Critical Essays Tom Sawyer: The Movie, the Musical, and the Novel


As popular as the novel is, there has never been a commercially successful film made from it. Furthermore, no movie version of Tom Sawyer has ever captured the essence of the novel. Many TV films have attempted to capture the unique qualities of the novel but have, for the most part, failed, partly because the novel appeals on two such different levels--that of the adult and that of the child. Perhaps the most successful (and most easily obtained) version is Tom Sawyer, produced by Panavision Films in 1973, which stars Johnny Whitaker as Tom Sawyer, Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher, and Celeste Holm as Aunt Polly.

The purpose of comparing two such different approaches to a single work is that by doing so, we can more easily see the problems of transferring a story from one medium to another, and in evaluating the changes from one medium to another, we come to a better understanding of the original work.

Like a Broadway musical comedy, the movie begins with an overture and then shows a still picture of the Mississippi River. This shot is accompanied by a musical overture composed by the famous John Williams, winner of many awards for best musical score.

At the beginning of the movie, we hear the school bell ringing and we see Tom Sawyer leaving home, hiding his books, removing his shoes and running barefooted through the town, and arriving at the river's edge where he meets Huck Finn and Muff Potter. Immediately, the person who has read Twain's novel recognizes that this work is different. Huck becomes a central character in the movie (thus his appearance in the opening sequence).

Also, the character of Muff Potter becomes central to the film. Unlike in the novel, the film's Muff assumes the central comic role: Throughout the movie, he is constantly discovering whiskey in some strange place where he has previously hidden it. Instead of being introduced late in the novel and then only at the graveyard performing an illegal act, he is a central part of the movie. We hear of the plot in the graveyard immediately as Injun Joe, mean and fierce looking, tells Muff that Dr. Robinson is looking for them. This introductory scene ends with Tom and Huck playing on a raft in the middle of the Mississippi River to the accompaniment of music.

From the opening scene to the end, the movie takes equal liberties with the novel to the point that one could not identify the movie as based on Twain's novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer except for the similarity of the title. Readers of the novel will recognize, for example, other points of difference:

  • The differences between Tom and Huck are not explored. In fact, they are minimized.
  • The role of Mrs. Harper is expanded to included the role of the Widow Douglas, a change which adds nothing significant to the movie.
  • Many of the minor scenes are missing from the movie, and while critics may argue over the relevance of these minor scenes, they are nevertheless memorable to the reader.
  • Although the movie captures the fun of the whitewashing episode, the purpose of the scene is lost. Instead, it becomes a major musical production, splendid but artificial and thin.
  • Because the movie is a joyous celebration of youthful exuberance and happiness, there is no place for the gruesome death of Injun Joe.
  • At the end of the movie, Tom and Judge Thatcher are on a riverboat, leaving Hannibal for a visit down river, and Tom spies Huck alone on a raft on the Mississippi River.

Essentially, the movie is a colorful extravaganza with lots of pretty scenes, youthful exuberance, and good dancing and music (albeit without any notable or memorable songs). In its broadest outlines, the movie picks up bits and pieces of the novel but possesses no real significant meaning. It is a bit of fluff best seen when one wants to escape from reality.

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