Movie Versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Mark Twain's ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' has inspired several film adaptations, though most gloss over the book's powerful indictment of slavery and instead focus on the more fun, uplifting aspects of the story.

A Misunderstood Classic

In 1885, Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the sequel to his bestselling novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was published in 1876. Tom Sawyer is a nostalgic look at childhood in Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri in the 1830s, told through the adventures of the rambunctious Tom, who gets in trouble with his strict Aunt Polly while pursuing his crush Becky Thatcher.

On its surface, Huckleberry Finn, is a similar book, focused on the adventures of Tom's friend Huck Finn. Huckleberry Finn is distinguished by its focus on slavery, a topic avoided in the first book despite being set in a slave state in the decades before the Civil War. Huck faces a moral dilemma as he decides to help the slave Jim escape and grows as a result. His maturation is highlighted near the end of the novel when Huck meets back up with Tom, who is still immature and contrasts with Huck.

Despite these differences, the two books are often thought of as the same, especially by people who have not actually read them. This reputation is helped by the film adaptations of Huckleberry Finn which often combine it with parts of Tom Sawyer and typically ignore the book's serious issues. This lesson will look at three of the most well-known film versions and examine what they get right and wrong about the story.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939)

This adaptation was directed by Richard Thorpe and stars Mickey Rooney, the big child star of the 1930s. It was produced by MGM, the biggest studio of the time and remains perhaps the most well-known film version of the novel. However, it is generally considered to be a terrible adaptation of the novel. To start with, Rooney was already 18 by the time he made this film and many critics pointed out that he was too old to play 13-year-old Huck.

The character of Huck was drastically changed to line up with Rooney's screen persona, which he had developed in the long-running series of Andy Hardy films. This persona is a plucky, can-do teenager with a constantly sunny disposition. Due to this, Rooney's Huck more closely resembles Tom Sawyer instead of the morally conflicted Huck of the novel. As a result, this film lacks the depth or the humor of Twain's story.

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