The new movie Gulliver’s Travels, opening Dec. 22, is yet another opportunity for Hollywood to ruin a classic book. This time, Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century bestseller has been updated to modern times, with Jack Black playing the title character. Black enthusiastically said that the best idea they had for the production was that instead of Gulliver being a traveller who gets shipwrecked in fantasy lands, “we have him going through an inter-dimensional portal to an alternate, not altogether different place.”
English professors are used to this by now. There have been many film versions of Gulliver’s Travels, but few have much to do with the original book, a satire that Dutton Kearney (a professor at Aquinas College who edited a critical edition of the work) calls a story of “misanthropy and self-hatred.” If Black’s version fails, it might be a slap in the face to Swift, but it’ll be well within the tradition of a beloved book that Kearney calls “difficult to adapt successfully.”
It’s easy to see why there have been so many attempts to film Gulliver’s Travels: like Alice in Wonderland, it has a Hollywood-friendly appeal for both adults and kids. Michael Seidel, a professor at Columbia University, says that though the book is an allegory about “events, ideas, or intellectual controversies,” much of it also can be enjoyed by kids “because the adventures are so primal.” Because the first two of Swift’s four parts are about Gulliver getting in trouble with people who are bigger or smaller than he is—part one is about tiny people in the kingdom of Lilliput, and part two about a land of giants—Seidel says these sections “turn on things of matter to children: relative size.” Children also “identify with Gulliver’s innocence and powerlessness in the early books,” adds Natalie Neill, a professor of English at York University.
As if cross-generational appeal wasn’t tempting enough to movie companies, Swift’s classic also has the potential to bring in everyone from highbrows to nerds. Though it’s a high-class literary story, it also features lowbrow jokes; Neill says that children particularly enjoy the moment when Gulliver puts out a Lilliputian fire by urinating on it. And many of its ideas have become mainstays of modern storytelling. Part three is about impractical people whose university learning is useless in the real world—a joke that is seen on sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory every week. And part four is about two races, one that exists on pure reason, the other on pure animal passion; without those concepts, there’s no Star Trek. Throw in fantasy ideas that beg to be brought to life with modern movie technology—or even the fake 3-D of the Jack Black version—and you might think this would be the perfect opportunity for a literary movie that actually resonates beyond literary circles.
Instead, most movie and television versions have turned it into a pure children’s story, and not even a particularly scary one like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When Max Fleischer, Walt Disney’s greatest competitor in animation, decided to make his first full-length feature film, he chose Gulliver, added songs and a romantic subplot, and awkwardly animated Gulliver by tracing over a live-action model. And that’s one of the more successful versions. More typical is The Three Worlds of Gulliver, a 1960s family extravaganza from special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) that had Gulliver’s fiancée travelling with him so there would be a love interest who wasn’t a few inches tall. Or a 1977 live-action/animated musical where Richard Harris, as Gulliver, mixed with poorly animated Lilliputians who serenaded him with lyrics like, “Your popularity is flowering, towering!”
The most faithful modern version was a 1996 miniseries starring Ted Danson as Gulliver, which was lauded for the filmmakers’ decision to adapt all the parts of the book. But Joseph McMinn, a Swift authority whose books include Jonathan Swift: A Literary Life, says even it wound up “avoiding the grotesque and the violent passages that lie at the heart of the tale.” Still, it got closer to Swift than the others (“I thought it was very good,” McMinn says) and was rewarded with several Emmys and high ratings. Yet it didn’t inspire feature filmmakers to go back to Swift, the way the hit Pride and Prejudice miniseries inspired the faithful Keira Knightley feature. Instead, Black’s film will once again concentrate on Lilliput, add more emphasis on romance among the little people Gulliver meets, and aim itself more at a young audience.
Why does Gulliver get butchered so often, in so many different ways? McMinn thinks that part of the explanation might be that the book is “not a novel, with a single narrative: in fact, it’s the opposite, a fable comprised of lots of stories, held together simply by Gulliver. Cinema has always found novels like Robinson Crusoe much easier to adapt.” But in today’s moviemaking world, where many of the most acclaimed films are episodic (like some films by Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson), that shouldn’t be a big problem. But Gulliver isn’t only episodic; it’s an episodic satire, and satire doesn’t translate well to the screen—particularly when, like Swift, the writer is making fun of people no one outside of his time will have heard of.
Some of the satire in Gulliver is timeless, like a giant king criticizing the human race as “little odious vermin” for things like deficit spending and lawyers. But in Swift’s era, the popularity of the book had a lot to do with spotting the topical barbs. Seidel says that readers bought it because they were “eager to uncover the contemporary references,” like Gulliver’s impeachment by Lilliput and his flight to a nearby kingdom—a send-up of a real-life nobleman who got impeached and left for France. Today, that’s a liability outside of the classroom. “To include too many obscure early 18th-century references risks alienating contemporary film audiences,” says Neill. “Unlike an editor of a modern edition of the book, a filmmaker cannot include explanatory footnotes!”
That’s why other satirical classics tend to get the satire drained out of them as well. L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books are dark and filled with allegory about U.S. politics, but little of it is left in the classic movie. And don’t ask Lewis Carroll fans about what Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland did to the social commentary of the original.
At least Carroll’s Alice and Baum’s Dorothy have spawned classic movies. But they have one advantage for adapters: likeable heroes. Swift’s Gulliver, on the other hand, is something of a jerk, described by Kearney as a “know-it-all curmudgeon” who is “keen on telling people how to live.” What gives a sense of unity to the four parts of the book is that Gulliver gets increasingly disillusioned with humans until, in the end, he simply gives up and decides that he prefers the company of animals.
So even when movie adaptations try to stick closer to the book, they find it necessary to turn Gulliver into a hero, or at least change the arc of the character—instead of getting nastier as the story goes on, a movie will always make him increasingly nicer. The Danson version does this by creating a framing device where Gulliver is falsely accused of being insane, and has to prove that his travels were real; it also added a happy ending for the character. As for the new movie, it offers Black as a Gulliver who’s an aspiring writer, familiar with modern pop culture, who goes from fooling the tiny folks to helping them. Kearney says that this solution involves “making Jack Black an immature man who grows into likeability—unfortunately, that’s not Swift’s Gulliver.” It’s also the same character Jack Black plays in every other movie.
What would a really faithful version of Gulliver look like? Critics who have lived with the book for many years all agree that one of the keys to it is that Gulliver isn’t just accused of being crazy—he really is. “The critical consensus,” McMinn says, “is that Gulliver goes insane at the end, having seen far too much madness and vanity in the world to accept it as ‘civilized’ anymore,” while Seidel goes further and says that Gulliver might be crazy all along: “Gulliver is a madman at the end and at the beginning of the writing.” A really faithful adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels might wind up something like Shutter Island—a dark story told by someone who is probably insane from the start. Maybe it makes sense that there’s never been a classic adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels: a real version of the book would be too depressing. Besides, the presence of Jack Black may be all the depression modern audiences can take.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.