Repurposing Twain: We Need Another Film Version of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”

There are very few film versions of Mark Twain’s works. Given the quality of the existing crop, we should probably consider that a blessing.

Connecticut Yankee has been filmed a few times. There’s a version from 1921, only 11 years after Twain’s death, and a televised version from 1978, starring Richard Basehart, Bill Bixby, and Roscoe Lee Brown (!)

connecticut_yankee_in_king_arthurs_courtThe most well known, though, is the 1949 musical featuring Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming. The movie includes a song called “Busy Doing Nothing,” and the user who put it up on YouTube writes that “[t]he film is delightful tripe…”

Ay, there’s the rub. The same tripey–maybe I should say “treacly”–quality seems to infect all the attempts to put Twain on film. I just re-read Connecticut Yankee for the first time in decades, and believe me, it’s not a comedy. Or, if it is, it’s a dark one.

Some examples:

  • a woman and her two daughters burned alive by an angry mob, and the narrator, who has been enslaved, made to warm his own half-frozen body at the flames.
  • another young woman hanged.
  • a cottage containing an entire family either dead or dying of smallpox.
  • and the climactic electrocution of thousands of knights, featuring “the death-pang of eleven thousand men.”

Perhaps the most appalling scene, though, is the forest of corpses:

We stood there awhile, in the thick darkness and stillness, looking toward the red blur in the distance, and trying to make out the meaning of a far-away murmur that rose and fell fitfully on the night. Sometimes it swelled up and for a moment seemed less remote; but when we were hopefully expecting it to betray its cause and nature, it dulled and sank again, carrying its mystery with it. We started down the hill in its direction, and the winding road plunged us at once into almost solid darkness—darkness that was packed and crammed in between two tall forest walls. We groped along down for half a mile, perhaps, that murmur growing more and more distinct all the time. The coming storm threatening more and more, with now and then a little shiver of wind, a faint show of lightning, and dull grumblings of distant thunder. I was in the lead. I ran against something—a soft heavy something which gave, slightly, to the impulse of my weight; at the same moment the lightning glared out, and within a foot of my face was the writhing face of a man who was hanging from the limb of a tree! That is, it seemed to be writhing, but it was not. It was a grewsome sight. Straightway there was an ear-splitting explosion of thunder, and the bottom of heaven fell out; the rain poured down in a deluge. No matter, we must try to cut this man down, on the chance that there might be life in him yet, mustn’t we? The lightning came quick and sharp now, and the place was alternately noonday and midnight. One moment the man would be hanging before me in an intense light, and the next he was blotted out again in the darkness…

Within the next mile we counted six more hanging forms by the blaze of the lightning, and altogether it was a grisly excursion. That murmur was a murmur no longer, it was a roar; a roar of men’s voices. A man came flying by now, dimly through the darkness, and other men chasing him. They disappeared. Presently another case of the kind occurred, and then another and another. Then a sudden turn of the road brought us in sight of that fire—it was a large manor-house, and little or nothing was left of it—and everywhere men were flying and other men raging after them in pursuit.

I warned the king that this was not a safe place for strangers. We would better get away from the light, until matters should improve. We stepped back a little, and hid in the edge of the wood. From this hiding-place we saw both men and women hunted by the mob. The fearful work went on until nearly dawn. Then, the fire being out and the storm spent, the voices and flying footsteps presently ceased, and darkness and stillness reigned again.

Not many people associate Mark Twain with such apocalyptic visions–and I mean the word in both senses as a terrible cataclysm and as its original meaning of “revelation, disclosure”–but there is enough in Twain’s writing to suggest that his reputation as a “humorist” is a a bit misunderstood.

So the question becomes, then, if Connecticut Yankee were to be made into a new movie, who should do it?

One good choice might be Czech animator and filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, who, for my money, made the only suitably grotesque version of Alice in Wonderland in existence.

From Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice”

On the other hand, it’s possible that Svankmajer is a bit too grim, so it might be better to choose someone more prone to serve up the darkness with a side of whimsy. In that case, I could go go with either Guillermo del Toro or Simon Pegg.

The best choice, though, is “D. None of the Above.”  The winner is Jordan Peele, with a screenwriting assist by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Peele is the only American filmmaker on the list, and if anyone can repurpose Twain’s history-as-horror-show novel for a new generation, it’s Peele and Coates. Shakespeare has survived by being continually updated to reflect whatever social situations are contemporaneous with whomever is producing his plays. It’s time for Twain to get the same treatment.

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