A staple of freshman English classes and a classic of Juvenalian satire, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” has been pored over for centuries — and yet, so far as I can determine, no one in all that time has suggested that Swift’s essay would be improved by the addition of robots.
But that’s exactly what Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” gains in its most recent movie version, which stars Jack Black as a loudmouth underachiever who works in the mail room of a New York newspaper. Black’s Gulliver — everyone calls him by his surname, owing perhaps to the fact that his first name is Lemuel — doesn’t have much in the way of ambition, but he is nursing a fierce crush on one of the paper’s editors (Amanda Peet). He finally works up the courage to ask her on a date, but chickens out at the last second, and in order to explain his presence in her office, he awkwardly puts in for a travel-writing assignment (get it?).
So far, so nothing like Jonathan Swift. Gulliver does eventually make his way to the kingdom of Lilliput, whose diminutive residents are permanently at war with nearby Blefuscu, and makes himself useful by singlehandedly dispatching the Blefuscunian navy. But that’s about all that remains of Swift’s 1729 novel. Well, that and a scene in which Gulliver extinguishes a fire raging through the Lilliputian king’s castle by voiding his bladder on the royal residence.
The movie industry has a long history of raiding literature, great or otherwise, for inspiration and then discarding whatever parts of the original don’t fit into a preestablished mold; readers of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” would be hard-pressed to recognize large chunks of the 1939 film. But in the case of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the gulf between page and screen is vast, yawning — abysmal, even.
The particulars of Swift’s satire — references to the contemporary relations between England and France, or the conflict between the Whig and Tory parties — are obscure to most modern readers. But his absurdist take on political squabbling needs no context. The ages-old strife between Lilliput and Blefuscu, Gulliver discovers, is owed to an irreconcilable debate over whether the large or small end of an egg should be broken first before eating.
In place of the novel’s acid satire of human nature, the movie gives us a sequence in which Gulliver, having vanquished the Blefuscans and become the hero of Lilliput, puts the kingdom’s grateful people to work building him a replica of Times Square, with every billboard remade to feature his likeness: “Gull Side Story,” “Gavatar” and the like. Not only is that not satire; it barely qualifies as humor.
This is hardly the first time “Gulliver’s Travels” has been faithlessly adapted; from watching most movie versions, you’d never suspect that Gulliver’s sojourn among the Lilliputians occupies only one of the novel’s four parts. But given how little resemblance the film bears to its ostensible source, the question is, why bother at all? Swift’s book is in the public domain and thus free for the uncredited plundering, and it’s doubtful the title has any resonance among the movie’s target audience. At the Vermont multiplex where I saw it the day after Christmas, a teenage boy in the lobby was trying to talk his friends into seeing the movie. “Gulliver[cq] Travels,” he said, adding hopefully, “Jack Black.”
It’s not worth getting worked up over a standard-issue dumbing-down, but this is more like an evisceration, hollowing out the source so only a shell remains. Director Rob Letterman and writers Joe Stillman and Nick Stoller fill the void with stock love plots and a tepid self-empowerment plot that ends with Black’s Gulliver doing battle with — yes — a giant robot.
Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” did much the same with Lewis Carroll’s classic, featuring a grown-up Alice returning to Wonderland — or make that Underland, since the film’s conceit is that Alice, having visited as a child, has since forgotten or misremembered many of the details. Linda Woolverton, who also co-wrote scripts for “Mulan” and “The Lion King,” converts Carroll’s morbid whimsy into a tepid Joseph Campbell myth, in which Alice must defeat the Red Queen and slay the Jabberwock. Or rather, and it pains me to write this, “the Jabberwocky,” as it’s called in the film. As anyone who’s read “Through the Looking Glass” knows, “Jabberwocky” is the poem about the Jabberwock, not the beast itself, but since more people have heard of “Jabberwocky” than read it, Woolverton eliminates any potential for confusion, or thought. The half-second it might take the viewer to process the source of that extra “-y” is time Burton could be searing their eyeballs with gaudy CGI.
“Alice in Wonderland” is a children’s book, and “Gulliver’s Travels” has become (erroneously) thought of as one, but in their original forms, they’re filled with ideas that children have to grow into, rather than predigested narratives whose main purpose is to keep them from fidgeting in their seats. They have the form of fables, but their only moral is not to try too hard. The film adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels at least hold onto their Christian subtext — “We have nothing if not belief,” says Reepicheep the talking mouse in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” — but they’re too flatly transcribed to have any emotional affect, or to transmit their ideas as anything but obscure allegory. I imagine it’s possible to sit children down after the fact and explain to them that Aslan is Jesus and so forth, but that leaves room for backlash: As a child, I devoured the novels, but I felt betrayed when told after the fact that I’d unknowingly consumed a religious text. It was like being told the delicious cake I’d just finished was laced with Brussels sprouts.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The day after watching “Gulliver’s Travels” alone, my nieces and I went to see “Tangled,” Disney’s reworking of the Rapunzel tale. As with “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Alice in Wonderland,” the Grimm’s fairy tale is treated as raw material, woven into a plot in which the imprisoned girl is a kidnapped princess whose magic hair keeps her captor perpetually young. The familiar elements of the Disney formula fall neatly into place, from the soaring Alan Menken ballads to Rapunzel’s sassy nonhuman sidekick (here, a chameleon named Pascal). But while it lacks the Grimm’s morbid detail — no eyes poked out by thorns here — “Tangled” is still a horror story, with the terrifying faux mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) at its core. Gothel has raised Rapunzel to believe she is her mother, and keeps the girl housebound by filling her with tales of the outside world’s evils. Alternately cajoling and threatening her surrogate daughter, proclaiming her love and undermining her sense of self-worth, she’s the wicked witch as mommie dearest, a master of emotional abuse who knows the scars that last are those on the inside. It’s possible parents may find her more frightening than children — my nieces were more shook up by “How to Train Your Dragon” — but her character makes the movie real in a way that the others studiously avoid. It’s the only animated movie of the three, but also the only one that feels anything like real life.