for other child actors to match in the years ahead for the role of Oliver Twist.

JOHN HOWARD DAVIES from OLIVER TWIST (1948)

This post-war British production is often considered by many to be the greatest cinematic version of Oliver Twist ever made, and it’s tough to argue.  For one thing, it was directed by the legendary David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) fame, who in his early career was given the prime opportunity of adapting two classic Dickens novels to the big screen.  One was the critically acclaimed Great Expectations (1946), and the other was this 1948 film.  You can see the sense of scale and scope that Lean was clearly trying to refine on display here, because this is even today an impressively constructed film.  The film also features some standout performances from the cast, all capturing the essence of Dickens’ original visions.  Robert Newton brings special menace to the villainous Bill Sykes, and Alec Guinness is almost unrecognizable as Fagin; though his clearly Semitic interpretation of the character is a somewhat troubling reminder of the anti-Semitic leanings of Dickens’ original text.  The role of Oliver was played by young newcomer John Howard Davies, who especially fits the portrayal of the iconic orphan.  With his puppy dog eyes and sallow face, he looks every bit like what you’d expect an impoverished child in Victorian era London to look like.  He certainly has the look of what Dickens wrote down on the page, and that also carries over into his characterization as well.  The movie is also a very accurate retelling of the book, covering all the political and social intrigue that surrounds Oliver’s story, and again, it limits Oliver as a passive character in the process.  Still, Davies tries his best, and comes away as one of the best versions of the character ever put on screen.

MARK LESTER from OLIVER! (1968)

Apart from the David Lean classic, this is probably the most highly regarded cinematic treatment of Dickens’ story.  This big budget, widescreen musical directed by Carol Reed was one of the last of it’s kind from that era of Hollywood, and was the big winner at the Academy Awards, taking away 8 total including Best Picture.  As far as musical adaptations go, it’s hit or miss.  It’s production values are impressive, and some of the performances are strong, especially Ron Moody as the scene-stealing Fagin.  The role of Oliver likewise is a mixed bag.  Mark Lester, who plays Oliver, certainly looks the part, and at times performs very well in the film’s dialogue driven scenes.  But, because this is a musical and he is the lead, Oliver has to sing and unfortunately that’s beyond young Mark’s range.  Pretty much all of the verses sung by Oliver in the movie are dubbed over by another singer; and strangely not by another similar sounding boy either, but by what seems like a grown woman trying to sound boyish.  It’s a distracting element in the movie and one that unfortunately casts a shadow over Mark Lester’s decent performance.  Since he’s the only dubbed actor too, it also makes him feel out of place, especially compared to the vocally trained Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, who was carried over from the original theatrical cast.  It’s clear that Mark Lester’s innocent doey-eyed look is what won him the role, but it came at a cost to performance overall, because he came ill-equipped to match his co-stars vocally.  Still, for an actor as young as he was at the time, it’s still was impressive of him to carry a huge production like this on his shoulders, and it’s often his visage from the “asking for more” scene that we see attached to most visual references to Dickens’ novel.

JOEY LAWRENCE from OLIVER & COMPANY (1988)

It seemed only natural that Disney themselves would approach Dickens’ classic with a musical adaptation of their own.  But, in order to distance themselves from the classic 1968 musical, they approached the story in an entirely different angle.  Instead of Victorian era London, they set their version in Reagan Era New York City.  And instead of orphan children, this version is centered around dogs and cats.  Oliver is no longer a child stuck in an oppressive orphanage, but is instead an unwanted kitten forced to survive along on the streets of the big city.  Though elements of the story remain the same, it is largely an original tale more inspired by Dickens rather than to the letter faithful.  One thing that it does change in an interesting way is the relationship between Oliver and Dodger.  Here, Dodger is very much older than Oliver, and acts as more of a father figure than in previous versions.  He assumes more of the role that Fagin had in the past, who in this film is relegated to more of a supporting role, being one of the few human characters.  A very young Joey Lawrence voices Oliver here, and in many gives Oliver a sense of character little seen before.  He’s a very Americanized version of the character; vulnerable, impulsive, and with a strong sense of setting out his own path.  He also takes a far more active role in his story, even bearing his claws and fighting back against threats at various points in the movie.  The movie doesn’t delve too deep into the more complicated and darker elements of Dickens’ novel (it is Disney after all), but some of the film’s best elements centers around Oliver finding his identity in literal “dog eat dog” world.  Though far from Disney’s best, it at least does a decent job of bringing Oliver Twist into the 20th century and giving the classic character much more of an active role.

ALEX TRENCH  from OLIVER TWIST (1997)

Disney would once again return to the classic story, only this time without the songs nor the modern setting; and on the small screen no less.  This TV movie adaptation, made for ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” program, is a modestly constructed retelling of Dickens’ novel, with a TV friendly budgeted portrayal of Victorian England.  It more or less plays out like a non-musical version of Oliver!, which has it’s benefits.  The film doesn’t get distracted by needless plot points and instead focuses on it’s central characters.  Unfortunately, this leads once again to a passive Oliver.  Here, he is given too little personality to be memorable, and poor young Alex Trench seems out of his element in the role (this would also be his one and only film role to date).  More focus is given to Fagin (played by an over-acting Richard Dreyfus) and to Dodger (played by a pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood), which does provide an interesting character dichotomy to this story that we haven’t seen before.  Here we see both characters act as the two opposing points of view guiding Oliver through his development.  Dodger is the more outgoing and humane, but he attracts Oliver to a world that is far more unforgiving.  Fagin is rigid and suspicious, but putting up more walls helps to shield Oliver from far worse things in the world.  For a TV movie, it does give a richer portrayal to these secondary characters, but Oliver isn’t so lucky.  It does bring the story back to it’s roots with a modern sensibility that sheds new light on the old story in a positive way, which is something that you rarely see in a network made-for-TV movie.

JOSHUA CLOSE from TWIST (2003)

Oliver Twist would once again see a whole other modern “twist” (pardon the pun), only this time far from the family-friendly Disney version seen in Oliver & Company.  Here, we see Dickens story re-imagined with a queer sensibility, with Oliver slipping into the world of street hustling instead of pick-pocketing.  This version of Oliver is considerably older, becoming a wayward youth instead of a lost orphan.  The film delves deeper into the relationship between him and Dodger, played here by Nick Stahl (Sin City), which adds a romantic level to their friendship; one that ultimately turns toxic as Stahl’s Dodger sinks deeper into a drug addiction.  While the new dimension added to the story brings an interesting angle to develop the characters around, the movie sadly doesn’t make it all work in the end.  It’s clear that filmmakers used the blueprint of Dickens’ original story to portray their own window into the seedy underbelly of modern slums and the crime world that festers there, but it doesn’t elevate any higher than the surface level of that to become anything really profound; especially not at the level that Charles Dickens would have gone.  Fresh-faced, handsome Joshua Close does a decent job portraying this grown up Oliver, and his vulnerable performance is one of the film’s highlights.  It’s just too bad a look at a queer themed Oliver Twist had to loose focus and become too indulgent in it’s look at the darker parts of society.    The story is after all about a young child seeking an identity in a world that is constantly acting against him.  It is interesting to see Dickensian social injustice added onto a queer love story, but the film looses the nerve to make it work the way it should.

BARNEY CLARK from OLIVER TWIST (2005)

Here we have one of the more unexpected adaptation of Dickens’ novel.  When you think of all the different filmmakers who would be attracted to the story of Oliver Twist, the last one who would come to mind is Roman Polanski.  The Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) director is no stranger to darker themed stories, but for him to take a straight-forward approach to Dickens’ tale was somewhat unexpected.  And yet, it makes sense, because if there is a running motif in Polanski’s full body of work, it would be the loss of innocence, which Oliver Twist fits perfectly within.  The movie came and went in theaters pretty quietly in 2005, and few people even know that this movie exists, which is too bad because it is probably the best cinematic version of this story since David Lean’s classic in my opinion.  I will even say that this has what is probably the best cinematic portrayal of Oliver Twist as a character that we’ve ever seen.  Here, Oliver is no longer a passive player in his own story, but rather a fully realized person.  The movie does away with all of the political sub-plotting that surrounds the main story, and instead focuses like a laser beam on Oliver’s journey.  It builds a far more personal relationship between Oliver and Fagin (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley) for one thing, where you see the strong effect that the old man has had on Oliver’s upbringing, both positive and negative.  Young Barney Clark is also quite good in the role, bringing subtlety and emotion to the character that we’ve rarely seen before.  The fact that he has a lot more to do in the story helps to improve the character greatly, and it’s something that should be celebrated more within the whole history of this character.  Any Dickens’ fans out there should seek this version out because it is worthy of rediscovery.  And for the character of Oliver, it is a milestone, because he finally get the focus that he has long deserved.

So, there you have a look at Oliver Twist’s cinematic journey.  As the years have gone on, we see far more of a focus given to the little boy and his personal journey.  In a way, he has shone more clearly on the big screen than he ever did on the page.  Charles Dickens didn’t exactly treat the young boy as an afterthought in his original book, but it’s clear that Oliver had little impact over his own direction in life.  Cinematic versions, which have streamlined the story over time, have found ways to let Oliver stand out more and give him a personality that makes him distinctive and worth taking interest in.  My feelings is that David Lean’s classic adaptation made the best attempt at capturing the essence of Dickens’ novel while Roman Polanski’s version brought out the best essence of the character.  There are interesting imaginings over the years too, like the two musical version by way of Broadway and Disney, but it’s those two features from wildly different eras that offer the best portrayals of Dickens’ classic.  In many ways, Oliver Twist had to mature as a story with more modern sensibilities in order to fully realize the character himself.  Nowadays, we are better able to find child actors who can carry the weight of a difficult character, as well as filmmakers who can trust their young stars with deeper material.  The story of Oliver Twist is a difficult one to pull off, as it centers around a child in near constant peril and hits hard at the social injustices that have put him in the state that he’s in.  That’s a lot to ask a young performer to undertake on screen, but we have thankfully had a fair helping of capable young actors who have done justice to the character.  In the end, as we still see young people struggle to survive in the modern world, we find that Oliver Twist remains a powerful literary and cinematic icon who continues to remain more and more relevant through every new retelling.

 

Evolution of Character – Jesus Christ

Icon, savior, prophet, rabbi, messiah, son of God.  Whatever your personal beliefs and your view of who this man from Nazareth was (or is), there’s no denying that Jesus Christ is a figure who has shaped the course of human history.  Some believe in his divinity, while others just view him as an influential historical figure.  But still, whether you accept belief in him or not, his influence is felt in all of our lives; sadly, sometimes in very negative ways.  Perhaps the most powerful influence of Christ can be found in art.  Pretty much every great and influential artist of the past millennia has taken their shot at depicting Christ in some way; in painting, sculpture, carvings, performance, and of course, cinema.  Jesus has proven to be just as powerful figure on the silver screen as he has been in any other artistic medium.  At the same time, he is also one of the trickiest roles to fill.  A lot of pressure falls on those who puts on the robes to portray Christ, because if they do a poor job, they run the risk of upsetting a multitude of the faithful, most of whom take the image of Christ very seriously.  Some movies sometimes even take careful measures to avoid any controversy at all by showing Jesus either from a distance, like in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) or from over the shoulder without showing his face, like in Ben-Hur (1959).  But, there are plenty of films that do take the risk of not only showing Christ on screen, but also delving deep into his story and analyzing what kind of person he was.  What’s most interesting is how different eras of cinema have incredibly different views on the figure of Christ.  In this article, I will be looking at a few of these, limited solely to depictions from Hollywood; so no international depictions, or TV movie adaptations, nor any Christploitation films the Christian film market.  So let’s look at Jesus Christ’s journey as a cinematic icon.

HOWARD GAYE from D.W. GRIFFITH’S INTOLERANCE (1916)

For an examination of Christ’s presence on the silver screen, it’s fitting to look back and see one of the earliest.  In D. W. Griffith’s now century old epic, we are presented with four interlocking stories depicting different eras in world history, all centered around the theme of intolerance.  The shortest of these story-lines is devoted to the story of Jesus, and his persecution at the hands of the Pharisee priests who are determined to silence his ministry.  The story is sadly limited, but the depiction of Christ is nevertheless interesting in the film.  Actor Howard Gaye certainly was cast based on his resemblance to the commonly accepted image of Jesus in centuries of artwork.  Through Griffith’s film, we see the icon of Jesus that was familiar to the world through it’s artwork brought to life through the magic of cinema.  Because of Griffith’s film, this image of a long faced, flowing hair, and white robed Jesus would endure into the realm of cinema and influence all future depictions from then on.  It’s an interesting aspect that Griffith chose to use the image of Christ in his grand statement on the nature of intolerance.  Though brief, Christ’s story is interconnected with stories of the fall of the Babylonian Empire, religious wars in Renaissance era France, and a present day story of religious zealots breaking apart a disadvantaged family.  What I think Griffith misses however in his film is the irony that the persecution that each of his main characters face is done in the name of someone who went through the same persecution.  I think Griffith was more interested in the cruel cycle of intolerance that humanity has faced over the years, and he viewed Jesus’ own persecution as one chapter of that.

H. B. WARNER from THE KING OF KINGS (1927)

Later on in the silent era, we were given a much more substantial portrayal of Jesus Christ on film, which came from a filmmaker who is now synonymous with the biblical epic genre; Cecil B. DeMille.  DeMille was already established filmmaker at this point in his career, and had already won praise for bringing The Ten Commandments (1923) to the big screen.  But, many consider his depiction of Jesus Christ in The King of Kings to be one of his greatest achievements.  Here we find a Christ that is both humane and divine; relateable and yet also ethereal.  It is certainly one of the more idealized versions of Christ that we’ve seen on film, with actor H. B. Warner giving a standout performance.  Warner fits the same image iconic image of Christ, but what he brings is more sophistication to his portrayal, making him feel more human and personable.  It’s clearly DeMille’s to utilize the cinematic medium to present Jesus is the most sympathetic light possible.  Here, Christ almost glows on screen, with DeMille using diffused lighting to spotlight Christ and make him standout from everyone else.  Even the Resurrection of Christ utilized some remarkable cinematic tricks, with DeMille inter-cutting a Technicolor sunrise into the scene (color photography was only recently introduced and was considered cutting edge for it’s time, making the shot all the more special).  Though old fashioned by today’s standards, DeMille’s epic became a gold standard for the depiction of Christ on film for many years to come, and it is still to this day one of the most cinematic-ally pleasing.

MAX VON SYDOW from THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

The 50’s and 60’s saw an booming industry in Hollywood for Biblical epics.  For years, it appeared that any biblical story was fair game for adaptation, leading to some of the most impressive cinematic wonders that have ever been committed to celluloid.  Included among them is this George Stevens directed epic about the life of Christ, depicting his baptism (with Charlton Heston as John the Baptism) all the way to his Crucifixion.  Like most of the movies of it’s era, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a star studded blockbuster, which was both a blessing and a curse; it unfortunately had the problem of miscasting several roles, including an awkwardly placed John Wayne as a Roman centurion, who utters the now infamous line, “Surely this man was the son of Gawd.”  But, the movie did strike it rich with the excellent casting of legendary Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Christ.  Sydow brings an intensity to the role that had never been seen before and it makes Jesus a compelling character throughout the film.  From the gracefulness of his gentle ministry to the intense anger that he displays against the money changers at the Temple in Jerusalem, to the quiet vulnerability that he displays while being crucified, Sydow is compelling in the role from beginning to end, and he carries this sometimes uneven film on his sturdy shoulders.  He also does an excellent job of giving the iconic look of Jesus the kind of expressiveness it needs to work in a more sophisticated cinematic outing.  The movie is an odd mixture of old Hollywood melodrama, mixed in with a more modern sensibility towards the role of religion in our lives and how the image of Christ fits into that, and Sydow’s Jesus is a perfect match for that more modern image of Christ in our changing culture.

TED NEELEY from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

The 1970’s yet again was another shifting time for cultural attitudes towards religion, and this was reflected in some of the interesting ways that religion found it’s ways into movies at the time.  In this Norman Jewison directed adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, we saw a completely different kind of portrayal of Christ brought to the screen.  Sure, it is kind of jarring to see Christ and his followers singing rock tunes out in the desert (shot on location in Israel), but the movie is still surprisingly respectful to the image of Christ, both scripturally and cinematically.  Christ remains a figure of intense spiritual purity in this film, but it’s the aura that surrounds him that defines his power.  Like the title of the film states, Christ’s persona gives him a superstar status among the people around him, giving him a cult of worshipers that he clearly struggles with.  It’s a superstar status that makes him beloved, but also reviled, and he finds himself at odds whether remaining the savior for humanity is really something he should have resting on his shoulders.  It’s a more conflicted side of Jesus than we’ve seen before, but one that still represents the spiritual power that we’ve seen before.  Ted Neely, who was brought into the film after playing the role first on stage, clearly fits the image of Christ very well, and his impressive pipes give an interesting new intensity to the character as well.  Funny how the image of Christ was not a huge leap to make from the usual aesthetic of the average hippie at the time of this film’s making.  Neely had little more to do than just put on a robe and he becomes Jesus automatically; which literally does take place in the film’s opening minutes.  It’s a product of it’s era, but still, an interesting new direction to take the persona of Christ into on the big screen.

WILLEM DAFOE from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

Here we have probably cinema’s most human depiction of Christ, which itself resulted in quite a bit of controversy.  Adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial book of the same name, Martin Scorsese’s film is an interesting spiritual examination of Jesus’ struggles with his own destiny.  In this movie, Chirst knows he’s the son of God and that his purpose is to die for all the sins of humanity, and this is a burden on him that makes him feel distant from the rest of humanity.  In his dying hours on the cross, Jesus asks God why he has forsaken him, and then the film stops to show what life would be like for Christ if he had denied his purpose and refused to sacrifice himself, instead choosing a normal life.  This section itself was what stirred up the controversy behind the book and film, because it shows Christ in what some consider a sacrilegious portrayal; getting married, having sex, fathering children, and denying his divinity.  But, many forget that in both cases these are just visions and not reality.  Christ still dies on the cross like he was destined too, and everything we see beforehand is just a final temptation by the devil to coax him away from his destiny.  Scorsese still considers himself a devout Christian, but he’s also an introspective filmmaker who wants to explore interesting concepts when it comes to religious themes, and that’s what attracted him to this film.  He made a very wise choice in the casting of Willem Dafoe as Jesus, who gives the character a remarkable vulnerability that we have never seen before on film.  Dafoe perfectly embodies a version of Jesus that is both frightened of his destiny and yet determined to see it through, and it’s that introspective view of the journey ahead that makes his performance so compelling.  When he triumphantly smiles in the closing moments of the film and proclaims, “It is accomplished,” it is a powerful depiction of a man who has conquered evil, both on the outside and from within, and that makes for one powerful portrait of Jesus Christ.

JIM CAVIEZEL from THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)

The other most controversial depiction of Jesus Christ is also the one that strives for the most accuracy.  Mel Gibson’s often divisive portrayal of Christ’s torturous final hours is an interesting cinematic experiment, because it goes out of it’s way to recreate the period of time it is set in; even to the point of using dead languages in all of it’s dialogue.  Whether that makes it historically accurate is debatable since it’s source of story comes from the Gospels.  Still, it’s an interesting choice for a director to make in order to set their depiction of Christ apart from all the rest.  Mel also cast largely unknown actors in most of the film’s roles, except for a couple exceptions; one being Jesus himself.  The role of Christ went to established American actor Jim Caviezel, who took on the role based off of his own devout Catholic background.  And like the person he was portraying, his own experience would turn into a test of faith.  Not only did he have to endure long hours working outdoors in very little clothing, but he also endured some rather bizarre freak injuries while filming.  At one point, one of the whips used in the scourging scene missed the padded protection on his back and actually cut a real gash on his side.  And then during the crucifixion scene, he was struck by lightning in the middle of filming.  Not to mention he had to learn to deliver all his lines in Aramaic.  Suffice to say, this is a definitive example of an actor suffering for his art, but it does translate into a powerful performance on screen.  Caviezel embodies a quiet strength as Jesus, enduring such horror but still remaining steadfast in his resolve.  Whatever you think about the movie itself, you still have to admire the work that the actor put into it, making a determined attempt to be more true to the personage of Jesus than anything we’ve seen before.

EWAN MCGREGOR from LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT (2016)

Here we have one of the more recent depictions of Christ on the big screen.  The movie imagines a fictional encounter during Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert, where he is confronted by the devil and is told that he holds the fate of a family he has met on his journey in the balance.  It’s a tight, simple narrative that nevertheless offers an interesting window in understanding the psyche of someone like Jesus.  Ewan McGregor takes on the dual role of portraying Christ and the Devil (who is shown in the  film as a twisted reflection of Christ, confident and sinister while Jesus remains doubtful but pure).  His portrayal is a unique one, having his Jesus be someone who is still trying to understand his purpose.  What’s more, his Jesus is someone who knows of his disconnect from humanity, having grown up without knowing his true father, and feeling frustrated with the fact that he is unable to communicate with him.  This movie grapples with the notion of whether Christ was truly divine or not, and it’s dealt with in a very open-ended way.  Jesus sees God’s signs everywhere, and he imagines the Devil by his side as a manifestation of all his doubt and anger, but in the end he is unsure if God really has set him apart for a reason, or if he may possibly not be there at all.  And yet, the movie shows the eternal spiritual purity of Jesus, and how his journey would inform the spirituality of many more after him.  McGregor gives Christ a very subtle humanity, one that doesn’t have to marry itself to all other depictions before it, and yet still remains true to the character.  Here, he portrays a man seeking self discovery before his fully obtains the confidence to becoming the Savior of humanity.  It’s interesting that the movie chose to explore the often overlooked period of Jesus’ fasting in the desert, because it’s really the best point to examine Jesus as a blank slate, something that Hollywood has rarely dared to tackle before.

So, there you have some of the many depictions of Christ that we have seen on the big screen.  Interestingly enough, apart from these straightforward portrayals of Christ’s life on the big screen, you can still see his influence in a variety of other movies.  You see it very clearly in the common cinematic trope of the Chirst-figure character; a main protagonist who is specially singled out by some mystical prophecy or fate that makes him the only person capable of destroying evil.  Whether it is Neo from The Matrix (1999), Harry Potter from his wizarding world franchise, or Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise, many of cinema’s most famous heroes have often fallen into this Christlike path of destiny.  The Lego Movie (2014) mocked this trope perfectly by referring to it’s hero as “the Special.”  Darth Vader from Star Wars can often be viewed as a Christ figure in reverse; a character of special significance whose destiny only leads him towards becoming more evil.  But, despite how Hollywood has exploited and made fun of the Christ figure in cinematic history, you’ll never actually see an actual mockery of Christ the person.  Even movies that do attempt it often do it through the misguided insanity of one of their characters, like “Buddy Jesus” in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), which is representative of a ill-advised public relations campaign by a church to make religion appear more “hip.”  Even the always irreverent South Park, which includes Jesus as a regular character, portrays him as a pure soul and a force for good.  There can be many ways to do a bad portrayal of Christ on screen, but even some of the good ones can still draw the ire of some very devout followers.  Regardless of where anyone stands on faith, we still have to acknowledge the importance of Christ as a symbol, both in everyday lives and in our art.  He has remained a constant force on the big screen, and will so for many years to come, and it’s our responsibility as storytellers and filmmakers to make sure that his image is used only for the purposes of good in our world.

Evolution of Character – The Devil

the-devil

Halloween’s iconic band of monsters and ghoulish rogues consists of many different types.  From ghosts, to vampires, to abnormal beasts, and more commonly nowadays the rising dead, there are plenty of creatures that inspire everything from costumes to movies found around this time of year.  But, while most of these monsters are diabolical in their own right, there is no greater monster spread throughout pop culture and literature than the “man in black” himself; The Devil.  Whatever name he goes by (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub), the Devil is certainly an iconic monster without rival.  He is the antithesis to everything good, and the source of all evil in the world, which would make him the commander of all the other icons of Halloween given that description.  Though the origins of the Devil are varied in many different cultures over several millennia, the image we most commonly associate him with today comes from the Christian conception of the demon.  The Biblical devil would go on to influence the creation of Dante’s Inferno in the 13th Century; an epic poem that helped to build our modern day conception of Hell, the devil’s domain.  These two sources are what Hollywood usually draws their image of the devil from, though his purpose in many of his screen appearances is surprisingly varied.  Unlike other characters from the Bible, and from other cultural conceptions of the Devil, there is no set rules for the right or wrong way to depict him.  For the most part, he shows up in movies, books, and other forms of entertainment, purely to represent evil in it’s purest form.

Because of the open-endedness of how best to bring the Devil into one’s story, there are so many different and varied depictions of “old Nick” in movies throughout the years.  And it’s interesting how versatile a character he can be.  He can serve as an impartial judge of your sins in Ernest Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943); a granter of wishes in Bedazzled (1967); a client for a private eye in Angel Heart  (1987); a lovelorn cartoon character in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999); on the search for a mate in End of Days (1999); a seedy gangster in Constantine (2005); or even the source of a super hero’s power in Ghost Rider (2007).  And yet, even in all these different purposes in a variety of different movies, they all mostly fall back on the traditional image of the devil that we are all familiar with; clothed in black or red (or both), dark beard (usually pointy), and usually with horns on his head.  But, in rare occasions, movies will deviate from this image and hide the identity of the devil into someone or something unexpected.  In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), they even went as far as to depict the Devil as a compassionate little girl, leading that film’s Jesus Christ into the titular temptation, while he’s being crucified on the cross.  For this article, I have picked out some of the most notable versions of the Devil on film, both to show how his use on film has changed or not changed over the years, and to show the many variances we have seen of the character on the big screen.  So, delve down into the depths of Hollywood’s Hell and see the Devil in his most dastardly forms.

devil-chernabog

CHERNABOG from FANTASIA (1940)

Funny how one of the most vivid and compelling depictions ever of the Devil on the big screen comes from a film by Disney.  Found in the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Disney’s Fantasia, this Devil is as close to a traditional, Dante-esque version of the character you’ll ever see in any movie.  But, why does Disney give him the name Chernabog.  It’s not an attempt by the animation powerhouse to distance their character from a biblical source.  The credit for naming the creature was Disney animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, the man responsible for animating the character in the film.  Tytla drew from his Ukrainian heritage to produce what he needed for this segment, and in the folklore of his native country, there is a demon spirit known as the Chernabog, which is very equivalent to the Christian concept of the Devil, so he married the two into one unforgettable creation.  Tytla’s final animation of Chernabog is nothing short of amazing (something that animation experts still hold in high regard today).  Gargantuan and all powerful, you really get a sense that Chernabog is the master of all evil in the world from this sequence.  Though the segment has him do nothing more than rise ghosts and ghouls from their graves and make them perform dances in front of him, his menace is still palpable.  Whether he is the truest sense of the Devil or not, he certainly fits the bill alright.  He’s still to this day a favorite Disney villain to many, and why shouldn’t he be?  The winged beast has gone on to be a standard representation of how the Devil should commonly look visually, and many other movies have taken Disney’s lead on that.  Chernabog, over all others, brought the Devil his most epic of screen presences.

devil-and-daniel-webster

WALTER HUSTON from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)

Here we have a classic old Hollywood take on the Devil.  A contemporary retelling of the Faust legend, the movie tells the tale of a farmer who promises his soul to the devil in return for economic success.  After gaining a lot of wealth due to the wish granted by the Devil but little personal happiness, the farmer seeks to cut himself free of the contract and he enlists a lawyer named Daniel Webster to argue his case for him; although Webster himself is also under contract with the Devil.  Going by the name, Mr. Scratch, this cinematic version of the devil is fine example of how to convey his image without making it obvious.  Mr. Scratch, played in a wonderfully hammy way by Walter Huston (father of director John Huston), looks ordinary to anyone within the film, but the pointy, dark eyebrows, mangy goatee, and devilish grin make it clear to us who he really is.  I especially like the touch of the brim on his hat, turned up on the sides to give the impression of horns on his head.  What’s interesting about this version of the devil is that he’s not actively a force of evil, but instead one who capitalizes on the evil deeds of us mortals, merely supplying the means for our own destructive ends.  He’s manipulative to be sure, but this movie also states that it’s our own vices and greedy ambitions that give him his power.  It’s very different from the Biblical version of the Devil, who is a more active sower of discord.  Here, he’s just waiting for us to slip up so that he can collect what’s left of our souls, a reminder of which the movie leaves on, with Huston breaking the fourth wall and pointing directly at his audience in the movie’s haunting final shot.

devil-legend

TIM CURRY from LEGEND (1986)

While the previous example I shared only suggested the image of the Devil, this version leaves nothing out.  When anyone asks what the Devil should look like, this is probably going to be the first image that comes to mind.  So, it’s interesting that this particular character has nothing to do with the traditional Devil found in scripture.  The character here, known simply as Darkness, merely adopts the look of Satan, though he might as well be him, given his place within the story.  Ridley Scott’s quintessentially 80’s fairy tale adventure features the character of Darkness as the master of all evil in the realm, so the Satanic persona fits very well.  The movie is mostly hit or miss; the 80’s cheese has nostalgic value, but Tom Cruise in the role of an elfish forest child is a little odd.  But, Tim Curry’s performance as Darkness is nothing short of amazing.  For one thing, you have to respect the time he put into getting all that makeup applied to his face, and then acting through it all.  Curry is without a doubt the highlight of the movie and the demonic vision that he and the makeup team has created is nightmare inducing.  The sharp, grotesque features of his face are enough, but the over the top gigantic horns and burning yellow eyes make him all the more frightening.  This is a very romanticized version of the Devil put on screen; beauty in the twisted and profane.  He’s also a very sexualized version of the devil, preying on the heroine in a predatory way, and yet persuasive in his deception.  While re-purposed for a different kind of fairy tale, this version of the Devil is probably cinema’s most dynamic recreation to date, giving us the iconic image in all it’s glory with an actor and design team inspired enough to pull it off.

devil-eastwick

JACK NICHOLSON from THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)

Let’s face it; it was going to be inevitable that an actor like Jack Nicholson was going to play the Devil some day in a film.  No stranger to playing the bad guy in movies (the Joker in Batman) nor a stranger to horror films either (The Shining), Jack Nicholson just seems tailor made to play the Master of everything evil in the movies.  So, naturally the chance finally came along to play the Devil in George Miller’s dark comedy, The Witches of Eastwick.  The film centers on three women in a small New England town (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher) who encounter a mysterious newcomer named Daryl Van Horne (Nicholson).  Daryl buys the mansion on the outskirt of town and invites each of the women there, and through their encounters, each discovers their own powers and become witches.  But, gaining the powers only isolates them from the rest of the town, and soon they devise a way to turn their powers against him.  This is a very different take on the Devil that we’ve seen to this point, and one that’s suited more towards the persona of the actor playing him.  In this film, the Devil is a suave, playboy manipulator; ensnaring beautiful women through gifts and empowerment while at the same time, collecting their souls.  Jack’s performance as Daryl is naturally within his wheelhouse, easily slippng into the charismatic playboy that the character must be.  His performance stays strong even after that polished veneer is lifted once the witches turn their magic against him.  Nicholson becoming unhinged towards the end, revealing more of the demon inside, is definitely one of the film’s highlights, especially the now famous “Women” monologue speech he delivers.  The Devil himself couldn’t have made that moment any better.

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AL PACINO from THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (1997)

Just as inevitable as Jack Nicholson playing the Devil in a movie, we have also seen Al Pacino fill the role on the big screen.  His version comes in a considerably darker film, co-starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron.  In The Devil’s Advocate, the Devil fills a very different role than we’ve seen before, which is that of a litigator.  The souls he collects are not random victims, but rather clients, all of whom wish for the best defense that money can buy.  But, it’s not them that this version of the Devil seeks the most; it’s Keanu Reeve’s hot shot lawyer that he wants under his power.  Al Pacino is an actor with two different modes; either he’s very reserved and collected, or he’s wildly over the top insane, and by God he uses both modes here.  The movie itself is a bit too dour and bleak at times, but Al steals every scene he is in, giving it the manic energy it needs.  The climax of the movie, where Pacino’s Devil reveals his true nature and ambitions, gives the actor the free reign to do whatever he wants and it is a gloriously unhinged scene.  His “I’m a fan of man” speech is ridiculously over the top, but it feels appropriate given who this is.  What I like about this version of the character is that, like Mr. Scratch from The Devil and Daniel Webster, he’s a Devil that preys on man’s own misbehavior, and that his power is only possible by misdeeds of our own sins.  As he states in the movie, vanity is his favorite sin, because serving solely in one’s self interest leads to every other bad deed in the book.  It’s no mistake that this Devil goes by the name of John Milton, the same moniker of the author of Paradise Lost, another parable about ambition gone wrong.  It was a masterstroke getting Al Pacino on board for this movie, and while the movie is sometimes boring, Al never disappoints.

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ROSALINDA CELENTANO from THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)

Here we return to the more biblical version of the Devil, with Satan present in this retelling of Christ’s crucifixion.  While Mel Gibson’s hyper violent film is polarizing to this day, I think that one thing that does earn universal praise is it’s very vivid portrayal of Satan.  Though Satan’s role in the story has it’s roots in biblical text, with the spirit hovering around in Jesus’ mind as he is tempted to give up his sacrificial plans, the visual representation of the character is somewhat unique.  Instead of following the traditional image of the character popular in pop culture, with the horns and goatee, Gibson instead cast a female model in the role.  There could be many different factors related to this.  One, Gibson wanted to cast against type, thinking that the audience would expect someone who obviously looked liked the Devil we all know, and instead surprise us with this evil spirit in the form of something beautiful.  Though she is beautiful, there is still something off about her, with missing eyebrows and cold stare; it’s still clear that there is menace behind the beauty.  Secondly, and this is my own interpretation, I believe that Satan appears in this form in the movie to represent a twisted perversion of the purest thing in Jesus’ life, which is the love of his mother, Mary.  Gibson seems to back up this idea at one point in the movie when we see Satan holding in one scene what looks like a child, but it turns out to be a grotesque looking demon; done as if to taunt Jesus during his suffering.  Rosalinda Celentano fills the role perfectly and gives the Devil a very unsettling portrayal here, cold and unforgiving, and yet magnetic at the same time.  Of all the evil acts that Christ suffers in this movie, none feels more potent than the sinister voice over his shoulder telling him that all his suffering is futile.

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TOM WAITS from THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009)

Considerably lighter in tone than The Passion’s version of the Devil, here we have Satan imagined in a different type of persona; that of a gambler.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is notable mostly for being the film that actor Heath Ledger was in the middle of shooting before his untimely death, leaving his performance unfinished.  Director Terry Gilliam managed to finish the film with all of Ledger’s footage intact, thanks to the help of some A-List actors filling out the remaining scenes.  But, apart from the off screen dilemma with the film’s lead, the movie has one standout supporting performance from singer Tom Waits as the Devil.  His version of the Devil is much less malicious in his actions and is more interested in stirring the pot to work things in his favor.  In particular, he has an invested interest in besting the mystical Doctor Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer), and claiming the soul of his daughter.  For him, the misdeeds of mankind are all a game, and he’s solely interested in seeing more lost souls coming his way.  He strangely allows Parnassus a shot at determining his own fate, and when the Devil ultimately wins in the movie, it leaves him strangely unsatisfied, as if he actually feels bad about seeing the Doctor lose everything.  A rare case of sympathy from the devil.  Waits is an ideal choice for the part, keeping the character foreboding when he needs to be, but quirky at the same time.  With the bowler hat and ratty looking tuxedo, his costume definitely supports that gambler aspect of his character perfectly; making him the underworld’s top mafioso.  Considering Waits own fascination with the Dark One in his music (a common theme) he delivers enough credibility to the character to make him far more interesting and likable than he normally would.

Hollywood certainly has gotten their mileage out of this character over the years and he will most certainly be around for a long time still.  Horror remains a potent genre in film-making and to present the highest form of evil incarnate on screen, the Devil will have to be involved in some shape or form.  But, even beyond the Horror genre, there are still surprising ways to work the presence of the Devil into your stories.  As shown above, the Devil can be a part of fantasy (Legend), in a comedy (The Witches of Eastwick), in a religious film (The Passion), a psychological thriller (The Devil’s Advocate) and even be a part of an animated musical (Fantasia).  Whether he’s a trickster, a manipulator, or the harbinger of the world’s end, there are countless possibilities with how to use him.  I think that the Devil works best as a character in movies when the film moves away from the traditional image of the horned demon and portrays him as something different, although Tim Curry’s Darkness from Legend pulls off the traditional look to utter perfection.  Other versions like Jack Nicholson’s Daryl and Al Pacino’s John Milton are able to convey the embodiment of the Devil, without ever having to resort to the pitchfork and horns.  These along with the memorable portrayal of Satan in The Passion show that the Devil doesn’t have to look scary in order to be scary.  Just the idea that this is a being that has power and influence over us mortals is a scary enough idea alone, and that’s what gives the character such a strong presence in any big screen appearance he makes.  As far as Halloween icons go, few can generate a sense of terror the same way as the Devil does.

Evolution of Character – Wyatt Earp

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In my last article for this series, I highlighted Queen Elizabeth I, a real historical figure that has enjoyed many varied depictions on the big screen.  In this article, I chose to highlight yet another subject from history, but from a decidedly different era altogether. The American West has given the world many fascinating figures of legend , whether real, fictional, or a combination of both.  Larger than life characters like Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and “Buffalo” Bill Cody have all achieved immortality within folklore and later through cinematic adaptation.  But if there was one that stood out as the most prolific, it would be legendary U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp.  Born in 1848, Earp worked all across the American frontier, but once he arrived in the town of Dodge City, Kansas, he fell into the role that would eventually define him; that of a lawman.  After a semi-successful career in Dodge City (where he would meet one of his most trusted associates, John “Doc” Holliday), Earp took up the head U.S. Marshall position at a boomtown in the Arizona Territory called Tombstone, and it was here that he would become a legend.  The moment that defined his life and career came on October 26, 1881, when Earp, Holliday, and two of Earp’s brothers faced down the Clanton gang at the Tombstone O.K. Corral, which led to the most famous gunfight in U.S. history.  In the end, the cowboy gang was slaughtered and Earp’s posse was triumphant.  The incident became the basis for so many Western legends since.  Naturally, Wyatt Earp makes for an ideal Western hero, and Hollywood has revisited his story many times on the big screen.  In this article, I will take a look at how that legendary image translated to cinema and endured over the years as the genre itself had changed.

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RANDOLPH SCOTT in FRONTIER MARSHALL (1939)

Wyatt Earp’s standoff at the O.K. Corral had been recreated many times over in the silent era of film, but in the era of talkies, Hollywood didn’t get around to adapting his story until this feature.  In the role of Earp, the filmmakers cast rising star Randolph Scott, an actor who would come to define the Western genre in the years since.  Though Scott plays the role of a frontier lawman well enough, the problem is that the character he depicts in the movie shares nothing with the real Wyatt Earp other than just his name.  The movie Frontier Marshall doesn’t portray the story of Wyatt Earp so much as it appropriates it into the formulaic Western narrative that it wanted to tell.  Here, Earp is as interchangeable as any other Western hero from that time period.  The film even rewrites the famous O.K. corral scene, portraying it as a lone standoff between Earp and the outlaw cowboys.  Doc Holliday (portrayed here by Cesar Romero) is not present in that moment like he was in real life; something that would be rectified in future adaptations. Despite Hollywood playing loosely with the real life facts behind the story, Scott still leaves a serviceable impression as the legendary lawman.  In the role, you can see the makings of the genre icon that he would eventually become.  Because of that, you can excuse the fact that he also doesn’t look much like the real Earp as well, missing the trademark mustache.  Eventually, though, Hollywood would recognize that the real life Gunfight was due for an accurate portrayal.

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HENRY FONDA in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)

As the Western genre matured, so did the attempts to adapt the life of Wyatt Earp as well.  Fun fact: Wyatt Earp lived long enough to see the early cinematic adaptations of his legendary gunfight being filmed, and on one occasion, Earp visited a set where a young director by the name of John Ford was working.  Many years after that encounter, Ford would bring the story of Wyatt Earp to the big-screen in what many consider to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  For one thing, the casting of Henry Fonda couldn’t be more perfect.  The dashing leading man gives the role a dignified air, and while at times he can be a bit too stoic in the role, Fonda nevertheless delivers on making Earp a beloved hero worth rooting for.  They also got the look right, with Fonda sporting the trademark mustache for the role.  The gunfight in particular is perfectly staged; intense and suspenseful.  The buildup to the climatic moment is what really makes it a standout, building quietly without music and minimal dialogue.  It’s a mastery of direction that you would only find from the genre’s definitive director, John Ford.  In addition, the movie also finds time for the other members of Earp’s posse, with Victor Mature lending great support as Doc Holliday as well as from Ward Bond and Tim Holt as the Earp brothers.  But make no mistake, it’s Fonda that really carries this movie, making Wyatt Earp the idealized lawman; pure in his intentions and steadfast in his resolve.  The image of Earp sitting on the front porch of his office, with one leg raised up against a pillar as he looks down the street has since become one of the most iconic images of the Western genre, and it’s a moment that only a great artist like Ford could pull off.

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JOEL MCCREA in WICHITA (1955)

When the genre entered the 1950’s, the Western became a perfect showcase for the new widescreen process.  Naturally, with the wider canvas, Hollywood wanted to show off the Western frontier in a big way and they drew once again from some of the most legendary stories in the genre.  Wyatt Earp was once again chosen as an ideal subject for this new era of Westerns, but Wichita did something very different with the character, and that was to portray the early years of the man’s life instead of the most defining ones in Tombstone.  In this film, we are introduced to Earp during his time as a cattle rustler in Kansas.  As the film shows, the young Earp runs afoul of bandits and other outlaw cowboys making life hard for the people of Wichita, and through these encounters, it leads him down the road to becoming a marshal of law in the small town.  It’s an interesting look into Earp’s early years, seeing the events that would eventually lead him down the road to the man he would become.  Unfortunately the movie also has the disadvantage of not being too historically accurate.  It was in Dodge City that Earp finally became marshal; not Wichita, where he was only a deputy.  Also, Earp was in his mid twenties during his time in Wichita, so casting middle-aged Joel McCrea in the role seems a little off.  Despite this, McCrea is perfectly serviceable in the role, giving Earp a rugged sternness that works well enough.  The widescreen panoramas are also beautiful to look at, capturing the beauty of the American Prairie wonderfully.  Overall, this movie does offer up an interestingly different side to the legend of Wyatt Earp, showing his beginnings rather than just relying on showing us his most famous moment yet again.

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BURT LANCASTER in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957)

A couple years later, the legendary gunfight would also be revisited on the big screen, only this time, portrayed with a more gritty tone.  The interesting thing about this version of the story is that it gives equal attention to both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  The moving stars longtime friends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Earp and Holliday respectfully, and it’s easy to see their comraddery translate perfectly into this film.  Lancaster makes a natural choice for Earp, though they interestingly left the mustache off this time.  He gives the character a nice hard edge, making him both trustworthy, but also intimidating at the same time.  But, Kirk Douglas steals the spotlight here as the slick Holliday, and their conflicts on screen generate the best moments on screen.  The climatic titular battle is also legendary, supposedly shot over a full week just for six minutes of screen-time.  Director John Sturges illustrated his skill as a filmmaker with his spectacular recreation of this scene.  You feel the power of ever gunshot as a viewer and for the first time ever, you see the carnage of the event portrayed without diluting the impact.  Physically imposing Lancaster would stand for many years after as the standard for the character, maybe not so much in physicality, but certainly in terms of personality.  Earp would in the years ahead move away from the purer image seen in My Darling Clementine, and instead become the more tough as nails version that Lancaster portrayed him to be, and that would indeed be a good thing considering how the Western genre changed over time.

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JAMES GARNER in HOUR OF THE GUN (1967)

Years after Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, John Sturges once again returned to Wyatt Earp as a subject, only this time from a different angle.  Instead of rehashing the legendary gunfight again, Sturges chose to show what happened afterwards; portraying the later years of Earp’s life as he deals with the consequences of his actions.  This makes an interesting companion piece with Wichita, as that movie showed the origins of a legend, this movie likewise shows his deconstruction in the years after the moment that would define his life.  Hour of the Gun came at a time when the Western genre was going through a big change, as the genre was less interested in glamorizing the violence of the old West and instead was looking more introspectively into the grim realities of Western life.  In this movie, Earp’s triumphant shootout is shown to be just the beginning of a continuing nightmare, as retribution comes back and Earp must face the reality that his duty as lawman puts a bulls-eye on him at all times.  The film shows him cleaning up the remaining Clanton gang with his friend Holliday (portrayed here by Jason Robards), and the hunt proves to be even more perilous than the shootout he faced before.  Replacing Lancaster as Earp this time was TV’s Maverick himself, James Garner.  Garner gives the character of Wyatt Earp a nice vulnerability that you rarely see in other versions.  Here, Earp questions his abilities and yet never loses his resolve to serve the law, and it makes for a nice rounded portrayal.  And thankfully the mustache makes a return here.  It’s a nice look into how a person deals with the consequences of accomplishing a legendary act and how that may be harder than anyone might expect.

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KURT RUSSELL in TOMBSTONE (1993)

As Hollywood moved into the blockbuster era, the Western genre would also leave the gritty and introspective mood of the 60’s and 70’s, once again returning to the over-the-top spectacle that it once was.  Wyatt Earp’s story would be given such a treatment in this classic retelling that has since become a beloved hit among Western fans.  Let’s be clear, Tombstone is not a subtle movie by any means.  Anyone looking for a true to life portrayal of the events surrounding the legendary gunfight should look elsewhere.  Still, this larger than life approach is exactly what makes this movie so good.  Kurt Russell portrays the legendary Marshall, and it is by far my favorite version of this character.  Russell manages to balance the two sides of Earp perfectly; the charming, straight-narrowed man of the law as well as the ruthless, sometimes unhinged gunfighter.  Russell gives Earp a ferociousness little seen in other versions of the character, and that makes this portrayal especially great to watch.  I especially love the scene where Earp’s posse is ambushed at a watering hole, and Earp begins to lose his mind and take on the entire team of outlaws himself.  This moment in particular also has what is perhaps the greatest utterance of the word “NO” ever put on screen.  Russell isn’t the only great thing in the movie though, and in fact, his Earp is actually somewhat underdeveloped in relation to other characters.  The spotlight in the movie actually belongs to the scene stealing Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, making it the best version of that character we’ve ever seen.  Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot are also solid as Earp’s brothers, as is Stephen Lang as the leader of the Clanton gang.  Few other re-tellings of the legendary gunfight have as much cinematic fun with the events as this one does, and though it may be over-the-top, it’s done in a way that actually elevates the legend rather than deter from it.

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KEVIN COSTNER in WYATT EARP (1994)

The year following Tombstone, we received another movie about the legendary lawman, this time from Director Lawrence Kasdan and star Kevin Costner.  While most films about Wyatt Earp kept focus on the famous O.K. Corral gunfight and it’s participants, this movie chooses instead to tell the full breadth of Earp’s life, from his early days in Kansas to his final days in California.  It’s an ambitious film, clocking in a little over 3 hours, and it does a noble attempt of trying to give Earp’s life an epic overview.  Unfortunately, such a broad canvas also makes this film feel unfocused and a little stale at times.  There’s a reason why previous films focused on just certain events in Earp’s life, because they were the moments that revealed the most about who Wyatt Earp really was.  Portraying the full scope of the man’s life and career only diminishes these moments because they become only parts of the whole, rather than the standouts.  Still, the movie is not bad and Costner does alright as Earp, even if it is kind of one-note.  What I do praise, however, is the portrayal of the legendary gunfight.  This film presents what is probably the most historically accurate portrayal of this moment.  In reality, the gunfight lasted only 30 seconds, according to eyewitnesses.  Wyatt Earp recreates that precisely, showing the shootout as the ugly, quick-bursting killing spree that it probably was in real life; not glamorizing the moment one bit; instead showing the brutality of it.  For that attention to detail, I do commend the movie for at least seeking to be true to history.  Still, we’ve seen better in the Western genre from both Kasdan (Silverado) and Costner (Dances With Wolves, Open Range), and Wyatt Earp stands as a very flawed, but noble take on the legend.  It may have hit a note a little harder had Tombstone  not outshone it a year before, but that’s how we judge movies in the Western genre in general.  The legends tend to be more fun to watch than the real history.

It’s clear that Wyatt Earp has been a resilient figure in the Western genre over the years, and whether or not the movies represent a historically accurate portrait of the man, it’s nevertheless clear that he’s left an impact.  You can see the influence of Wyatt Earp in every heroic fictional Western lawman from Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane in High Noon (1952) to Adam Cartwright in TV’s Bonanza.  The legendary O.K. Corral gunfight has also become the inspiration for pretty much every shootout ever portrayed in cinema, even in the revisionist Spaghetti Westerns.  But, it all shows how one moment of destiny can turn any ordinary individual into a legend for all time.  Wyatt Earp may not have been the greatest lawman the West has ever known, but his story (embellished or not) has over time become the quintessential representation of everything that we love about the Westerns.  I think that when Wyatt Earp’s story is presented in it’s most idealized form, like with My Darling Clementine and Tombstone, it makes for the best Western.  Even still, Wyatt EarpGunfight at the O.K. Corral and Hour of the Gun also do a serviceable job of building on the legend as well.   Whether or not the real Wyatt Earp was like his cinematic portrayals is beside the point now.  Just like with how we look at the Founding Fathers of our country, we focus more on the legacy that men like Wyatt Earp leave behind, rather than taking a hard look at the person that they really were.  The Western genre is built around idealized heroes and Earp fit that image perfectly.  Had he not come out of that pivotal gunfight unscathed, Westerns today would look very different.

Evolution of Character – Queen Elizabeth I

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Whenever we’ve seen a character reappear in multiple cinematic treatments over the years, it’s usually a character out of fiction.  Fictional characters, particularly from classic literature, enjoy long histories of successful reinterpretations partly because their adaptations merely have to stay true to the character while at the same time being a little more care free with their role in the story or their place of existence.  That’s why we’ve sometimes seen Sherlock Holmes in modern day, or Robin Hood with an all animal cast, or even Romeo and Juliet as either arctic seals or garden gnomes.  But, sometimes Hollywood returns time and again to a character of a different type; that of a real historical figure.  Though not as common, we do sometimes see historical people interpreted in multiple films in many varied ways.  Albeit, the uses of a historical character in a film is more restricted than that of a fictional character, considering that the real history behind the character has to be accounted for.  But, whether they are the center of a true life story, or a background historical element in a work of pure fiction, it is interesting to see how some historical figures are portrayed in different ways on the big and small screens.  It also takes a special, larger than life figure to make it into multiple cinematic treatments and that’s why great leaders and monarchs are the ones who usually turn up in so many movies.  You can point to famous American presidents like Abraham Lincoln, or legendary commanders like Julius Caesar as historical figures who’ve turned up multiple times.  But, the most common example of reoccurring historical characters in cinema would be historical kings or queen of Merry Old England, and none more so than the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth the First.

Queen Elizabeth I is one of history’s most revered monarchs, and her reign is considered one of the most pivotal in English history.  The second daughter of Henry VIII, Elizabeth would rise to the throne in 1533 after the short but brutal reign of her half-sister Queen Mary, whom the Protestant rebels who opposed the Catholic monarch dubbed “Bloody Mary.”Elizabeth restored the Protestant reforms of her father as well as reconciled the religious rift in her country and rallied her people together against outside invading forces from France and Spain.  All the while she became a strong patron of the arts and a savvy stateswoman, leading England into a long period of wealth, culture and prosperity that historians now dub “The Golden Age” of English history.  But, beyond her amazing accomplishments, she is also a fascinating character and personality.  She was forward thinking in many ways that few of her male peers we’re at the time, particularly in her interest of exploration of the recently discovered New World.  Because of her, we have to this day a State called Virginia, named in her honor. In many ways, Elizabeth has made an ideal figure for classic romances, because few other woman have held as much power as her in history.  That power dynamic she wields has made her an endlessly fascinating character in many films, and as such, I’ve chosen to highlight a few of her more notable appearances on the big and small screens and see how the iconic image of the Virgin Queen has evolved over the years on film.

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BETTE DAVIS in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939)

This was the most notable portrayals of Elizabeth in the early days of cinema, and the filmmakers could not have found an actress better suited for the part than Ms. Davis.  All-American Bette Davis may not have struck people today as the obvious choice to play the iconic English queen, but one only has to look at the finished product in the film and you’ll see her completely transformed.  Lusciously directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers in beautiful Technicolor, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex portrays the often tumultuous love affair between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn).  It’s an old-fashioned, but still engaging classic period drama, and Bette Davis is absolutely the crowning jewel of it all.  She masters the regal-ness of the character, but at the same time explores her humanity in a captivating way.  And the work she put into transforming herself into Elizabeth is remarkable.  She actually had the make-up department shave off her eyebrows and part of her forehead in order to match the image of Elizabeth that we have from her portraits.  Now that’s a commitment to a role that you’ll rarely find in classic Hollywood.  Interesting enough, Bette Davis would return to the role of Queen Elizabeth many years later in the Cinemascope epic The Virgin Queen (1955).  That film isn’t quite as passionate and introspective as this version, but Davis again doesn’t disappoint and the film is worth seeing just for her performance alone.  Overall, for Elizabeth to become an iconic character in the early days of cinema, all Hollywood needed was to give the role to one of their ow reigning Queens, and it was a beautiful match indeed.

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JEAN SIMMONS in YOUNG BESS (1953)

Taking an entirely different view on the life of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Bess portrays the early years of Elizabeth, showing her ascension from princess to reigning monarch.  This film, however, is a little more “Hollywood” than previous versions of this story have been.  By “Hollywood,” I mean that it tacks on an entire romantic subplot that has no basis in history.  As Elizabeth grows into adulthood, she contends with a love triangle between her, the Queen Cathrine Parr(Deborah Kerr) and the dashing Sir Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger).  Suffice to say, this is purely fictional and has no basis in real history.  Also, the reign of Queen Mary is completely ignored here; Elizabeth follows her brother Edward immediately in succession.  But, despite the historical inaccuracies, the film does attempt to give Elizabeth a dignified portrayal.  Jean Simmons is fine in the role, giving young Bess a sense of the weight of the responsibilities she must hold, while at the same time giving her the innocence of someone who has yet to carry the burden of her position.  Her performance can sometimes feel a little too naive, but Simmons is not a bad actress by any means and she does do the image of the Queen a lot of honor.  Not much is known of Elizabeth’s formative years, but Jean Simmons does portray a believable idea of what the one day Queen might have been like in that time.  Also of note in this film is the casting of Charles Laughton in the role of Henry VIII; a character which he had won an Oscar for playing  nearly 20 years prior in the Alexander Korda produced film, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

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GLENDA JACKSON in ELIZABETH R miniseries (1971)

Elizabeth was a favorite figure for classic Hollywood, but of course her native country of England has also brought her story to life many times as well.  Though there have been many British films centered around the life of Elizabeth I, perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive of them all would be this BBC produced miniseries for television.  Though lacking in the sumptuousness of a big screen production values, Elizabeth R more than makes up for it with it’s attention to the detail of the period and the people who inhabit it.  And at the center of it all is two time Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson.  Jackson may not be as well known to audiences today, but in the late 60’s and early 70’s, she was the “It Girl” of the time, winning numerous accolades and earning enormous respect from critics and audiences alike.  And then, she walked away from acting completely, instead choosing to pursue a life in politics, which helped her towards a long career as a Member of Parliament.  That political fervor that Glenda Jackson had in real life is well reflected in her portrayal of Elizabeth here.  Elizabeth R shows the Queen at her most commanding, effectively showing us the true might that the real Elizabeth might have wielded during her reign.  The lengthy production also gives us a complete portrait of Elizabeth’s life, both the highs and the lows.  It’s an interesting production, and Glenda Jackson gives a captivating performance.  Perhaps Jackson’s closeness to the character inspired where she would go next with her life, but if not, it’s a strong reminder of the power she had as a performer, which reflects well in the role of a Queen.

queen elizabeth cate blanchett

CATE BLANCHETT in ELIZABETH (1998) and ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007)

Here we find the marriage between real history and cinematic pageantry fully on display.  Directed by Indian born director Shekhar Kapur, Elizabeth and it’s sequel attempt to portray the life of the Queen with an emphasis on it’s visuals.  These are some very beautiful movies, photographed by British cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, but at times the visuals become a little too showy and distract from the drama that’s supposed to be grabbing our attention; this is more true in the sequel than the original.  Had the central role of Elizabeth been played by a less talented actress, this movie would have easily slumped into the “style over substance” category.  Thankfully, the film has one of the best actresses of our time in the role.  Cate Blanchett fits the role of Elizabeth like a glove and gives a commanding performance that stands out among all the pageantry.  She justly was nominated for her performance in both movies, and her mastery of both the character and her place within this world are remarkable.  Physically, she looks the part as well.  With her sharp features and pale skin, it’s almost as if she’s walked right out of a portrait of the Queen itself.  She also commands our attention through every regal speech she gives, playing the queen as both regal and aloof, depending on the situation she’s in.  This was also the film that introduced the Aussie actress to the world at large, so we can be thankful for that.  Had Cate not been a part of this film, I don’t think it would have worked out as well as it did, so it just shows how important it is to get the right actress for the part. For one of the more luscious productions set around the life of Elizabeth, with a truly great performance at it’s center, this will be one to seek out.

JUDI DENCH in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Released in the same year as Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth, we find a film with an entirely different take on the famed Queen.  Here we find a portrayal of Elizabeth in her latter years, slowed down by age, but no less intimidating in her command over her subjects.  The movie of course is more centered around the life of William Shakespeare (played here by Joseph Fiennes) and is a largely fictional tale about a private romance between the Bard and a noble maiden (Gwyneth Paltrow) that inspired the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  Now, some have argued that this movie unfairly robbed Saving Private Ryan of the Best Picture Oscar, and I’m not going to lie, I find myself in that camp too.  This film is delightful and entertaining, but Best Picture worthy?  I don’t think so.  What is less arguable though is the praise given to the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in this movie, brought to vivid life by the great Dame Judi Dench.  Dench appears in only seven minutes total in the film, but my God does she make the most of those seven minutes.  Her Elizabeth is a force of nature, both intimidating and alluring all at the same time; and also surprisingly funny.  I especially love a bit in the movie where she waits for the men of her court to lay down their cloaks over a puddle for her to walk over, but then she gets impatient and walks across anyway, yelling back at them “too late.”  Dench deserved her Oscar for the role, and the movie is blessed with her presence.  She perfectly portrays the image of a Queen who has the experience behind her and the knowledge of how to wield power, and she steals every scene she’s in.

queen elizabeth helen mirren

HELEN MIRREN in ELIZABETH I miniseries (2005)

Helen Mirren holds the unique distinction of having played both Queen Elizabeths in her career.  She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006), and she played Elizabeth I here in this joint BBC/HBO production, directed by Tom Hopper of The King’s Speech (2010) fame.  This miniseries portrays the queen in middle age, focusing mostly on two private affairs that shaped her life during this period; those being the one’s she had with the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons) and the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), who ultimately betrayed her.  What this miniseries manages to accomplish is to show the influence that Elizabeth’s private life had on her ability to govern, showing the way it built her character.  Mirren of course is more than capable of assuming the role, and perhaps more than any actress before her, she managed to convey the person that Elizabeth was, rather than just capture her image.  Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett commanded in the role before, but their performances tended to be in service to the pageantry.  Here the pageantry takes a back seat to the performance, and Helen Mirren creates a vivid portrait of a woman burdened by the responsibilities of her position and how that takes a toll on her over time.  This miniseries gives the best sense of how Elizabeth’s daily life might of been, and how the necessities of her duty as ruler often conflicted with her desires as a person, and how that conflict would sometimes lead her astray.  Naturally, one of England’s greatest modern actress could so effectively find the woman behind the icon, and Helen Mirren’s performance as Elizabeth I is one of the most natural we’ve seen.

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VANESSA REDGRAVE in ANONYMOUS (2011)

This portrayal of the famed Queen is one of the more problematic, not to mention one of the most insulting to history.  Anonymous is a portrayal of the conspiracy theory espoused by the Anti-Strattfordian movement that claims that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays, and that the true author was a nobleman by the name of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  Naturally, a tale about Shakespeare would involve Queen Elizabeth in some way (given her patronage of Shakespeare’s work during that time), and this movie makes the ludicrous claim that not only was Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) a bastard child born from Elizabeth, but that he would go on to unknowingly have an incestuous relationship with her many years later.  Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.  The film was directed by disaster movie king Roland Emmerich, and it’s about as unsubtle and factually reckless as his blockbusters like 2012 (2009) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).  But, perhaps the film’s greatest fault is how it trashes these real historical figures in service of a bogus narrative that purely exists to indulge this insane conspiracy theory.  And worst of all, it wastes the talents of a legendary actress like Vanessa Redgrave.  Here we find Elizabeth at her most corrupt and lecherous.  This is by far the ugliest portrayal of the Queen, showing her as a creepy old woman blind to the sins of her past.  Vanessa Redgrave can do a whole lot better, and could have given Elizabeth a more dignified portrayal, even as a corrupt monarch.  Sadly, this movie gives her nothing to work with, other than to indulge the lunacy of the director’s theories, and it is by far the last place where you’ll find a fitting portrayal of the iconic Queen.

Whether she has been the subject of a true, historical retelling, or part of the background in a work of complete fiction, Elizabeth I has held an interesting place in cinematic history.  What I find interesting about all these different versions is that the role of Queen Elizabeth has belonged almost exclusively to the best actresses throughout film history.  From Bette Davis, to Glenda Jackson, to Cate Blanchett and to Helen Mirren, each one is regarded among the best in their class.  In fact, of all the actresses I highlighted, only one of them had never won an Academy Award in her lifetime (Jean Simmons).  Some of these performances stand out more than others; Bette Davis is the showiest of the bunch, while Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren are the more intimate.  And Judi Dench’s portrayal in Shakespeare in Love is in a realm all it’s own.  I also think that those interested should check out Glenda Jackson’s work in Elizabeth R; it’s a little drier than the rest, but no less fascinating.  Part of why we love the presence of Queen Elizabeth in the movies of course is because of the performers playing the part, but it’s also because Elizabeth remains a fascinating figure to this day.  Not only was she a unique player in history (a Queen who wielded enormous influence at a time when few women were allowed positions of power), but her legacy would define the period that she lived in.  All these portrayals do an acceptable job of portraying the woman behind the icon (except Anonymous, but that’s not Mrs. Redgrave’s fault).  Hopefully future portrayals continue to delve deeper into this historical tale and make the legendary Queen come alive once again.