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Evolution of Character – Pinocchio

Few characters seem so perfectly suited for the medium of cinema than Pinocchio, the little wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy.  First created by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, the story of Pinocchio was intended to be a morality tale meant to teach young children to be better behaved.  Pinocchio’s journey is defined by his experiences encountering the dangerous world outside his home and gaining the insight into what is right and wrong, often through some personal trauma.  For example, whenever he tells a lie, his nose will grow, making the lie plain as the nose on his face.  To a child reading this story, something as disturbing as that will certainly make you think twice about lying too much.  In addition to that, Pinocchio is also confronted with disturbing realities such as human trafficking and torture during his journey to return back to the comfort of home and family.  And central to getting Pinocchio on the right track in life is his warm hearted, woodcarver father Geppetto, as well as a cricket companion who quite literally is the embodiment of his conscience.  One thing that has made Pinocchio a tad bit difficult to bring to the silver screen is surprisingly not the magical element that brought the little puppet to life but rather the dark nature of Collodi’s original story.  Pinocchio’s story is a harsh one, and it puts the lovable puppet boy in harms way to the point of sometimes nightmarish scenarios, from the exploitation put upon him by abusive scam artists to being eaten by a ferocious sea monster.  But, he nonetheless he has had a profound presence on the big screen and what follows are some of the most noteworthy in his long cinematic history.


It’s not at all surprising that one of the earliest cinematic works from the nation of Italy would be an adaptation of one of their most imaginative literary works.  This version of Pinocchio’s story is pretty sparse given the limitations of filmmaking at the time, basically just touching upon the basics of the story.  Even still, there are some imaginative elements put into the filming of this movie, with a lot of the magical elements feeling very much borrowed from a theatrical adaptation of the story.  One thing that this movie surprisingly would influence on future adaptations is having the world of Pinocchio being inhabited with human and animal hybrid characters, albeit played by actors in shabby looking masks.  With regards to Pinocchio himself, French born performer Polidor does a decent job of bringing Pinocchio to life.  Sure, you’ve got to get around the image of a grown man portraying what is supposed to be a child, but Polidor (tapping into his vaudevillian background) does carry the energy to make the character entertaining enough.  Of course, given the limitations of the medium at the time, this movie can’t quite get across the magic element of Pinocchio being a wooden puppet brought to life, or more specifically, getting across that he is actually made of wood.  That of course is something that future adaptations would find a way to achieve.  It should also be noted that this was once considered a lost film until it was miraculously rediscovered in a Milan vault in 1994, which has helped to keep this century old first appearance of the character preserved for audiences today.


When you mention the name of Pinocchio to anyone, this is likely the version that will first come to mind.  After changing the world of cinema forever with his first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), it was a bit surprising that Walt Disney chose Pinocchio as his follow-up.  American audiences were not as familiar with the Italian morality tale as they were with the Grimm’s brothers morality tales that Disney had used for many of their film adaptations.  But in the hands of the artists at the Disney Studios, that would certainly change.  Disney’s Pinocchio is absolutely one of the finest animated films that has ever been made, and the story of the little wooden boy is just a natural fit for the animated medium.  For one thing, they can actually have Pinocchio act like an actual marionette puppet without strings.  And while the animation can make Pinocchio feel truly made out of wood, what makes the character endearing is the voice that he is given.  Walt Disney wisely cast a real young actor to play the role, that being a then 10 year old Dickie Jones.  Dickie just has the perfect innocent inflection on all of his lines, at times being humorously naïve while at the same time giving the conviction of humanity in his performance when the movie calls for it.  Disney certainly didn’t create the character, but they certainly made him their own and their version of Pinocchio remains the gold standard to this day.  The same goes for the story that they tell, which does depart greatly from Collodi’s original text, but is still surprisingly dark and mature for a Disney movie.  Even after over 80 years, Disney’s Pinocchio is unmatched in artistry and storytelling, bringing out the full potential of the magic within Collodi’s story, wishing upon a star and making dreams truly come true.


Given just how iconic Disney’s Pinocchio is as a character, it might surprise you that he’s not the only animated version of the character to make it to the big screen.  Thanks to Pinocchio entering the public domain in the 1980’s, more animation studios were freed up to make their own Pinocchio films without running into Disney’s hold onto the cinematic rights that they held for decades.  One of the first to jump on that was Saturday morning cartoon giant Filmation (the people behind He-Man, for example) who surprisingly took a surprisingly different route in their adaptation of Pinocchio’s story.  Instead of doing a straight translation of the original story, they opted instead to do a sequel.  This of course is meant to be sequel to Collodi’s original and not Disney’s, and that becomes very apparent when watching the film.  The animation is certainly a step down from the Disney standard, though it is more polished compared to Filmation’s TV library.  In addition, this movie goes into some very weird territory, typical of what we were seeing in 80’s era animation.  In this story, Pinocchio is reverted back to his puppet state after living as a human by a dark magician who is intent on bringing the living puppet to his master, The Emperor of the Night, as a sacrifice for more power.  The movie can sometimes descend into nightmare fuel, especially with the Emperor himself (voiced by James Earl Jones of all people) who is a monstrous presence.  Pinocchio himself is given voice by a young Scott Grimes in his first of what would be many voice acting roles (Family Guy, American Dad), and he works well enough for what this kind of movie needs.  It’s an interesting 80’s animation oddity, but definitely a far cry from a true adaptation of the story of Pinocchio.


Leaving animation for a bit, there have been plenty of live action attempts to bring the imaginative story of Pinocchio to life.  In this version, the Jim Henson Creature Shop made an attempt to create a version of Pinocchio that maintained the full visual look of a real wooden puppet, but with the articulated movements that made it come to life in a convincing way that the Henson puppet manufacturers were renowned for.  Indeed, I do give the movie quite a bit of credit for using a practical effect puppet for this version of Pinocchio, and the puppet himself is pretty state of the art for it’s time, which apparently took the Henson shop 9 months to perfect.  The problem, however, with this version of Pinocchio comes from his unfortunately miscast voice.  Jonathan Taylor Thomas was the “It” young actor of the moment in the mid-90’s, coming off the success of his role on the TV series Home Improvement, and providing the voice of Simba in The Lion King (1994).  His casting as Pinocchio here was much less about him being right for the part and more with him being a big name that the film could capitalize on in the marketing.  His vocal performance clashes greatly with the rest of the actors in the film, most of them being Euro-centric: apart from Martin Landau as Geppetto doing the best he can at an Italian accent.  Thomas’ Pinocchio sounds too modern and Americanized by comparison, and it just doesn’t fit the rest of the movie, which is a shame given the craftsmanship put into the puppet model itself.  The movie also streamlines the story of Pinocchio in a way that removes all of the sense of peril and danger that was essential to growing Pinocchio as a character.  Instead, the movie more or less is just there to be a showcase for the production design with the barest of bones when it comes to the plot.  The craftsmanship is certainly first class, but it ultimately it rings hollow when it comes to making the story of Pinocchio feel alive.


One of the most misguided movie projects in history sadly involves this classic story as well.  I don’t know what Italian comedian and filmmaker Roberto Benigni was thinking taking on the role of the wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy.  Benigni of course is a filmmaker drawn to the farcical side of things, but this kind of adaptation was certainly ill conceived, especially given where Benigni was in his career.  This was his cinematic follow-up to the Oscar Winning Life is Beautiful  (1998), which netted him an award for Best Actor amongst other things.  Perhaps it was a misunderstanding on Hollywood’s part to think that Benigni was a different kind of filmmaker after making his Holocaust comedy (?), so Pinocchio was certainly not the right kind of movie for him to fall back on.  Mainly Roberto Benigni is just doing his usual schtick of loud, boisterous slapstick comedy with only the faintest of connections to the story of Pinocchio.  It sadly does not work on all accounts.  Benigni’s version of Pinocchio lacks any sincerity, and it’s the minimalist of attempts to convince the audience that he is a wooden puppet come to life.  Mainly what we get is Benigni dressing up in a puppet costume that seems more circus clown than anything else, and the only instances we get of any connection to the original story are pathetic special effects to make it look like his nose is growing longer.  This apparently was an artistically unsatisfying project for Benigni as well.  He only directed one more feature after this one, 2005’s The Tiger and the Snow, and then he went quiet for over a decade afterwards, both in front and behind the camera.  That’s a pretty bad sign when a filmmaker’s reputation is ruined to a point where they disappear thanks to just one movie, and sadly it had to be one involving an iconic character like Pinocchio.


Thankfully, there is a happy ending to Roberto Benigni’s connection with the character of Pinocchio.  After spending many years out of the spotlight, Benigni would return to the classic story, only this time playing the part of Geppetto instead of Pinocchio himself.  The part of Geppetto it turns out is a much better fit for the actor, who manages to give a nice, tender and surprisingly subtle for him performance as the pure hearted woodcarver.  Here he acts opposite young Italian actor Frederico Ielapi as the little wooden boy, who manages to balance well off the seasoned comedian.  The movie features some well done make up effects to give little Frederico wooden like features, and the film earned an Oscar nomination as a result.  While not exactly a perfect adaptation of the source material, this film nevertheless feels truer to the spirit of Collodi’s writing.  It certainly is the best attempt made by the nation that brought Pinocchio to the world in the first place.  One of the best aspects of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of the story, but also at the same time, it doesn’t get too heavy into the moralizing either.  You can tell that this was an attempt to treat Collodi’s story with reverence, something that many other adaptations have failed to achieve in the past.  Sadly, the movie didn’t get much of a life theatrically, as it premiered in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. But, for those who manage to discover it, they’ll find a beautifully crafted film that thankfully helps to wash away the stench of it’s star’s previously failed attempt at portraying the little wooden boy.


We’ve seen so far Pinocchio brought to life on screen through live action and animation, with make-up effects and even with an actual puppet.  Most recently however, we can now add stop motion to the techniques used to give life to this lovable wooden boy.  2022 proved to be a surprisingly robust year for Pinocchio on the big screen, as we got a total of three new films that year featuring the character.  One was a cheaply made CGI animated film with D-List celebrity voice talent headlined by Pauley Shore as a very whiny Pinocchio.  The second was another Disney live action remake, this one directed by Robert Zemekis and starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto.  Of course, the third version, this stop motion animated feature, was the vastly superior version of the story from that year, and in all honesty, it’s probably the best adaptation of Pinocchio since the Walt Disney version.  From the visionary mind of Guillermo Del Toro, we have this beautifully constructed film that seems to be the best of both world when it comes to adaptations of Pinocchio’s story.  It has the same imaginative magical spirit of Disney’s version, but maintains the darker tone of Collodi’s original text.  In some ways, it takes the story into even darker territory by setting the film in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy pre-WWII.  When it comes to the character, the movie actually feels the truest to the original concept of the character that we’ve ever seen.  Voiced wonderfully by young English actor Gregory Mann, Pinocchio here acts as a benign blank stale of a child who grows his conscience through the perils he faces and the friends he makes along the way.  The characterization works remarkably well here, as in typical Del Toro fashion, the physical model of Pinocchio can start off as off-putting in it’s odd design but over time becomes endearing.  Guillermo Del Toro crafts a beautiful world to set his adaptation and alongside his co-director, the late Mark Gustafson, they won a well deserved Academy Award for Animated Feature.  It may not surpass the sublime magic of Disney’s original, but it is certainly a close second and the best version of Pinocchio that we have seen in quite a long while.

There are many rights and wrongs when it comes to bringing Pinocchio to life in cinema.  Some of the best attempts we’ve seen involve a great deal of imagination to bring the character to life.  His very being itself requires some advanced cinematic tricks to make him be believable as a character.  A puppet made of wood and suspended with strings is not supposed to walk and talk like a human unsupported.  Doing this in live action is especially tricky, which is why the best versions of Pinocchio exist in animation.  Disney’s version of Pinocchio is undeniably the best version of the character, because the animated medium offers limitless possibility in bringing a magical oddity like him to life.  One scene in particular, where Pinocchio turns his body around in place while keeping his head stationary is a trick with the character that can only be possible through the hand drawn art of animation.  Guillermo Del Toro’s stop motion version likewise does a masterful job of bringing the wooden puppet to full life, and at the same time also still leaning further into the jagged wooden physicality that a puppet like Pinocchio would have had.  There have been valiant attempts to do Pinocchio justice in live action as well.  The Jim Henson Creature workshop version in the 1996 film was a valiant attempt at using a practical effect, and the make-up effects in the 2020 version do a commendable job too.  The less said about Roberto Benigni’s version the better, and I’m sure he’s glad people are becoming more familiar with the newer and vastly superior version of the story he’s in.  Pinocchio is a tricky character to get right, but in the end, what matters is that the story manages to find a way to be true to the heart of what Carlo Collodi intended for the character.  The story is about innocence, and how easily it can be corrupted in a harsh world.  The best versions of Pinocchio’s story are the ones that don’t shy away from the dark elements in his journey, but at the end of the day, Pinocchio has to come out the better for it.  The key to becoming a real boy is to be brave, truthful, and un-selfish, and that is at the heart of Pinocchio’s story, and that’s a lesson that any child will certainly carry with them into childhood.  That’s why the best version of this story, like the Disney one and hopefully Del Toro’s too in the future, remain strong across the generations, because it is the kind of story that brings out the most in the imagination of a young child.  Pinocchio keeps us all wishing upon that star and giving us hope that we all let our conscience be our guiding light.

Evolution of Character – Hercules

When we think of the legendary heroes of Ancient Greek mythology, the one who probably comes first to mind is Hercules.  Hercules, the demi-god hero famous for completing the 12 labors to earn his way into Olympus and Godhood, may be a creation out of the myths of a long gone civilization, but his presence can still be felt today.  Many of the core elements of his story have become the inspiration for the mythological heroes of today; super heroes.  Hercules mighty strength can easily be seen as a template for many comic book icons like Superman, and his half-god half-mortal identity is found in the back story of a whole lot of other characters, like Aquaman.  Though the comic book heroes today are not quite worshiped like the gods and heroes of Ancient Myths, their purpose in their narratives are nevertheless very similar.  It makes sense that Hercules himself has also made his way into Comic Book pages, most famously as a sometimes friend and sometimes foe of Thor in the Marvel comics.  Even more than two Millenia after Hercules’ legend was first born, he is still a relevant character in pop culture.  For the most part, he is the quintessential legend of Greek mythology; the one that all the other legends aspire to.  That’s not to say that all the other heroes like Jason, Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, or Odysseus are forgotten.  But when it comes to pop cultures’ idea of what constitutes an iconic hero, his similarities with the comic book heroes of today is what helps Hercules to stand out that much more. This has proved true as Hercules has been the character of Greek Mythology that has made the most appearances on the big screen.  It is quite interesting to see how his presence in a variety of movies reveal how little of his key characteristics have changed, but at the same time also how depictions of him change along with the culture.  Below are a few of Hercules most noteworthy big screen appearances, and looking over most of them, you’ll definitely see a pattern form.


There weren’t a whole lot of cinematic depictions of Hercules in the early days of cinema, and that might be because the type of movie that could be centered around ancient myths had to rise up in an era where those kinds of movies were fashionable.  In the 1950’s, the movie industry began to invest in big, widescreen spectacle flicks to help the movie theaters compete with television.  This was the “swords and sandals” era, where the studios were interested in bringing larger than life stories from the ancient past to magnificent technicolor life.  A lot of these Hollywood productions also brought a lot of business to a war torn Europe that was still in recovery, and in particular, a lot of these sword and sandal epics were filmed in Italy.  The legendary Cinecitta Studio was founded during this time, and it was home to both foreign and domestic large scale productions.  After big Hollywood movies like Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) came through the Rome based Cinecitta, they left behind all of these elaborate sets recreating the locations of antiquity.  What was the studio going to do with all of these sets?  Reuse and recycle them of course in cheaply made B-picture epics.  Quite a lot of lower-tier sword and sandals films were made out of the Italian film industry during this time, and naturally Hercules would be one of the characters ideal for crafting a movie or two around.  American bodybuilder Steve Reeves, with his signature broad shouldered physique, became ideal casting for these movies.  His performance is decidedly limited; it’s clear he had the part more for his looks than anything else.  But, the movies were cheaply made enough that they turned an easy profit for the Italian producers, and Reeves would continue playing the part a few more times.  The Italian Hercules films are notoriously cheesy, and are more well know today for being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But, as far as Hercules on the big screen goes, this was just the beginning.


While Italy was making their own series of films centered around Hercules, Hollywood was trying out their own unique spins on legendary Greek myths.  One of the biggest highlights of that era was this adaptation of the Jason and the Argonauts myth, which Hercules did traditionally play a part in.  What this movie is most famous for is it’s amazing, ground-breaking visual effects, created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  In Jason and the Argonauts, Harryhausen utilized his stop-motion animation expertise to bring to life out of this world creations like flying harpies, a hydra, a giant bronze statue, and most famously an army of skeleton soldiers.  Aside from the effects work, much of it which still holds up very well today, there are some mildly interesting characterizations at play as well.  Perhaps the most interesting character of all in the film is Hercules.  He’s not present for most of the movie, but his brief time with the Argonauts is memorable.  What is particularly unique about this portrayal of Hercules is that it’s so different from the character we expect.  A far cry from the He-Man version that Steve Reeves played, this version played by South African character actor Nigel Green is more grounded and human.  He’s not a character in peak physical condition, but ratter a grizzled veteran who has been worn down over time.  Still, he’s incredibly strong and a reliable ally in a fight, but it is interesting to see a version of this character that deemphasizes his godliness.  Here, he’s more vulnerable, which offers up a bit more interesting character aspects, as he is pressured by the mission he’s undertaking with the Argonauts.  The movie on the whole certainly is remembered more for it’s iconic visual effects, but at the same time it gives us heroes worth rooting for, and one of the more relatable versions of Hercules that’s ever been put on the silver screen.


If there is one thing that more often than not helps to get an actor a role as Hercules, it’s having an incredibly muscular physique.  That’s why so many of these Hercules movies seek out bodybuilders who gained notoriety participating in competitions like Mr. Olympia.  One of the movies that pulled from that pool unexpectedly found someone who in time would become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.  That person was a young Austrian body builder known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he made his movie debut playing none other than Hercules himself.  It might surprise many people that Schwarzenegger’s first movie role was not in an action film, but rather a comedy.  This very low budget production played around with the idea of Hercules ending up lost in modern day New York City, and mining all of the fish out of water hijinks that would lead to.  The movie is one of the more odd films to ever feature Hercules as a character, and it for the most part does little to portray any of the traits of the character that we know about him from legend.  His character in the film is pretty much limited to buff demi-god has adventure in the modern world.  Schwarzenegger definitely has a presence on screen, but it’s not in the way that reflects back well on him.  The movie even dubs over his voice, making him sound very different from the actor we know today.  Apparently his Austrian accent was still so thick at the time that his lines were indecipherable, so the change was made during ADR.  Of course, Schwarzenegger improved over time, which helped him to gain the attention of filmmakers like John Milius and James Cameron, who ultimately would change his career forever.  It’s no surprise that Arnold looks back on this film with embarrassment, and there is no blaming him.  For a big screen depiction of the mythological hero, this is certainly one of the least effective and is only noteworthy because of who was playing him.


Not long after Schwarzenegger made his screen debut in Hercules in New York, he would also be feature in an acclaimed documentary about the world of body building called Pumping Iron (1977).  Arnold would be featured alongside a few other noteworthy names in the bodybuilding competition circuit, and one of those other body builders featured in the documentary was another aspiring actor named Lou Ferrigno.  Ferrigno, who coincidently beat out Schwarzenegger for the role of the Incredible Hulk in the classic TV series, also got his chance to play the legendary Hercules on the big screen.  This opportunity came with this 1983 film production that felt very much like a throwback to the old Harryhausen effects driven spectaculars of Hollywood’s Silver Age.  Ironically, interest in making movies based on legends of Greek mythology again was the result of two unexpected hits, the Harryhausen involved Clash of the Titans (1981) and the Schwarzenegger starring Conan the Barbarian (1982).  So this movie’s existence is thanks in part to the legacy of two past Hercules movies.  Ferrigno, like Schwarzenegger, had his voiced dubbed over too, though it was less because of the accent and more because of Lou’s hearing disability, which made line readings difficult.  There is little doubt that Ferrigno’s impressive physique fits well with the character, and he for the most part does a serviceable job in the role.  Some of the effects used in the film are still impressive today, like when Hercules grows to massive size in order to split the continents of Europe and Africa apart.  Story wise, it’s nothing particularly noteworthy.  It doesn’t have the rich mythology of Conan the Barbarian nor the delightful campiness of Clash of the Titans.  It’s more or less a movie that is following a trend and trying to compete with more iconic movies.  Still, Ferrigno does stand out as the titular hero and some of the effects do recall back to the best parts of the old Harryhausen adventure films.


Like a lot of other classic stories, audiences’ first introduction to the legend of Hercules at a young age likely came from a Disney movie.  This movie in particular brings the story back to it’s mythological roots, but does so with a perspective that makes a commentary on modern day celebrity culture.  It’s interesting that the filmmakers behind this version, legendary animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Moana), drew a lot of inspiration for their version of Hercules from comic book superheroes like Superman, whose own origins are echoing the legend of Hercules from Greek mythology.  It’s everything coming into full circle.  Though not as consistently funny and resonate as past Disney Renaissance films, Hercules does have it’s fair share of hilarious spins of the Greek myth.  The film is very well designed with a pastiche of Ancient Greece mixed in with contemporary inspirations, and some of the action set pieces are real stand-outs, particularly one with the Hydra, which featured some ground-breaking computer animation for it’s time.  Oddly, the weakest link of the movie is Hercules himself.  The movie never really finds an interesting angle to play with the character, so he just comes off as bland and generic.  This is too bad, because the rest of the film is filled with some of Disney’s best characters, such as Hercules’  trainer Philoctetes (voice by Danny DeVito), the love interest Megara (voice by Susan Egan) and the villain Hades (voice by James Woods).  Tate Donovan does bring a nice tenderness to the character, which feels very much inspired by the good natured wholesomeness of Christopher Reeves’ Superman.  While the character himself is written a little bland, the vocal performance by Donovan helps to at least make the hero likable.  Unfortunately for Disney, Hercules came at a time of downward fortune for Disney after their Renaissance boom, and Hercules seemed to audiences to be a pale imitation of the the more beloved Aladdin.  Still, it has developed a following over 25 years, and there’s even talk of a live action remake.  And as far as portrayals of the legend of Hercules go, this one strangely enough is more in line with the original myth itself, though with a modern day spin of course.


It’s a bit surprising, but Hercules was passed over quite a bit during the brief revival of the sword and sandals epic during the early aughts.  Despite movies based on heroes like Achilles (Troy), Alexander the Great (Alexander) and even a remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), Hercules would have to wait until the following decade to be seen on the big screen again, and by that time the revival of these movies had died down considerably.  This film is another example of a movie trying to chase a fad, but ultimately missing the mark completely.  This movie takes us on a journey to Hercules’ early days as a warrior just beginning to come into his own.  The movie definitely takes strong inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), and that’s about where the similarities end.  It has the Gladiator look, but none of the captivating story, nor interesting characters.  The casting of Kellan Lutz, who at that time was best know for appearing in the Twilight series, clearly was due to his buff physique, but it is interesting that his body type is different from past big screen Hercules.  His is less of a body builder physique and more of a pro athlete physique; less for show and more for performance.  He’s a leaner Hercules, though still very physically imposing.  This is something to note about how the portrayal of Hercules has evolved over the years, as physical appearance standards have shifted over time.  There isn’t much else to say about the character in this film.  He’s far less mythological in this film because to put it in line with the Gladiator aspects of it’s presentation, this version of Hercules has his more human side emphasized.  The film even puts Hercules in arena battles, just like the other film.   Just looking at bits of this film made me think this was definitely an early January release, and sure enough I was right.  It’s forgettable for the most part, but it does show an evolving presence that Hercules would end up having on the big screen in the new millennia.


Released mere months after The Legend of Hercules, this second live action Hercules leans even more into the super hero elements that the legend has helped to inspire over the years.  This film features a much bigger budget than The Legend of Hercules which helps to make it a bit more visually interesting.  Story wise, it’s no worse, but it also feels small and a little cliched.  More than anything, this movie was clearly greenlit to be a star vehicle for actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  It’s interesting that Hercules evolved from casting body builders like Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Lou Ferrigno, to casting performers from another field that involves building up a lot of muscle mass; pro-wrestling.  Dwayne Johnson is by far the most successful box office star to come out of the wrestling circuit, and it seems only natural for him to step into the role of Hercules.  As underwritten as the character is, Johnson’s natural charisma does help to make his performance here at least a little engaging.  In the battle scenes, he really gets to shine, as he manages to do most of his own stunt work pretty effectively.  But, at the same time, you do feel like you are watching a Dwayne Johnson movie, and not anything that informs you about the myth of Hercules itself.  Like most of the portrayals of Hercules on the big screen, Hercules is treated more like an idea of an ancient hero, and less of an actual true to legend portrayal of the character.  Dwayne Johnson definitely looks good in the part, particularly with that lion’s skin draped on his head, but it’s more or less a standard action film with the name of Hercules slapped on top of it.  But it’s still clear that it’s a role that Dwayne Johnson loves to play, and it feels like a role like this inspired him to pursue an actual comic book role like he did with last year’s Black Adam (2022) with DC.

Hercules has more or less followed a predictable pattern on the big screen.  He is the prototypical strong man in many mythological stories and the films have more or less been showcases to present actors shirtless with large muscles.  That’s not to say that nothing special has ever been done with the character.  Disney’s meta commentary on celebrity culture in their animated film helped to bring some interesting perspective on the character and his place within the mythology.  Jason and the Argonauts did the interesting move of showing us a Hercules who was less of a God and more of a human.  And Dwayne Johnson’s film definitely leaned more into reflecting the kind of super hero portrayal of the character that in itself has been an inspiration to comic book stories throughout the history of the medium.  What I find interesting is that never once has any film based on the myth of Hercules actually shown the things that he’s most well known for; the 12 labors.  The closest any movie has ever gotten to doing that is the animated Disney film, and at most we just see the battle with the Hydra, plus a couple more shown as part of a musical montage.  I guess showing the labors would make for a boring film narrative; and I don’t quite know how you would depict something like the cleaning of the Augean stables.  When it comes to the big screen, Hercules has served better as a concept of a mythological hero and the filmmakers then form whatever story they want around that.  You certainly can’t overlook Hercules as an important character in the pop culture, given that his legend has endured for over 2,000 years.  And as sporadic as his time on screen has been, there are many filmmakers who like to revisit the myth again and again.  Perhaps it’s because his story is so universally known and is easily applied to changing cultural perspectives.  Given how different eras have their own take on the Hercules myth, it seems to reason that there will be quite a few more appearances of the character on the big screen, and it will be interesting to see how the character will find himself fighting on the big screen again and in what fashion.  Like the Disney film proclaimed, Hercules is a legend that is constantly going from “Zero to Hero” through many different and varied adventures.


Evolution of Character – The Nutcracker

There are plenty of classic tales that have over time become favorites around Christmas time.  There is of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as well as more contemporary stories that have come out of the movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and  Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  But if there is one story that has certainly become almost synonymous with the holidays and it renowned around the world, it is the classic tale of the Nutcracker.  The story first emerged in 1816 as a short story written by German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffman.  The story titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is about a young child’s favorite toy coming to life on Christmas Eve to save her from the wicked Mouse King and then after the battle whisks the girl away to his magical kingdom of real live dolls where they crown her queen.  It’s a charming fairy tale for children and it unsurprisingly quickly became a favorite story across Europe at the time.  Numerous adaptations were made in other languages at the height of it’s popularity, including a French one written by famed author Alexander Dumas.  But, it was when the story reached the cultural circles of Russia that it fell into the hands of one of the story’s most important figures.  That man was composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who in 1892 took this familiar tale and used it as the inspiration for his new ballet score.  While Hoffman was the one who created the tale, it was Tchaikovsky who made it immortal.  One cannot imagine the story of the Nutcracker now without the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s musical themes.  It’s also why today the story is retold today, more often than not, in the form of a ballet performance.  This is certainly true of the many film adaptations of the story that have been made, which almost all have at least some ballet elements.  Below are a few of the most noteworthy representations of the character of the Nutcracker on the big screen, which either vary close to the original intention of Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s ballet or take the character and his story in very wild and unexpected directions.


It helps to start with an adaptation that sticks pretty close to the Tchaikovsky ballet that most people are familiar with.  This production was staged by the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and was aired on CBS stations during the holidays.  It’s also noteworthy for having the lead role being played by one of the most famous dancers of that era.  Baryshnikov was at this point starting to become a household name not just in the world of ballet theater, but also in film as well.  This staging came just mere months after his star making role in the film The Turning Point (1977) co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.  His small role as a womanizing Russian dancer stole the film and he earned an Oscar nomination the following year for his performance.  Not bad for someone who was just emerging onto the scene in the prestigious New York based ABT.  He also made headlines years prior for his public defection from the Soviet Union, gaining asylum in Canada before making his way to New York.  Suffice to say, this was a version of the famed ballet that benefitted from featuring a star that was well on the rise.  It goes without saying that Baryshnikov excels in the film with his athletic command of the ballet stage.  The overall presentation is what you would expect of a filmed version of a stage performance.  From what I’ve gathered, this is the only time he has played the part on both stage and screen, given that he was already 29 at the time of the recording of this performance and this is a role that typically is filled by younger dancers.  Still, those looking for a more pure, traditional staging of this story in it’s ballet form will be satisfied with the version of it here, as well as have the opportunity to see a dancer of Baryshnikov’s stature filling out the iconic, titular role.


A story with high fantasy like “The Nutcracker” is almost certainly going to receive the animated treatment eventually.  What is surprising is that the biggest name in animation, The Walt Disney Company, passed on adapting this familiar story into it’s own film; at least initially.  They instead took Tchaikovsky’s score and animated a pastoral montage of nature set to music for a segment in the film Fantasia (1940).  A true animated feature based on the story of the Nutcracker wouldn’t come until 1979, when we received this stop-motion animated film based very loosely on the original story.  Despite it’s strong resemblance to the stop-motion holiday specials by Rankin Bass, this feature was actually a Japanese production made by the Sanrio company, who are most famous for their Hello Kitty character.  The story of the Nutcracker in this film borrows a bit more from “The Wizard of Oz” than it does from the Hoffman tale, with the girl Clara spending much more of her story in the toy kingdom.  The character of the Nutcracker, here called Franz, is very different from the version we are all familiar with, being more of an appointed protector of  Clara rather than a driving force in the story himself.  Unlike in the original story, the curse that makes him a nutcracker happens late in the film rather than being a factor in his introduction.  And I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times, or a loss in translation through the Japanese interpretation of this classic story, but the film depicts a major age disparity between Franz and Clara that gets a little uncomfortable watching it today, especially when the two start showing romantic interest in one another.  It might be a factor in the English voice casting as well, as the mature sounding Roddy McDowall contrasts heavily with the you sounding Melissa Gilbert in their respective roles.  Aside from this, it’s an odd but still visually appealing animated presentation, and that strong resemblance to the Rankin Bass style certainly helps to give the movie a good holiday time feel.  But, as far as true adaptation of this story, there are far better examples to choose from.


Here we have what many proclaim to be the finest cinematic presentation of the ballet ever done.  It’s essentially a filmed version of the ballet, this one put on by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company based out of Seattle, Washington, with stagecraft and scenery based on the artwork of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame.  Sendak’s picture book adaptation of the original Hoffman story is a highly celebrated work of art on it’s own, but here we see it come to life along with the Tchaikovsky ballet, creating a truly surreal experience.  What is great about this version is that the filmmakers took the same ballet from the stage, but they composed their shots like they were filming a real movie.  Basically this is a version of the ballet performance meant primarily to be seen on the big screen.  There are some incredible visual effects used to create an imaginative experience.  Not only does the Nutcracker fight an army of mice led by the Mouse King, but the Mouse King is a grotesque, multi-headed monster that would feel at home in a Jim Henson fantasy epic like The Dark Crystal (1982).  The Maurice Sendak element of it all also gives the film a lot of character, with characters presented with exaggerated features to make them look more closely like they jumped off of the page of Sendak’s drawings.  Give credit to ballet dancer Wade Walthall, who has to perform his acrobatic moves with a giant nutcracker head on his shoulders.  Most stagings of the ballet do require the Nutcracker performer to wear a mask during his first introduction, but the one in this film is ridiculously large in order to mimic the Sendak style, so it’s a testament to the talent of the dancer.  While there is a quaintness to the visual effects of this version of the ballet, it is imaginative enough to help the whole movie stand out as one of the best versions ever captured on screen, and one that has another layer of an artist like Maurice Sendak adding his own visual flair to Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s music.


Since Disney chucked away the story of the Nutcracker in favor of animating to the music, it seems only natural that someone else would swoop in to take on the material themselves.  Made by independent Hinton Animation Studios and released through Warner Brothers, this animated version sticks pretty closely to the original version of Hoffman’s story, but perhaps more than most theatrical versions seen, it puts the Nutcracker himself in a far more central part of the story.  The film still centers around Clara and her journey, but the Nutcracker is far more than a secondary character here.  He goes through his own character arc of having to re-establish his place as a monarch in the toy kingdom after a long absence away.  It also puts more of a conflicting wedge between him and Clara as the condition for him being human again rests on Clara committing to staying by his side as his queen.  Apart from that extra bit of character building, the movie is pretty simplistic for an animated film, which is more a result of having to stretch out Hoffman’s short story to feature length without the benefit of long dance routines to pad the time.  The movie came in a transitionary time for animation, as Disney was in the middle of their Renaissance period, and animation standards were improving greatly.  This movie can’t quite match the same Disney quality, but for a small independent animated project it nevertheless has ambition behind it, as well as a strange stylized backstory that feels like classic Looney Tunes.  The voice cast is also noteworthy, with Keifer Sutherland (yes, Jack Bauer himself) playing the role of the Nutcracker.  Of course this was made when he was still a young actor, but it is kind of strange associating that voice with this kind of character.  This could be a good film to introduce younger audiences who don’t have the patience to sit through a ballet to the famed story, but in the grand scheme of things in animation, it leaves a lot to be desired when compared to what Disney was making at the time.


You may find this hard to believe, but right in the heart of his meteoric rise to fame following a starring role in Home Alone (1990), Macaulay Culkin also starred in a filmed ballet version of the Nutcracker.  It’s actually not too far out of left field.  Culkin in his childhood days before film stardom did take dancing lessons, though he was well short of being a professional ballet performer.  Still, as he was beginning to be cast in more high profile movies, he was also given the opportunity to play the title character in this production of the Nutcracker, put together by the ABT and choreographer George Balanchine.  This Balanchine staging was significant, because it broke with tradition in having young children play the roles of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara.  Typically more experienced dancers play the roles, but here the roles are meant for younger performers with some of the more demanding routines given to the supporting cast, thereby making the staging more true to the original story.  Culkin, for his part, fits the role fine and doesn’t feel too novice compared to the the more experienced dancers.  But, anyone looking to see him play a more central role in this film version may be disappointed as it’s another staging that makes the Nutcracker a more passive player in the story.  What’s interesting is that this movie sat on a shelf for years, even as Culkin’s profile in Hollywood was exploding.  He shot the movie just shortly after he made the first Home Alone, but the film wasn’t released until even after he made Home Alone 2 (1992).  By that time, Culkin had grown up a bit and his star power was not quite as strong as it once was.  If you saw this movie in succession with his other movies at the time, you would see him de-age by about 3-4 years in a jarring change of pace for his career.  Part of the reason for this was contract disputes with the makers of the film and Culkin’s father who managed his career, mainly over how Culkin’s presence in the movie would be publicized.  It only led to this movie missing it’s prime moment and ultimately flopping at the box office.  It was too long forgotten to impact Macaulay in any negative way, and the film ultimately pales in comparison to the Sendak version.  But it is an interesting side note in the history of this character on the big screen, as at some point he was played by one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time of it’s release.


There will probably never be an adaptation of The Nutcracker story as wild and misguided as this one.  A long time passion project for Russian filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy, this version of the story only has a passing resemblance to the Hoffman original.  The rest of this adaptation is filled in with a allegory to the Holocaust.  You heard me right.  Oh, and it’s a musical too.  This is one bizarre movie, and not in a good way.  The Nutcracker himself is also pretty off-putting, animated mostly as a CGI puppet with a disturbing looking, expressionless stare.  Anyone who thinks that the Pinocchio puppet in Guillermo Del Toro’s new stop motion adaptation of that story is disturbing clearly hasn’t seen this version of the Nutcracker.  Not only that, but actress Shirley Henderson’s vocal performance is screechy and obnoxious and not at all endearing.  Thankfully, when the nutcracker turns into a real boy, played by Charlie Rowe, he sounds more natural, but most of the movie features the former rather than the latter.  Just to show you how misguided Konchalovskiy’s adaptation is, the Rat King (played by a very hammy John Tuturro) subjugates the toys within a kingdom with very fascist overtones, to the point where he even begins to  burn them in bonfires.  Maybe allusions to the Holocaust may have worked if the movie fit that kind of tone consistently, but no, Konchalovskiy includes this kind of imagery with a whimsical tone that just makes the Holocaust allegory all the more out of place and offensive.  This alone makes this the worst version of the Nutcracker ever adapted in any medium.  But, there was a lot of other factors in this movie that make the whole thing a disaster, and the disturbing Nutcracker is chief among them.  It’s honestly a movie that really goes out of it’s way to make everything that was great about the Nutcracker (it’s whimsical tale, the iconic music, it’s memorable) and do the complete worst thing possible with all of them.


Well, it took them almost 80 years, but Disney finally got around to making a true Nutcracker movie, or so you would think.  Essentially, they are doing a Hook version of this story, based on the practice of making a sequel to a familiar story with characters returning to a fantasy world after a long absence, without having to make the original as a set up.  The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is another movie from the Disney company that seems to have put the bulk of it’s resources into the art direction and far less into the story and script.  It’s a hollow world-building exercise that in no way feels authentic and worth anyone’s time.  One of the big problems in this version is despite being in the title of the film, the Nutcracker is a minor supporting player in this film.  Jayden Fowora-Knight is decent, and it is interesting at least to see the part played by an actor of color, but the character matters so little in the grand scheme of the cliched story that you wonder at all why he’s a part of the title.  It’s probably because without the name “Nutcracker,” no one would ever know it’s connected to the famous story.  The Nutcracker himself, named Phillip this time, isn’t even cursed in this version, and never goes through a transformation from toy nutcracker to a real boy.  We only connect him to the character purely by the way he dresses, as the typical foot soldier design that most nutcracker dolls are made to look like.  If it weren’t for the travesty of Nutcracker: The Untold Story, Four Realms would likely be the disastrous production of this story ever put on screen.  It had a notoriously complicated production, which led to one director (Lasse Hallstrom) being unable to finish the movie during re-shoots and another director hired at the last second (Joe Johnston) to finish what had been started.  The end result, unsurprisingly lacks cohesion and substance, and not surprisingly it performed very poorly at the box office, dashing any hopes of a franchise.  Still, as Untold Story proved, Disney could have done much worse.  They should have followed Walt Disney’s original instinct and just work with the Tchaikovsky music.

So, there you have some of the most notable big screen versions of the Nutcracker character that audiences have been able to see.  For the most part, The Nutcracker is a character that is better appreciated live on the stage during a ballet performance.  There’s a reason why the ballet remains a favorite all these years later, especially as a key part of the holiday traditions.  What is interesting is that Tchaikovsky himself was not fond of his ballet score, finding it unsatisfying and too simplistic compared to his more preferred complex works like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.  And yet, The Nutcracker compared to the rest is the most often staged, making it his most successful score overall.  It’s only recently that we’ve been seeing film adaptations of the Hoffman story, because of the continued popularity of the ballet.  And because of that enormous popularity, few of the film adaptations stray away from the ballet as well.  The 1986 version with art design inspired by the drawings of Maurice Sendak is probably the best combination of the art of dance and cinema brought together that we’ve ever seen, but there are valiant attempts to fill the story with more than just beautiful choreography.  The two animated versions from 1979 and 1990 do their best to fill Hoffman’s short story with more enriched character development and an expanded plot, even if they fall a little short.  They certainly do a lot better than the live action films, with Untold Story being an especially notorious misfire that insultingly tries to add Holocaust allegory to this simple children’s fairy tale.  Even if the big screen’s samplings have been fairly light, there are numerous stage versions across the country that are easy to find during the Holiday Season.  It’s a production that is a part of every ballet company’s repertoire, and remarkably has shown to account for nearly 20% of all yearly ticket sales alone for those dance companies.  That’s a real testament to the staying power of this story and it’s iconic status as a part of the Christmas season.  Whether he’s dancing across the big screen, or on stages large and small across the world, or just sitting on a table or shelf as one of your Christmas decorations, The Nutcracker still remains an integral figure of everyone’s joyous Holiday experience.

Evolution of Character – Hamlet

If you look at the great breadth of legendary characters to have come from the writings of William Shakespeare, probably the most famous of them all would be the Danish prince himself; Hamlet.  Written in the latter half of Shakespeare’s career and first performed on stage circa 1600, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely viewed as one of the Bard’s seminal works.  Over the many centuries since it was written, it could also be said that it is the most widely staged of Shakespeare’s plays, with only Romeo and Juliet being anywhere near the same category.  And the impact that this play has had on the history of theater is immeasurable.  The lines, such as “To be or not to be”, “The lady doth protest too much”, or “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” are so omnipresent in our society that anyone who hasn’t seen the play itself will still know instantly where it comes from.  Apart from being endlessly quoted, there are elements of it’s themes, plot points, and characters that have slipped into many different parts of the culture at large.  How many theater troops out there have a prop skull in their collection?  How many stories of revenge have we seen in movies involving a son going after their uncle for the death or crime committed against their father?  Hamlet is perhaps the reason why Shakespeare has endured throughout the years.  Sure he has many other plays that are still beloved to this day, but there is something about Hamlet that throughout the years has kept it relevant to audiences across the generations.  It probably has to do with the character himself, a young man filled with rage who will go to great lengths to avenge the memory of his father, but in carrying out his plot, he only ends up destroying many more lives as a result, including his own.  It’s a universal tragedy that transcends it’s time in place, because we ourselves come to identify so much with the tragic hero at the heart of the story, and recognize from it the ways that unchecked anger can also endanger ourselves in the process.  It’s a tragedy that resonates, because it’s a tragedy that we so often see repeated time and time again.

One thing that has been interesting over the years is seeing how every generation finds a new spin to take on the tragedy.  Hamlet is a surprisingly malleable story to many different interpretations, without losing it’s core identity.  I think it’s interesting that some people may not realize that they are watching a version of Hamlet right away, but only come to realize it later.  One example of this is Disney’s The Lion King (1994).  Often dubbed “Hamlet in Africa”, the plot of The Lion King does owe a lot of inspiration to Hamlet.  An exiled prince returns to take his kingdom back from his uncle, who usurped the throne after murdering his brother.  Rings a bell doesn’t it, though Disney refrained from doing an exact translation; their movie has a happy ending after all.  More recently, director Robert Eggers put out his Viking epic The Northman (2022), which supposedly is based on the ancient saga that was the original inspiration for Shakespeare’s play.  Like so many have done over the years, Shakespeare also took this well known story from ancient texts and provided his own spin on the age old story, reflecting it’s events within his own time.  It’s just neat to see the story come full circle with a new movie now re-contextualizing the original narrative for today, in a world now that is so familiar with Shakespeare’s play.  Still, to this day, the play is a highly regarded piece, and in particular, the role of Hamlet is one that’s coveted by some of the most talented actors working today.  Stage productions in the past have included such legends as John Gielgud and Christopher Plummer, and Ian McKellan while more recent versions have been staged with the likes of Jude Law, David Tennant, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Certainly watching Hamlet is an opportunity not to pass up, but the character has also left his mark on the silver screen as well.  It’s interesting to look at how many different actors and directors have taken their own crack at the play and the central role, and see how varied all of them are.  Below are some of the more noteworthy screen portrayals of the Danish prince, including some performances that could be seen as among the finest ever committed to celluloid.  So, let’s see how to be or not to be all of these cinematic Hamlets have been over the years.


Of course, it helps to start out by spotlighting a man whose name in the annals of film history is synonymous with that of Shakespeare.  Laurence Olivier of course became a popular movie star in Hollywood with roles in hit movies like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940).  But when Europe was plunged into war in the 1940’s, Olivier returned home to England to help boost the morale of his fellow countrymen in the best way he knew how; through the work of Shakespeare.  He took the tricks of the trade he learned from Hollywood and made a big screen adaptation of Henry V (1944) that was not only critically praised, even by Shakespeare purists, but was also a great booster of patriotic pride for the war plagued Britains, which helped them to feel more determined in the fight against the Axis powers.  After the war, Olivier now found himself an accomplished film director on top of being a respected performer, and he naturally looked for more plays to adapt to the big screen.  It’s only natural that he would choose Hamlet as his next piece.  But what he proved with his adaptation of Hamlet was that he was not afraid of changing his cinematic style either.  Where Henry V was a vibrant, Technicolor wonder, Hamlet was a stark, black and white melodrama, more befitting it’s tone.  Still, Olivier still lavished the film with incredible spectacle and he poured all his refined talent into the role too.  Sure, Olivier by that point was a little old for the role (Hamlet is described as being in his early 20’s and Olivier was pushing 40 at the time).  But still, Olivier gives it his all, and he was rewarded for it.  Olivier won the only Oscar for Best Actor of his career for playing Hamlet, and the film itself would go on to win Best Picture; the only adaption of Shakespeare to date that has done so.  That in itself is quite the achievement and befitting for someone with a legacy like Laurence Olivier’s.  Not only that, but he would set the bar high for all the Hamlet’s that would follow after him.  Olivier would go on to adapt many more films based on the works of Shakespeare, but there is no doubt that among the roles that he will be most remembered for, Hamlet will be among the best.


Of course, the impact of the works of Shakespeare is not just limited to Western culture.  Honestly some of the most interesting adaptations of the Bard’s plays have been from other parts of the world, especially in places where the same themes found in those plays resonate on a whole different level.  One noteworthy international filmmaker who was very fond of the works of Shakespeare was Japanese autuer Akira Kurosawa.  Over the course of his legendary career, he adapted a number of Shakespeare’s plays and re-contextualized them into his own nation’s cultural history.  His movie Throne of Blood (1957) is an unmistakable re-telling of the Tragedy of Macbeth, and his late career masterpiece Ran (1986) is a definite adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, both set against the backdrop of feudal Japan.  Of course, Hamlet was also a source of inspiration for Kurosawa, but unlike the other two, he chose to adapt the well know tragedy to a modern day setting.  Set in contemporary post-war Japan, The Bad Sleep Well takes the well known plot points of Hamlet, but reimagines it into the cutthroat world of corporate politics, with the Hamlet stand-in taking on a corrupt industrialist that was responsible for driving his father to suicide.  Kurosawa’s favorite leading man Toshiro Mifune brings his incredible natural intensity to the role, and it’s a perfect match for the character.  Hamlet’s character is defined by impulse and fury, and Mifune does all of that brilliantly.  Though the movie doesn’t use the same text as Hamlet’s play (not even in translation), the story itself is still vividly translated into it’s new setting and time period.  Kurosawa wasn’t the first to reimagine the story for a modern setting, but he demonstrated how well the story can be adapted to pretty much any time and place while still maintaining it’s core elements.  With Mifune’s intense performance and an excellent vision of how to update the story, The Bad Sleep Well really shows how universal the story of Hamlet is across the world, and it provided a look into how Shakespeare’s global appeal would influence so much of the different artforms throughout the decades that followed.


Since the days of Laurence Olivier, the landscape of British cinema changed very dramatically.  As the stately dramas of the past began to fall out of style, a new breed of filmmakers cropped up and began to take the artform in more experimental territory.  This was an era known as the British New Wave, and one of the noteworthy filmmakers to emerge from this field of new talent was Tony Richardson.  In 1963, Richardson rose to prominence with his fourth-wall breaking period comedy Tom Jones (1963), which won him both the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.   After a few more Avant Garde films that shook up the traditional standards of British filmmaking, Richardson decided to tackle Shakespeare as well, but in his own way.  Gone was the opulence of Olivier’s big screen classic, and instead the filmmaker utilized a style that felt more like versions one would see on the stage.  The sets are sparse, suggesting grandeur, but through minimalist set design.  It feels very reminiscent of a recent Shakespeare adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) from Joel Coen, which likewise stripped it’s images down to stark impressionism.  Apart from that, the film feels very much like a traditional staging of the play, albeit in an abridged version.  What does strike the film as odd is that the role of Hamlet is filled by Nichol Williamson, who again feels a bit old for the part.  Now, there has been a history of actors playing Hamlet that were much older than Williamson when he did (he was 33 at the time), but maybe it’s the beard that he’s wearing that makes him look and feel much older, which only becomes more distracting by the fact that a younger actor is playing his uncle Claudius (a then 30 year old Anthony Hopkins).  Apart from that, his performance is perfectly suitable, and fits well within the vision that Tony Richardson is trying to display in this movie.  This may be a movie version that either is too much of a departure stylistically, or one that actually feels closer to the roots of the play for some audiences.  In any case, it does reinforce how well Hamlet is able to remain relevant across many different generations of storytellers.


For a long time, some of the most noteworthy adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet have been made outside of the Hollywood system.  But, Hollywood would also tackle the famous play from time to time.  This lavish Warner Brothers production from Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli (who also brought Romeo and Juliet to the big screen in 1968) brings Hamlet back to it’s pre-Renaissance roots in a very medieval setting.  It also has a blockbuster cast, including Mel Gibson in the title role.  Regardless of what one thinks of Mel Gibson today, his casting as the Danish prince does make sense.  He was a big movie star at the time and was still youthful looking enough to believably take on the role.  He also had a strong history of giving intense performances in his movies, with this movie in particular seeming to be a warm-up for what he would eventually do in his award winning Braveheart (1995).  At the same time, you can also clearly tell that Mel is a movie star with not a whole lot of experience with Shakespeare.  He plays the role of Hamlet much in the way that he would also play William Wallace; very cinematically.  But, it becomes distracting when the text of the play is also being used, and Gibson’s grasp of the iambic pentameter isn’t as refined as some of his co-stars like Glenn Close or Ian Holm, who have more stage experience with Shakespeare.  Even still, the performance is serviceable enough, because this isn’t a stage set version of Hamlet; it’s a lavish Hollywood spectacle, to which his performance is arguably more naturally attuned with.  At the same time, it’s not at all surprising that Gibson hasn’t revisited Shakespeare since.  Obviously he’s got a lot of other issues to deal with, and Shakespeare clearly is not his style.  But, compared to other Hamlets in the past, this is also one of the performances that does stand out as being more naturalistic in comparison, and less stage bound.


Hamlet’s characters are so universally well known that you can imagine what the lives they have outside of the roles they play in the story.  That was the particular idea that playwright Tom Stoppard stumbled upon when he wrote his own meta examination of the story of Hamlet.  Instead of writing his play around the most famous characters in the story, he instead focuses on the throw away side characters; in particular Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.  The two characters are just bit players that occasionally are present to be the recipients of Hamlet’s rambling soliloquies, and are eventually unceremoniously disposed of off stage, with the titular line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” being their one noteworthy addition to the play itself.  Stoppard’s farcical play hilariously reimagines how the events of the famous play would appear when seen through the eyes of characters who are not meant to be the center of attention.  In the film, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth respectively, and both off them hilariously portray the central conceit of the play perfectly, as they awkwardly wait for their turns to come in the story.  One of the best examples of this is when they find Hamlet talking to himself alone in a room.  We of course know this as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, but from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet looks like a crazy person rambling off to no one.  And that’s what actor Iain Glen (most famous recently for his performance as Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones) perfectly realizes in his performance; that demented insanity that was always beneath the surface with Hamlet that to him seemed deep and introspective but to others would be viewed as lunacy.  Glen also very much looks the part; youthful and full of energy, which makes his underlying insanity also that much more unsettling.  It’s a brilliant dissection of the underlying themes of Shakespeare’s work, and it gives the character and his tragedy a whole different context.  The movie of this play really captures the idea that the best way to see the absurdity of the world is to look at it through the eyes of those who are purposely pushed to the side.


Perhaps the most comprehensive adaptation of Hamlet ever undertaken for the silver screen, this version comes from someone who many consider to be the successor to Laurence Olivier in movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.  Like Olivier, Branagh carried his experience of performing the Bard’s works on the stage and married them with a strong expertise of the cinematic arts, and perfectly reimagined these classic works for a modern day audience.  He naturally followed in Olivier’s footsteps by making his directorial debut with Henry V (1989), and he followed that up with a colorful adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  However, when it came time to consider taking on Hamlet, as I’m sure most devotees of the Bard do eventually, Branagh was committed to doing something that shockingly had not been done up to that point, which is film the full complete text of Shakespeare’s play unabridged.  As a result, we receive the full unedited version of Hamlet, which on film clocks in at a staggering 4 hours in length.  To match that epic length, Branagh also lavished his production on an epic scale, shooting it on 70 mm film with extraordinary set design and costuming, as well as a star studded cast including Oscar winners like Julie Christie and Charlton Heston, legends of the stage like Derek Jacobi and Brian Blessed, and Billy Crystal for some reason.  The movie may be a lot to handle for someone not used to a full adaptation of every line of Shakespeare, but you definitely have to admire the audacity of Branagh’s vision.  His style is very operatic and gives the true weight of the play the epic grandeur that it deserves.  He also manages to capture the character quite well, perfectly balancing the manic insanity of his character’s outbursts with the harrowing quiet self-reflection during his soliloquies.  He also surprisingly captures the youthful spirit of the character, despite also being a bit older like so many actors have been in the role.  Surely the best way to get the full experience of Hamlet is to watch it performed on stage, but as far as film adaptations go, this is definitely the best that has been done so far, because it’s the only one that leaves nothing out.  With this, Branagh more than earns his reputation as this generation’s Olivier, and when it comes to Hamlet, he may have even outdone the old master.


Like Kurosawa many years prior, director Michael Almereyda also say a vision of how to bring the story of Hamlet to the modern day.  But what is interesting here is that he did so without changing a single word of Shakespeare’s text.  Perhaps inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s modern re-imaging of Romeo+Juliet (1996), this is a version of Hamlet that does retain the same language, but sets it in the world we know today.  And remarkably, it all still works.  Like The Bad Sleep Well, the story fits very well into a social drama of corporate greed and maniacal devotion to family legacy.  It feels very much like the recent HBO series Succession in that way.  Naturally, to make this version of the play work, the actor playing Hamlet has to feel like a contemporary modern man, while at the same time believably capable of handling the rhythm of Shakespeare’s words.  Thankfully, Ethan Hawke rose to the challenge, and gives a very strong performance.  It’s surprising how well the character of Hamlet fits into the style of a 90’s era angsty youth, and Hawke captures that perfectly.  He especially brings out the intensity of the character, while also feeling natural and not too showy in his performance.  Of course, Shakespeare purists might find some of the choices of setting and character a little too strange in this movie.  The movie does feature Hamlet delivering his “To Be or not To Be” soliloquy in a Blockbuster video store, which I’m sure is a far cry from what Shakespeare had intended.  But at the same time, it’s a looking at what this story means for our time and place, and the interesting thing about this version of Hamlet is that he’s also obsessed with the artform that has kept his narrative alive for centuries; the movies.  This gives that soliloquy a whole different context as a result, as Hamlet weighs what he plans to do against what he has seen happen in the movies themselves.  It’s an adaptation that may be a little too revisionist for some, but it is nevertheless a fascinating experiment in seeing how a modern day Hamlet would exist in our world.

No doubt Hamlet will continue to grace the silver screen in many more adaptations, but thus far, his screen presence has been marked not just by some great performances by some legendary stars, but by movie adaptations that try very hard to reimagine the character and his story in new and interesting ways.  Hamlet is very much a challenge for any actor, as you often have to memorize and deliver pages of dialogue without end, and if the actor can pull that off and make it feel natural, it can stand as a genuine achievement.  Most actors relish the chance to play Hamlet because of that challenge.  He is one of the most complex characters ever to come from the mind of William Shakespeare, full of contradiction and self-doubt.  The tragedy of Hamlet really comes from the fact that he becomes his own worst enemy in the end, by letting his emotions get the best of him and for not realizing the own folly of his plan, as noble a cause it may be.  Certainly when it comes to the greatest cinematic adaptations of the play, Olivier and Branagh are at the pinnacle.  Olivier achieved the impressive feat of winning the Oscar for his efforts, and Branagh’s version is probably the most complete version of the play that we’ll ever see put on the big screen.  But there are plenty of great performances over the years that have marked the character as well.  Even a parody of the character as seen in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) is it’s own special contribution, as it points out the inherent lunacy of the character and his not very well thought out plan.   There honestly is so many ways to tell this story and still have it work, based on it’s universal themes.  That’s why you can have the characters played by lions in an animated Disney film, or have it set in a corporate boardroom like the 2000 Ethan Hawke adaptation.  With or without the text of the play, it’s a universal cautionary tale about the way people consume themselves with revenge and how that only leads to a cycle of destruction in it’s wake.  The ultimate tragedy of Hamlet is that he is too blinded by his ambition to see that he’s sowing the seeds of his own destruction and in turn the destruction of his own kingdom as well.  At the same time, there is a nobleness to his character, in that he wishes to punish those who took power through their own ill intentions.  It remains a powerful work that continues to be both strong on the stage as well as on the screen.  And with that I say, “Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to they rest.”

Evolution of Character – The Wolf Man

Extending from folklore, to literature, to cinema, there are many iconic monsters that make up the menagerie of Halloween time.  And while some of the icons of Halloween come from very distinctive literary origins like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, there are others whose presence in the culture extend much further back and have no real true origin.  Witches and zombies for example have haunted the imagination of generations through folklore, with many different cultures having their own unique take.  And one particular creature that especially carries a long history with it is the werewolf.  With a particularly strong folkloric history in Western Europe, tales of werewolves have been present for over the last millennia.  There is something particularly captivating about the idea of transforming between species to go from man to beast.  It’s not always a story about malevolence and savagery.   Celtic folklore talks about spirits that inhabit the both the bodies of men and wolves and are protectors of nature.  The tale of Beauty and the Beast likewise draws inspiration from old Gaelic folk tales.  But when the rise of Gothic horror became popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries, the tales of werewolves went through their own transformation into something more foreboding and scary.  Over time, canonical things began to be associated with werewolf beings, such as the transmissible nature of it’s curse through the act of attacking and infecting, as well as having a silver bullet being the one thing to end it’s life.  Over time, the werewolf became an amalgamation of many different creature legends from across Europe and eventually turned into the being that we know today.  Naturally, because of it’s popularity in pulp horror literature, the creature would make it’s way to the silver screen as well.  Dating back to the early days of cinema, the Werewolf of Wolf Man would often be depicted through a quick dissolve between a human being and a live wolf, due to the limitations of the medium at that time.  It wasn’t until cinema had developed more advanced visual effects during it’s Golden Age that we finally began to see the character fully realized on screen.  What follows are some of the more noteworthy examples in cinematic history, all stemming from the basic canonical interpretation of the Western European concept of the Wolf Man creature.


Here in this early British horror film do we find the first big cinematic representation of the werewolf legend.  In particular, it’s the movie that establishes the character within a late Victorian pastiche, which has helped to link it with other Victorian era monsters like Dracula, the Invisible Man, and so on.  One thing that helps to reinforce that era defining element in the character is that his origins here come from another literary inspiration, that of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The titular Werewolf is a London based doctor named Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) and he finds London haunted by an unexplained creature that turns out to be him after he transforms into the creature at night.  Like Jekyll and Hyde, Dr. Glendon has no memory of his altered self, but slowly the clues lead back to him, and he has to find a way to remove this curse before he ends up killing the things he loves.  For an early talky horror film, the movie does alright in conveying the atmosphere of a gloomy old London where creature stalk the shadows at night.  And for it’s time, the make-up effects on actor Henry Hull look pretty good; subtle, but still appropriately grotesque.  The unfortunate thing that plagues the movie though is presence of Charlie Chan actor Warner Oland once again playing another character in yellow face; an unfortunate practice that was sadly all too common in that time.  Here, he is werewolf hunter named Dr. Yogami, and Henry Hull ultimately makes a more convincing Wolf Man than Oland does an Asian.  Otherwise, the movie does a fair enough job in bringing the image of a half man/half wolf to the big screen in a mostly terrifying way.  That in the end ultimately helped to establish the standard on which most future interpretations would follow.


Picking up the legacy that his father left behind, Lon Cheney Jr. would make a career that likewise left him recognized as a man with a thousand faces.  Cheney Jr., like his father, did much of the make-up work himself for the many roles he took over the years, including some noteworthy appearances as monsters within the iconic Universal Pictures stable.  Of all the characters he played, however, none were as more intricately tied to Lon Cheney Jr.’s legacy than the Wolf Man.  And that distinction is well earned.  Cheney’s Wolf Man is undeniably the gold standard of the character, and it’s in large part due not just to the incredible make-up work that he did to himself for the film, but also the physicality that he brought to it as well.  In the movie, you can see subtle ways that Cheney tried to mimic the characteristics of a wolf into his performance, including the hunching of his back as well as walking around on the balls of his feet rather than the heel, which gives him a hind-leg look.  The make-up is also pretty incredible as well, with Cheney just outright disappearing underneath it all.  Though he still looks more man than beast, you can still see the effort Cheney put into creating a terrifying look for the character.  His film also did a few noteworthy things that changed the character’s overall story.  For one, it contemporized the tale, bringing it out of Victorian times and into the present day.  It also made the Wolf Man American, though the setting is still English bound, with the unfortunate traveler succumbing to the curse while on his trip to inherit an estate.  Cheney Jr.  would go on to star in many future sequels to this popular original, and he even played the role again in some Abbot and Costello comedies alongside some other iconic monsters.  Even though make-up effects and computer animation have advanced to a point where werewolves can look even more monstrous today, the original image that Lon Cheney Jr. presented here is still the one that defines the prototypical Hollywood werewolf.


Nearly 40 years would pass before we would get another Hollywood werewolf that stood up to Lon Cheney Jr.’s classic.  In between were a lot of low rent attempts at creating a captivating wolf man creature, often with unconvincing make-up and visual effects.  Then came along a make-up virtuoso that would revolutionize the artform on film.  His name is Rick Baker, and he would become one of the most prolific and groundbreaking effects artists of his generation.  In an over 50 year career, Baker has won 7 Academy Awards for his work in Make-up effects, and naturally, his first win came for creating one of the most incredible cinematic werewolves in movie history.  In John Landis’ horror/comedy, we find actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne playing a pair of American tourist on a walking tour of England.  Of course, things go awry when they are both attacked by a ravenous wolf.  Dunne’s Jack is savagely killed, but Naughton’s David survives and ends up succumbing to the after effects of the attack.  It what has to be one of the most iconic horror moments ever captured on screen, we see the full breadth of a werewolf transformation as David witnesses all of parts of his body warp and stretch into wolf form.  With some amazing prosthetic and animatronic work, the full transformation is shockingly lifelike, and to this day remains a benchmark in practical visual effects.  Even after the transformation, the Rick Baker make-up and mechanically enhanced final werewolf is still pretty impressive.  But it’s that unforgettable transformation scene that really set this movie apart at the time, and made it into a classic.  I think that it’s the fact that we are finally seeing the full breadth of a transformation between man and beast shown on screen that really captured the attention of the audience.  No more using dissolves or other editing tricks.  Here we see the whole grotesque procedure, which the looser Hollywood standards would finally allow after so many years.  For Rick Baker, it would launch him into a legendary career afterwards, and as we would see, it wouldn’t be the last time he would play around in the realm of werewolves either.


Released in the same year as An American Werewolf in London, The Howling again uses make-up and effects by Rick Baker, who had quite the year.  Though not as iconic as the Oscar-winning effects in the other film, The Howling’s own visual effects to bring it’s werewolves to life are still pretty impressive.  One of the things that makes these werewolves stand out is how the look much less like real wolves and more like the creations of nightmares.  With exaggerated, fang-filled jaws, extremely large pointy ears, and razor claw hands, these are monsters of a very different kind than what we’ve seen before with regards to werewolves.  Made by director Joe Dante from a John Sayles screenplay, the movie ups the ante from other Werewolf movies by establishing not one Werewolf within it’s story, but a whole community of them.  In the film, Dee Wallace plays an investigative reporter who finds herself in a secluded mountain resort after escaping a near death experience with a serial killer.  Unfortunately, she soon learns that the simple town is not what it seems to be, and the quiet residents within it are in fact werewolves.  The Colony, as they become known, defy many traits associated with the Werewolf myth, including being able to transform without the aid of a full moon.  And in the movie, we also get our first cinematic example of Wolf Women on the big screen, including Dee Wallace’s character as she falls victim to the curse, even after escaping the colony.  Considering the amount of work that it took to not just create a single werewolf for the movie but a whole town of them helps to make this an equally impressive feat for Rick Baker in addition to his work on London.  But, as we would see again, Mr. Baker was not done yet with Werewolves in his prolific career.


Taking the iconography of werewolves in a decidedly different direction than we’ve seen, we have this film which puts the wolf man curse into a 1980’s teen comedy.  What is interesting about this version of the werewolf story is that our main protagonist doesn’t gain his wolf form through the passing on of a curse through a wolf bite, but rather through genetics.  Michael J. Fox’s Scott begins to suddenly transform one day while at school, which leads to some awkward situations, and later finds out from his father that he inherited the curse from him, as they descend from a long line of werewolves.  Basically, the werewolf curse is equivalent to diabetes or other generationally inherited disease, and in some ways is shown here to be a metaphor for puberty, as Scott is growing up into his true adult form.  It’s a movie that more or less sticks with it’s 80’s teen comedy clichés and only stands out because of this gimmick.  The look of Michael J. Fox as a werewolf unfortunately is a far cry from the more transformational work done by Rick Baker in the previously mentioned movies, and looks more Sasquatch than Wolf Man as a result.  At the same time, this isn’t trying to be a scary version of a Wolf Man, and instead it’s trying to fit within the confines of a silly comedy.  Michael J. Fox’s natural charisma still shines through in the role, even when he looks ridiculous under all that hair.  What is interesting is that this silly comedy would inspire a darker reimagining many years later for television with the CW series of the same name.  That show followed the more idealized version of what a werewolf should look and act like, so in a way, this movie did eventually contribute to the continued legacy of Werewolves as a horror icon.  It’s far from what you’d expect for a cinematic werewolf movie, but it’s uniqueness within the genre and popularity has helped to keep the Wolf Man a relevant character within cinema as a whole.


Rick Baker strikes once again, but here we find him accomplishing something a little more subtle.  In this movie, the transformation never goes full wolf, and instead we see the actors more or less remain visible even after transitioning into their altered form.  Rick Baker accomplishes the look by focusing on the actor’s eyes, hair, and teeth to convey the transformation, rather than relying on complex prosthetics and animatronics like he utilized for An American Werewolf in London.  This was probably due to director Mike Nichols’ insistence on keeping things simple so that the actors performances could convey the transformation a lot more.  Now, of all the actors called upon to portray a man turning into a werewolf, it’s just natural that the job would fall on Jack Nicholson, who’s already wolf-like to begin with.  The movie is also a quite different re-telling of the classic story, putting the setting in modern day New England high society.  Despite that, it otherwise sticks pretty close to classic werewolf movies we’ve seen before; especially the Lon Cheney version.  Unfortunately, and maybe due to the lack of experience within the horror genre of all involved, the movie is a bit on the boring side.  It’s hard to believe that a Mike Nichols movie starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Plummer, and James Spader along with music by Ennio Morricone and make-up by the previously mentioned Baker would turn into something so dull.  Where the problem lies is that, despite the best efforts of the actors, you never fully buy them as werewolves because of the lack of the lack of heavy-duty make-up work that we’re accustomed to.  You bring in Rick Baker and just end up wasting his talent here.  The only entertainment value comes from how over the top Jack Nicholson goes with his performance at times, as well as with how poorly executed the visual effects can be.  Otherwise as Werewolf movies go, it falls flat.  What it shouldn’t have done was try to bring prestige into a genre that was designed for pulp.


Riding that fine line between prestige and pulp better than Wolf did, this Joe Johnston directed film makes a valiant attempt to bring the werewolf back it’s Victorian set origins, and do so with all the advances in visual effects that are at our disposal now.  Naturally, Rick Baker was called upon once again to bring this creature to imaginative life, and this time he was given much more reign to work his magic.  It helps that he has an actor of intensity like Benicio Del Toro to work with as a canvas.  Del Toro’s already rugged looks work well with what he ultimately will turn into.  Director Joe Johnston, who had to step in last minute after original director Mark Romanek left the project, expertly uses his experience with visual effects to make the transformations between Benicio’s human and wolf forms look believable on screen.  CGI is used effectively here, making the transitions far smoother than in years past, but once the transformation is complete, it’s all Rick Baker’s incredible prosthetic work and Del Toro’s ferocious performance from there.  Though the movie is perhaps too bombastic at times, it nevertheless showcases incredible visual effects work that once again reinvents the way werewolves are presented on the big screen.  The transformation moments in particular really reach for the grotesque in this film, with the character’s limbs and feature’s twisting and contorting in disturbing ways.  Bringing the story back to it’s period setting also really helps to give the character more of a classical identity, which helps to solidify it’s place in the pantheon of great cinematic monsters.  The one downside of the movie is that it never gets as scary as it seems to strive to be.  It probably has to do with the fact that the movie is trying to hit a more general audience, and therefore the movie pulls a few punches.  Del Toro still is intense enough to make for a good werewolf, but the movie around his performance feels more conventional than it needs to be.  Despite that, it does give us some R-Rated gore, and it helps that Rick Baker’s effects work do not disappoint.  It’s a fair example of an ideal werewolf in a not so ideal werewolf movie.

There have honestly been more werewolves in movies and television than any other classic movie monster.  Even more than vampires, since through some convenient cinematic cross-pollination, Werewolves and Vampires have canonically become mortal enemies of one another.  It’s probably because of it’s long legacy in folklore that the concept of werewolves has endured for as long as it has.  The connection between man and nature is a compelling one in storytelling, and the idea of a transformation between species like we see with werewolves is one that still grabs at the imagination.  Werewolves still are present in many forms of media today, including playing a big part in non horror franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight.  Even media directed at younger audiences feature werewolves prominently in them, like the animated Hotel Transylvania franchise.  For the most stand-out cinematic versions that I spotlighted here in this article, what they’ve often represented are benchmark achievements in movie visual effects.  It takes a lot of work to make a believable transformation between man and wolf come to life on the silver screen, and thanks to two wizards in particular named Lon Cheney Jr. and Rick Baker, we’ve had some amazing cinematic werewolves in our history.  You can still see the imprint of Lon Cheney’s Wolf Man in most modern day versions of werewolves, particularly in the body language that today’s actors try to incorporate into their performance.  And Rick Baker’s other-worldly prosthetics really help to make the actors disappear while at the same time giving them the ability to still perform underneath all those layers of make-up.  Even with all the advances made in digital effects, there’s still something satisfying in seeing a genuine effort to create a realistic cinematic werewolf with simple old make-up effects.  That ultimately has helped the Wolf Man and other werewolves of cinema stand out so well over time.  It’s a true expression of performance and effects working together that helps to bring this iconic creature to full life, making it a true cinematic original.

Evolution of Character – Quasimodo

The city of Paris, France has many things that distinguish it among the great cities of the world.  The most noteworthy of it’s features would be the iconic and varied architecture of the city, ranging from medieval to modern.  Though there are many landmarks that bring tourists from all over the world to Paris, there is no doubt that many Parisians consider the heart of their beautiful city to be the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  Constructed over an 180 year period and completed in 1345, Notre Dame is widely considered to be the greatest medieval gothic structure ever created.  Known for it’s iconic twin tower façade, it’s extraordinary stained glass windows, and the far reaching tone of it’s massive bells, the Notre Dame Cathedral is a source of pride for the city of Paris.  But it may surprise many that Notre Dame has had to face destruction many times throughout it’s nearly millennia long history.  One of those times occurred in the post revolution France, after the long and straining Napoleonic Wars.  The city of Paris had long neglected it’s jewel of the city and Notre Dame had been left to rot and fall apart.  But, popular French author Victor Hugo wanted to change the minds of the apathetic Parisians and help them remember what Notre Dame meant to the city.  He set about writing a new epic novel centered around the Cathedral and the people of Paris, with the hope that it would remind people why it was important to have structures like it preserved.  The eventual novel, Notre Dame de Paris, was published in 1831, and it had the intended effect.  Hugo’s novel was immensely popular and it led to a restoration effort by the city to bring Notre Dame back to it’s former glory.  And while we have the novel of Victor Hugo’s to thank for helping Notre Dame survive a few more centuries, it also gave us some of literature’s most fascinating and unique characters as well.

The novel of course is referred to more by it’s English title, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and that’s because it’s most memorable character is the titular hunchback; named Quasimodo.  It’s said that when Hugo visited the crumbling Cathedral one day, he found carved in a stone on one of the towers a single word; Destiny.  From that mysterious, unknown message, Victor Hugo began to speculate who might have carved such a word, and what it might have meant.  Thus, he devised up the image of a deformed bell ringer who lived in the walls of the Cathedral itself.  The actual novel focuses on a number of characters, primarily the gypsy Esmeralda and the villainous Claude Frollo, a zealous agent of the Church.  Quasimodo actually has something of a minor presence in the book as a whole, but he is nonetheless pivotal to the story, and that’s why he’s become the icon on which the novel is mostly remembered for.  He’s also one of the reasons why the novel has become a popular source of adaptation in many different mediums, including film.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame has enjoyed many different film adaptations spanning the whole history of cinema, and the role of Quasimodo has been coveted by some of the most daring of performers.  For one thing, Quasimodo is a challenging role to undertake.  Portraying the deformed bell ringer requires a deep amount of soulfulness.  It can be very easy to go too over the top with the character and portray him in a cringy, exploitative way.  There is a fine line that must be walked in order to make Quasimodo feel like a genuine human being with a good soul like he is in the novel, and not the monster that he looks like on the outside.  The more subtlety the better, and as seen in his many different screen appearances, it usually comes down to the talents of the actor to give Quasimodo the sincerity that he needs.  What follows are some of Quasimodo’s most noteworthy appearances on the big and small screens, and as you’ll see, they include some performances that are iconic, as well as other that are notorious.


Even when cinema was in its infancy, Victor Hugo’s novel was seen as an ideal source for adaptation.  Naturally, the French were the first to commit the story of Quasimodo to film.  Though there was also an earlier adaptation from 1905, this 1911 version is the one that survives to this day.  Like many films of the period, it’s limited in what it can bring to the screen, and the same can be said about Quasimodo’s part within the film.  The 30 minute long movie is mostly centered around Esmeralda, and her persecution by the church, especially from the pious Frollo, who covets her for himself.  Quasimodo only factors in at the end of the movie, much like he does in the novel, acting as a somewhat unexpected guardian for Esmeralda.  The portrayal of Quasimodo by Henry Krauss is pretty limited, with the actor capturing the character as a lumbering creature that is more attack dog than man.  Some have said that the portrayal almost takes on a Frankenstein’s monster characteristics.  It’s certainly not the most sympathetic of portrayals of Quasimodo, but it’s also as much as you would expect in an early cinema retelling of the novel.  All the acting from the performers is broad and dramatic, so Krauss’ Quasimodo would be too.  And with the exaggerated, monster like mask that the actor has on, it’s easy to see how Quasimodo largely entered into the imagination of film-goers as something of a monster.  Not much sympathy given to the character here, but at the same time, he does act as the deliverer of justice like he does in the novel.  It’s a limited portrayal, but it would lead to many more who would thankfully explore the character more deeply in the year ahead.


Leave it to the “Man of a Thousand Faces” to take his own shot at portraying the iconic hunchback.  This version of Hunchback proved so popular in fact, that it actually turned Chaney into a full-fledged movie star, and helped to lead to his roles as the Wolf Man and the Phantom of the Opera years later.  Though Chaney does still lean into the monstrous side of the character, with his exaggerated and brooding performance, the movie does devote a bit more screen time to the character than he had seen before.  With more substantial budgets and better filmmaking tools, filmmakers were able to better capture the grandeur of Hugo’s novel, and it allowed for more screen time for Quasimodo in the story.  One moment that does get more focus in this version is the public lashing scene, where Quasimodo is tied down on a platform and pelted with garbage by the jeering public.  It’s a pivotal moment from the books because it bonds Quasimodo and Esmeralda, after she shows compassion for the tortured being.  Chaney portrays this moment very well and with tenderness, in stark contrast with the outward appearance that he has in the film.  Lon Chaney had the reputation of applying his own groundbreaking prosthetic make-up, and his version of Quasimodo is definitely other-worldy, if a bit over the top.  How he manages to perform underneath that mask of grotesquery is amazing, but it’s what he was best known for throughout his career.  What his version did more than anything was to elevate Quasimodo as a part of the overall story, and that in itself would influence most of the adaptations that followed.  If your movie is called The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s best that you know who your star attraction is, and Lon Chaney is one of the ones most responsible for turning Quasimodo into a screen icon.


If Lon Chaney was the one who popularized Quasimodo on the big screen, Charles Laughton would be the one that gave him respectability.  In this classic 1939 Hollywood adaptation, we hear Quasimodo speak for the first time.  Granted, he is incapable of saying much; the ringing of the Cathedral bells have left him deaf and he was never afforded much of an education other than what his caretaker, Frollo, had given him.  But when he does, there is a great deal of compassion in his voice.  It’s clear that Laughton wanted to find the humanity in the character of Quasimodo, and not just portray him as some creature.  As a result, we get what many consider to be the greatest portrayal of the character ever put on screen.  Laughton had built a reputation of playing some of history’s most noteworthy figures, including winning an Oscar for his Henry VIII in the Alexander Korda production of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).  And while he had been a bit of a chameleon in the many different roles he portrayed, he never disappeared into a role quite like he did for Quasimodo.  The look that he created for the character would also prove to be influential, with softer features that that of Chaney’s grotesque version.  His rotund physique also would define the character, giving Quasimodo a less threatening outward appearance.  And even though Quasimodo is mentally stunted in many ways, Laughton does give him soulful reflection that shows that Quasimodo is indeed compassionate at heart, and aware of his own moral compass.  He even turns poetic in some of his reflections.  As a result, Laughton really captures the aspect of the tragedy behind the character, that despite his good heart and his drive to do the right things, he will never be able to be accepted by the society at large, just because of the way he looks.  Only Esmeralda (wonderfully played by Maureen O’Hara) sees the good soul within.  It’s one of the greatest performances in one of the greatest movies ever made, and a groundbreaking one for Quasimodo as a cinematic character.


This widescreen epic retelling may have much of the grandeur of the 1939 version, but none of it’s subtlety.  The Italian-French co-production is a flashy technicolor spectacle that features Anthony Quinn in the title role.  Quinn was an actor fond of disappearing into a role, though he often wished to do it on his terms.  And for the role of Quasimodo, he made the choice to portray the character his way.  This involved him foregoing a prosthetic hump on his back like Chaney and Laughton had used, and instead he created the effect of a hunchback by changing his own physical gait and posture.  This unfortunately has the effect of both not working as well as he thinks it does and also coming across as a bit insensitive to people with real physical difficulties.  The reason why past screen Quasimodos have opted to create a fake hunch on their backs was because it would genuinely affect the posture of their performance, allowing them to more effectively maintain the performance throughout.  Anthony Quinn’s non-hunch performance has the unintended effect of coming and going throughout the film, making the performance inconsistent.  Not only that, but Quinn’s mumbly performance has none of the soul of Laughton’s subtle portrayal, so it just feels like the actor is mimicking the handicap just to show off some range.  It’s exactly the wrong way of portraying the character.  The movie around him is not much better either, turning the story into a brightly colored melodrama.  Anthony Quinn has done much better work than this, and has disappeared into roles much more effectively.  But when your Hunchback doesn’t even consistently have a hunch in his back, it’s a sign that he made the wrong choices in how he would tackle this kind of character.


One of the more impressive portrayals of the character can be found in this surprisingly well crafted television adaptation.  Anthony Hopkins, better known at that time for his heralded work on the stage, takes on the role of Quasimodo with the same kind of reverence that Charles Laughton showed 40 years prior.  His version of Quasimodo certainly looks more ragged and deformed, but there is compassion behind his portrayal.  And this version definitely leans heavily in the tragic figure category.  The portrayal definitely fits the tone of this version of the story, which is surprisingly gritty for a television production.  In many ways, this version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be the closest to Hugo’s original novel in terms of tone.  It portrays the City of Paris as this wild, medieval place, with the Cathedral as it’s centerpiece.  Like in the book, the city becomes character in itself, covering societies both high and low, from the palace of the king to the ratholes of the sewers.  Past versions of Hunchback largely steered away from the darker elements of the story, but this version dives right in, and shows us the Paris that Victor Hugo envisioned.  Anthony Hopkins, as always, delivers a performance that matches that needed darker tone, without losing the endearing elements that keeps Quasimodo sympathetic.  It’s fitting that even in this version that creates a more broader and harsh tapestry, that Quasimodo is not overlooked, and is given life by yet another one of the greatest actors who ever lived.  It’s also a version of the story and the character that sadly doesn’t translate into too many other versions, as it’s often the case that in order to get around some of Victor Hugo’s more pointed societal critiques, namely towards the church establishment itself, that many adaptations lack some of the story’s bite.


Apart from Charles Laughton’s iconic version, this is the portrayal of Quasimodo that likely first comes to mind.  Walt Disney Animation, in the midst of their Renaissance Era, made the controversial decision to take Victor Hugo’s classic story and give it a G-Rated spin, with a happy ending no less.  And while purists of the original story will have much to complain about, there is a lot to admire in Disney’s attempt.  It’s beautifully, and even hauntingly animated, and it features one of the best musical scores of any Disney film (yes, they turned it into a musical too).  In addition, it creates one of the most unique versions of Quasimodo ever put on screen.  The movie downplays many of Quasimodo’s handicaps (he speaks coherently, and even sings) and his deformity is softened to the point where he becomes more cute than grotesque.  But, Disney does a good job of capturing his social anxiety that has developed over years of isolation.  And the themes of prejudice, persecution, and overcoming tyranny are still maintained from Hugo’s original work, and most interestingly, this version sees the story unfold almost solely through Quasimodo’s eyes.  He is more central to the story here than any version before, and it gives us far more insight into his character.  A lot of credit goes to actor Tom Hulce for his soulful portrayal, although some of his dialogue may fall a bit too heavily in the cutesy, Disney-fied territory.  Hulce still manages to show a dynamic range of emotions through the character, and probably delivers the most epic reading of the line “Sanctuary!!” in history. For many recent generations, this has been the entry point for a lot of children to learn about Victor Hugo’s original story, the idea of not judging a book by it’s cover, as well as the importance of the Notre Dame Cathedral itself. While I’m sure this movie version may have appalled Victor Hugo himself if he were to see it, it nevertheless is an impressive attempt that is more mature than the average animated film and features one of the more interesting Quasimodos we’ve seen yet on the big screen.


We have another version, made for TV, that does put Quasimodo more at the center of the story.  This one, unfortunately has none of the depth of character of Disney’s version, nor the subtlety and grit of Anthony Hopkin’s TV version.  It was a movie that clearly piggy-backed on the success of Disney’s version and was released only a year later.  Interesting enough, Mandy Patinkin was one of the actors who auditioned for Disney’s Quasimodo, but did not get it (apparently due to a disastrous audition).  It’s probably a good thing in the end because his portrayal of Quasimodo here is so bland and basic.  He acts through heavy prosthetics, but doesn’t have the dynamic screen presence of Lon Chaney to make his performance work through the make-up.  Instead, he just looks like he’s making weird faces throughout the movie.  The whole thing looks like a rushed production, despite having some solid talent on board; apart from Patinkin, the movie also has Selma Hayek as Esmeralda and Richard Harris as Frollo.  It’s says a lot that a version of this story looks so much more low rent than another TV version that was made 15 years prior.  Exactly how hard was it to get a better budget for this movie.  Even still, it comes down to how well the actors can work through the shortcomings, and though performers like Mandy Patinkin have shown they can be very good in many different things, it does not work out as well when they are given so little to work with.  It’s a mostly boring and forgettable TV feature that only stands out mostly in how much it falls short of past versions of the story put to screen.

What I think is very interesting about the character of Quasimodo in his evolution on the big screen over the years is how he has gone from an oddity within the fabric of a larger narrative, to someone who commands the story completely.  Each version of Quasimodo brings him more central to the story, to where he goes from a unruly creature in the silent movie version, to being the primary protagonist in an animated feature.  It’s a testament to the filmmakers and actors over the years who have tried so hard to find the humanity in the character that we have grown to empathize with him and even identify with him in many ways.  Charles Laughton’s groundbreaking version certainly laid the groundwork for giving the character new purpose, and Disney (despite straying very heavily from Victor Hugo’s original intent) has fully turned Quasimodo into not just an empathetic character, but also a hero.  It’s surprising that not many more adaptations have come in recent years.  It has been floated that Disney will likely do a live action remake of their animated film in the coming years, and rumor is that Idris Elba is looking at making a modern day re-imagining of the story with Netflix.  Despite all the many different interpretations of the story, there is one thing that has left a lasting legacy from this book, and that’s the reverence it gave to the Notre Dame Cathedral itself.  The Cathedral almost becomes this maternal presence in the story, giving Quasimodo a home and Esmeralda a sanctuary, and it’s helped to keep the real structure cherished in the hearts of people the world over.  When the Cathedral was nearly lost in a fire two years ago, it hit close to home even to people who have never been to Paris, and that is likely due to how much the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has permeated the culture.  Despite the cryptic message found by Victor Hugo all those years ago, there never was a bell ringer named Quasimodo, but there has always been a Notre Dame, and that in turn has given us an attachment to him as a character.  Quasimodo has become just as much of an icon as the Cathedral he called home and it’s been a pleasing thing to see him become treated more humanely with every new interpretation.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”