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."

  • Randy

    Let's not forget that Twain himself re-imagined Tom Sawyer as a detective and wrote at least one Tom Sawyer mystery novel. And Sherlock Holmes has been re-booted so many times and in so many different ways that it's virtually impossible to count them. Given this I think it's safe to say that most if not all literary icons will survive and prosper any upcoming re-boots.

  • Daniel Keys Moran

    Your cynicism is fully justified, but it's barely possible there's more to it than that. Twain did write 'Tom Sawyer, Detective."

    I'd watch the San Diego Arthurian saga, you betcha.

  • Paul Boyd

    There was a recent article I read that said there is currently 50 movie remakes currently in production or preproduction. How ridiculous is that? Is there no one in Hollywood with any type of creative mind anymore? The movies ranged from Dirty Dancing to Ferris Bueller to another prequel to Batman. It's ridiculous!

  • Mark Near

    I've read Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and the two Novelettes, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, and it seems like a good concept for the extension of the story, but period detectives have been done to death. Most are lame. The Murdock Mysteries spring to mind. It could have been so good, but it just wasn't. The awful temptation is to add real historical persons into the plot, and since Tom and Huck are boys in the 1860s, oh what possibilities exist in the 1870s and 1880s! Why, they could even meet Mark Twain inspiring him to write a book about each of them. And then if they live long enough into their 50s, they can go with him to San Francisco to meet Captain Picard, Guinan, and Data. (GET YOUR OWN CHARACTERS!)

  • Joel Caplan

    Totally agree. The whole point here is dumbing down, making complicated characters simple, and teaching people to watch more, read less, and not think at all. Please add my voice to your opposition.

  • This will not be the first time that Mark Twain's Huck and Tom have been "raped" by a TV production company. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, Hanna-Barbera, the creators of cheap rip offs of Popeye and The Three Stooges and a slew of poorly animated crappy cartoons, created a live-action/animated show called "The New Adventures of Huck Finn" (I may be wrong about that title) and it was the worst rip off of the classic characters--there was also a poorly animated film that changed Injun Joe to Tattooed Joe--it stunk of political correctness. As for Mr. Holmes, give me the wonderful, but short-lived, Sherlock Holmes series with Peter Cushing--a brilliant Holmes.

  • Jem

    I think this is a case of sink or swim. Sometimes these ideas work, many times not. I do agree that genre fiction is more robust than literary, but that may be because of the often period-nature of literary classics. I think Holmes might translate well to present day, if they keep the integrity of the character. The Twain adaptation? Bleh - Tom and Huck were boys, not men, and we need another crime serial like we need holes in our heads!

    Still, many thought Thrones sacrosanct, and unfilmable. I'm glad they took a shot because it is excellent. I'm looking forward to Hansel and Gretel: Witch hunters. It takes the idea to the next level, rather than trying to reinvent it. Overall, I'm not opposed to Hollywood mining the public domain, if they keep true to the characters they wish to "name drop."

  • While the British series "Sherlock" did a brilliant job of modernizing the series, they did so by holding very closely to the actual plot of the books. There's a great scene in which Holmes tells Watson all about his sibling being an alcoholic simply by looking at an item Watson is holding. In the books, it's a fancy pocket watch, in the show, an expensive smartphone. The show managed to do the same scene, only modernized. It worked, made sense, and kept the feel of what the original author intended. The characters are still the same people. This series I can't see having anything to do with Twain's original intentions at all. Tom and Huck are children, and that is essential to their characters. Their stories are about discovering the world as children, of challenging social norms and learning about people as human beings and individuals, not paper cut-outs easily labeled. Twain used the view of the child to express the horrors of slavery, to show how black Americans weren't treated as even human, and yet in all that horror, there is still beauty and wonder and friendship in the world. What I've heard of this new series sounds like they're just using the names. They should change the names and make the series anyway to see if it will stand on its own two feet.

  • BeaM

    Re "Game of Thrones" and similar works, of course they transition to the screen, the authors are experienced writers for the screen, large and small!

    Such abominations as "The Last of the Mohicans" where the heart of the story with its conflicts and contrasts was completely traduced--or grabbing Tom and Huck for a detective story set at a time when detectives were utter trash, but a case could have been made for their being REPORTERS investigating for a newspaper since Twain was a reporter-- should fail. Quickly.

    There's nothing wrong with rewriting an old story, highlighting some aspect or another of it, introducing or deleting characters. A favorite example of mine is Terry Pratchett's "The Fifth Elephant" or, more obscurely "Night Watch" and of course, most of Shakespeare. "Sleepy Hollow" could actually be made into a show about supernatural happenings (read Irving's original, not modernized versions).

    What is wrong is using the names alone, not the characters, and not the story/ies and not the basic conflicts. No-talent has to cheat.