Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn (2014)

| April 6, 2015

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are two of the most iconic characters in American literature, and most people probably know that Mark Twain wrote two books about them: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

What’s probably less well-known is that Twain also published the novels Tom Sawyer Abroad in 1894 and Tom Sawyer, Detective in 1896 (both narrated by Huck), and left two more sequels and one book featuring Tom Sawyer unfinished.

In other words, even from the beginning, the characters became both timeless and adaptable, and the stories have been retold countless times in various media. Of the two, Tom Sawyer is the most frequently told tale, since it is much simpler and avoids the political satire and social commentary of Huckleberry Finn. However, it seems like you can’t have Tom without Huck, and the title of this recent adaptation does have both of their names.

With Bulgaria standing in for the Mississippi River of the 1840s, Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn (TSHF) remains remarkably true to the events of the novel, although with a little rearranging and some details omitted.

There are multiple ways to go about adapting the story. Some concentrate on the comedy, while others focus on the romance between Tom and Becky Thatcher. Other versions focus on the river adventures.

In this case, TSHF focuses on the murder case at the heart of the original book, as Tom (Joel Courtney, Super 8) and Huck (Jake T. Austin, Wizards of Waverly Place) become inadvertent witnesses to a crime committed by Injun Joe (Kaloian Vodenicharov, World War Z) but blamed on affable town drunk Muff Potter (Nickolay Dodov, debuting).

Although Tom and Huck make a pact to never tell anyone what they saw, Tom’s conscience eventually moves him to testify in Potter’s defense, putting him in Injun Joe’s murderous sights. Similar to 1995’s Tom and Huck, this time around is more of a thriller than a picaresque adventure.

What does make the film stand out, though, is the framing device, in which a much older Mark Twain tells two young visitors the story. Twain is played by an unrecognizable (physically and vocally) Val Kilmer (Bloodworth). Although he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, Kilmer does serve as our narrator. Onscreen, his resemblance to Twain is uncanny. In voiceover, he hits the perfect flat Midwestern twang that we’d expect. Of course, Kilmer had been doing his own one-man Mark Twain show onstage around the country prior to this film, so he’s certainly well-qualified for the role.

Courtney and Austin work as Tom and Huck, although they are not differentiated as much as the duo usually is. Huck is typically the scruffy, older one, while Tom is a bit more refined. Here, they’re both the same age, constantly shoeless and scruffy-headed, their outfits really only distinguished by color scheme and their haircuts very similar.

We lose out on some of what Twain established about Huck in the books: he was an outsider, described by Twain in his autobiography as the town’s youngest pariah. Oh — one change that has been constant in every adaptation: Tom and Huck are always cast much older than the originals. In one silent film adaptation, the actors were in their 20s. In TSHF, both actors were just over eighteen.

The characters are always depicted as early teens, but here’s what people forget, and I had to look up: Huck Finn was about eleven in the first book, and Tom was younger than him. In the 19th century, childhood really didn’t exist.

The film does hint at Huck’s journey, from irresponsible ne’er-do-well to briefly civilized before his conscience leads him on to his next adventure, but the character starts out too nice and not enough bad-boy to get anywhere.

While TSHF is a perfectly fine telling of the story, most of the characters besides our heroes are very underdeveloped. This might be fine for bit parts like the school teacher or even Judge Thatcher, but both Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher, the two most important female characters in the book, are barely sketched in. (Despite the name, Jo Kastner, the adapter and first-time director, is a man.) Even the Widow Douglas, who plays an important part at the end, just sort of pops up at the necessary moment.

The cast is serviceable, and the lack of big names really helps to let the actors vanish into their roles. The locations are convincing, although one CGI effect is a little iffy. Visually, everything feels more like TV movie than theatrical film, but the movie does hit most of Tom Sawyer’s “Greatest Hits” — whitewashing the picket fence, getting “engaged” to Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe’s escape from the courthouse, etc.

But, in adapting a classic work, it feels like Kastner has left too much out. Just one example: we see Becky’s upset when Tom accidentally mentions having been “engaged” to another girl before, but never see what Tom does to make it better.

If you’re a fan of Twain and Tom and Huck and have seen more than a few of the previous versions, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for this one. However, if you happen to have children or nieces/nephews of the right age whom you’d like to get interested in reading, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to slip into their video stream or even plop them down in front of the DVD player with.

While it has mildly suspenseful moments and a couple of murders, it’s very family friendly otherwise. (Tom and Huck seem to have given up their iconic skinny-dipping after 1970s versions although — surprisingly for an adaptation made now — Huck is still seen a couple of times smoking his corncob pipe.)

There was one moment in the film though, courtesy of Mr. Kilmer’s Twain and a single visual, that gave me chills while justifying the framing device and it made me want to learn more about his life. So yes, this film made me want to read Twain’s autobiography now. If it makes even one modern day kid want to go read the originals, or any books, then this passable adaptation is worth it.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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