From Deb and Dexter to Tom and Huck: All Small-Screen Literary Adaptations Are Not Created Equal

Michael C. Hall in ‘Dexter’/Photo © 2007 Peter Lovino/Showtime
Michael C. Hall in ‘Dexter’/Photo © 2007 Peter Lovino/Showtime

Can your television set be trusted with two of American literature's most iconic kids? We'd argue that it's a tough call when the man who created them is not around to protect their integrity. We're talking about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who will soon undergo a radical metamorphosis from preteen river rats to twenty-something Big Easy detectives (and presumably barflies). Recent news that producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen (the "Twilight" saga)  were developing a new network series re-imagining Twain's two favorite sons as wise-cracking sleuths in steampunk New Orleans set off alarm bells reserved for literary emergencies like this one, when very bad ideas threaten very good books.

This is particularly true when it comes to literary adaptations on the small screen. We're not talking about the damaged denizens of genre fiction. Mystery, crime, and fantasy novels have proven themselves to be the heartiest of literary species, able to survive and thrive as transplants into even the most inhospitable media ecosystem. "Dexter," which just dropped the above bombshell of a trailer for season seven, and "Game of Thrones" are just two recent examples of the symbiotic friends-with-benefits relationship between television and genre fiction.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a series based on Twain's two most beloved characters. What we take issue with here is the idea of scavenging a great work of literature to add recognizable names to a generic idea for a period crime procedural. Raiding the public domain for name-brand characters is opportunistic at best and mercenary at worst.

Twain may be the most recent victim of Hollywood's idea drought, caused in part by an increasingly risk-averse climate, which has pressured producers into developing shows and films that feature familiar elements, no matter how bastardized or hackneyed. How else to explain the strange, recent string of action-fairy tale hybrids filling multiplexes this year? As long it's called Snow White (or Rumplestiltskin or anything vaguely recognizable), studios and networks remain confident that some collective nostalgia for the known entity will herd moviegoers into theaters. According to the current calculus, any qualitative entertainment or artistic value counts only as extra credit.

The danger here lies in Hollywood's increasing reliance on rummaging through the public domain for characters to reinvent with contemporary audiences in mind. This fall CBS will debut "Elementary," which relocates Sherlock Holmes (played by Johnny Lee Miller) to present-day New York City. This thoroughly modern take on the Arthur Conan Doyle classic features Lucy Liu as Holmes' sidekick, Jane Watson -- a casting stunt clearly designed to attract more women and minority viewers. And late last month, Fox just ordered a pilot for Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtman's adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. What's next: King Arthur's Round Table ... with surfers set in San Diego?

With nobody to protect the integrity of anything written over eighty years ago, Hollywood has gone on an unregulated scavenger hunt through the public domain, combining character ideas into franken-shows and movies engineered to become monster hits. We're still holding out hope that Tom and Huck's adventures in the Big Easy will do justice to the irreverence and humor of the original. But, as Twain himself once said, "A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval."