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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Adapting "Gulliver's Travels"

It's not uncommon for movie adaptations of literature to make changes to the source material. The transition to the screen is not always an easy one, and what works on the page sometimes doesn't work on the screen, and vice versa. Some people are upset by movies that alter one iota of their beloved literary stories, and sometimes I'm like that myself. But in general, I'm ok with that. A movie isn't going to change the book, so why not let the movie be its own thing?

What's weird about Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, though, is how virtually all its adaptations make the same changes to the source material. If all you know about Gulliver's Travels came from the movies, you probably think it's a children's story about a guy who visits a land of tiny people.

And this belief would be reinforced by the common children's editions of the novel, many of which only include the first quarter of the book and are bowdlerized in any case.

In fact, Gulliver's Travels is a remarkably complex novel, subtly nuanced, and psychologically compelling, and with an occasionally mature edge to it. It is divided into four sections, the first chronicling Gulliver's famous adventures in Lilliput, where he finds himself in the middle of a war between two nations who battle over which end of a hard-boiled egg should be eaten first. So pervasive is this book's influence today that "big-endian" and "little-endian" have found their way into legitimate computer terminology, to refer to the way bytes are ordered to represent numbers. In stark contrast to the cute little benevolent creatures of the movies, the Lilliputians of the book are actually pretty nasty people.

The second part of the book chronicles Gulliver's journey to Brobdingnag, a land of really huge people. It's a far less well-known portion of the book, but it did give us the English word "brobdingnagian," which is a synonym of, you know, "big." The third part has Gulliver going to a bunch of different places, and the fourth has him visiting a land where horses are civilized and humans live in trees and behave like monkeys, up to and including monkeys' more uncouth behavior. The four parts together, and his subsequent return home, paint a portrait of a man who begins with an optimistic cheer and ends cynical, suspicious, and frankly crazy.

So, you know, not really a cute little children's story.

But as I say, you'd never know this if what you know of the story comes from the movies. Never has a book been adapted so many times to different mediums and been altered in largely the same way, every single time. As I said in the beginning, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. One of the best screen adaptations is one of the least faithful and most oriented towards children. But I think it's a shame that the spirit of the novel, which has all the ingredients for a dark character epic movie, is so persistently abandoned.

But intact or not, the basic overall story somehow hits something innate in the human psyche, for the book has purportedly never been out of print since its publication in 1726, and as shown below, it has been adapted for film in many different ways, by many different countries, starting at the dawn of cinema.

The first screen adaptation was a short film in 1902 by the French director Georges Melies, who is responsible for filmdom's earliest famous image. (Click on the link, then scroll down for the Man in the Moon shot. That's a space rocket that's stuck in his eye.) Melies' version was a short film, though it actually covered more of the book than most adaptations do. But the works of Melies, and indeed of any one making films in 1902, aren't what we think of as, you know, movies. Essentially, they were filmed stage actions that link together experimental special effects. The narrative isn't always clear.

In 1923, France produced another version, called Gulliver In Lilliput, which was an animated short. Information on this one is scarce.

In 1934, Walt Disney adapted the work as a short cartoon with Mickey Mouse as the star, in Gulliver Mickey. Mickey Mouse is pretty well taken care of, and this cartoon is still available today. Though it obviously can't be considered a very canonical adaptation, it's a good cartoon.

In 1935, there was yet another animated version, this one a feature-length film from Russia called Novyy Gulliver, or "New Gulliver." But it was sort of a meta-adaptation, because it's about a (live action) Russian boy that dreams about being in Lilliput, and the whole thing winds up being more about Marxist propaganda than storytelling. Lilliput is brought to life through puppetry and claymation.

In 1939, we get what I alluded to earlier: possibly the best, yet least accurate adaptation of the book, a feature-length, traditionally animated feature by Max and Dave Fleischer, the masterminds behind the Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons. At the time, the only American feature-length animated film in existence was Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so this was a very early experiment with full-length children's animation, and it works out pretty well. It's not as timeless as the Disney films from the era, but it's well done and light and frothy and cute. Obviously, like virtually all of these adaptations, it only covers the Lilliput segment of the story, and even that is largely original, drawing only the overall scenario from the book. And maybe that's why it works so nicely.

The animation style is quite interesting: the Lilliputians are (at least mostly) original caricatures, but Gulliver himself is rotoscoped -- that is, lines tracing footage of a real human actor. The disparity between the two styles is stark, and I can't say it entirely works, but it's interesting and gets the job done. The good news about this film is that it has fallen into the public domain, and you can watch or download the movie online for free at For kids and animation junkies, it's worth checking out.

Also of particular interest is The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), a live action film with claymated creatures by Ray Harryhausen, whose work in Saturday matinee movies like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad remains popular to this day. In this one, Gulliver is enlisted by Lilliput to help them in their war against...Brobdingnag. It's a neat twist.

The 1977 adaptation of Gulliver's Travels was a peculiarly British musical that mixed live action and animated footage. Again, only the Lilliput segment of the book is covered.

The hour-long 1980 Hungarian TV special Gulliver az óriások országában did the odd thing of adapting only the Brobdingnag portion of the story.

In 1982, the BBC produced Gulliver In Lilliput, which seems to be good despite taking great liberties with the story.

Los Viajes de Gulliver (1983) is a feature-length animated Spanish film.

In 1992, it was adapted to a fairly popular animated television series.

A real standout among adaptations is the highly-publicized 1996 mini-series. It stars Ted Danson as Gulliver and covers all four sections of the original novel. While the film is directed at family audiences, it is the rare adaptation that preserves a lot of the social satire from the book that just goes completely missing in other adaptations. It's considered the best adaptation to date, though a comparison with the 1939 Fleischer cartoon is a case of apples and oranges.

That's the run-down of the screen incarnations of the story. Wanna read the book? Project Gutenberg offers the text of the novel as a free download.

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