Three Three Mens

To say nothing of the dog.

So, the first of my book fair purchases to be consumed was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which proved extremely rewarding. I love the film of JKJ’s THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, and this has some of the same peculiarity. As with a lot of literary works one hasn’t read, perhaps especially comic novels, one forms a false impression of what to expect. Here, the slapstick, bickering, stupidity, falling-in-the-water stuff and the good-old-days Victorian atmosphere do make up aspects of the book, but there’s a lot of surprising material alongside it, and anyway the expected content isn’t quite how you expect it: the novel was a contemporary work, so the period detail, in a sense, isn’t; and the slapstick, being delivered by words, gains subtlety. None of the boating mishaps seem like they’d be particularly amusing to actually watch, it’s all in the telling.

And the film adaptations bear this out, dreadfully. I haven’t been able to see 1915’s HANGING A PICTURE, produced by and starring one Eric Williams, which adapts one episode of the book, nor the 1920 full adaptation, which seem interesting chiefly because they’re so close in period to the novel. As with Wodehouse, making a lot of effort to create a period look seems antithetical to the easy charm of the source. (I’m not certain if either of these films survive.)

So the 1933 film, directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock’s old bête noir, has a certain advantage. As the opening images unspooled — a phantom ride floating down a sun-dappled Thames — I thought, “Well, this is the right mood.” That lasted as long as the credits. In the spirit of the misbegotten JEEVES films starring Arthur Treacher, which turned Wodehouse’s super-brain into a bumbling duffer, Cutts’ film proceeds to get everything perfectly wrong.

The actors are sort of capable, but the decision has been made to make one of them the straight man hero type, always having the horse-laugh on his pals. Which isn’t like the book, but also isn’t an appealing dynamic. Jerome, democratically includes himself in most of the acts of silliness in the novel, and though he regards himself as less fatheaded than his pals, a lot of his humour is about reading between the lines, so that he can show that he’s capable of being just as foolish as his travelling companions, and also that they each have the same false sense of superiority. This is so much more wittily ironic than the movie’s approach.

The novel has no plot save its journey. The film tries so hard to have a plot, it forgets to have a journey. The hapless holidaymakers basically park their boat, get out, and have misadventures with a pretty girl, her bad-tempered uncle, the local constabulary, and the truculent locals. This all makes a liar out of the title. In fact, there isn’t much to recognise from the novel — a man sits in butter and has to have it scraped from the seat of his trousers, and there’s the bit where three fishermen claim credit for a big trout hung on a pub wall. And there’s a dog, but it’s the wrong breed, belongs to the wrong man, and is used for cuteness. The disreputable Montmorency of the book, a memorable literary dog, is nowhere to be found.

The language is interesting: George (Edmund Breon — never heard of him) says “You arse” and “stop arsing about.” When he and Harris (William Austin — nope) get on their faces, the charming leading lady (Iris March — I know, there shouldn’t BE a leading lady) says they look “like nigger minstrels.” The N word does appear in the book once, also, in one of those moments that makes you pause a bit.

Purely because it’s 1933, which nobody involved really deserves credit for, this terrible film feels a bit more “right” that Romulus Films’ 1956 version, directed by Ken Annikin. The choice of composer, John Addison, is the smartest thing about it. Let’s state the obvious: to film Three Men in a Boat, first choose your three men. With care.

So here we have Jimmy Edwards as Harris, which is the wrong man — George is the fattish one. But that doesn’t really matter, except — WHY CHANGE IT? But Edwards had his own handlebar moustache, and a sort of music-hall tang, and looks good in a blazer and straw boater. He’ll do.

David Tomlinson is cast as Jay, which again is the wrong person for him to play. He can play the silly ass just as well as Edwards, and might have made a good Harris. But he can’t suggest Jay’s soulfulness, he can’t suggest that this man might write this book. The film “solves” this by removing the book’s strangeness (the bits that mark it out as by the same author as The Passing of the Third Floor Back), its historical asides, its poetry. Everything that leavens the dicking around in boats, in fact.

And then, because it’s a Romulus production, and producer James Woolf was hopelessly in love with him, we have Laurence Harvey. Maybe the worst piece of casting in history. I can actually imagine Harvey as Jay, underplaying the soulful bit. But here he’s George, no longer fat, now an unreformable babe-hound (and the film supplies a roster of babes — Jill Ireland, Lisa Gastoni, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri), and he overplays horribly, as he was wont to do when the material was unsuitable.

Chasing girls is very much not a theme of the book. Both these movies regard that as a problem to be solved. And so here’s Shirley Eaton stepping from a bath, offering a peekaboo glimpse of her sodden fleshings. You couldn’t go anywhere in Britain in the late 50s/early 60s without tripping over Shirley’s damp body stockings or her gilt breast-cones from GOLDFINGER. All of which gives hammy Laurence even more to get excited about.

So there’s a lot of shouting with these three (the book has a restful feel of “perspiring bluster recollected in tranquillity”), and a repeated tic of having them DESCRIBE whatever supposedly funny thing has just happened (“You’ve DROPPED it in the WATER!”) that certainly doesn’t help anything. And although this one reproduces several of the events of the novel, it misses the tone completely, and although unlike the 1933 film it DOES centre on a journey into the Heart of Lightness, Annikin pretty well forgets to drift downstream — that opening shot of the b&w movie is never evoked by his stodgy, static, Cinemascope shots.

(In fairness — the 1933 MEN survives only in a very jumpy, spliced print, while the 1956 one can be seen on Youtube but in a wretched pan-and-scan, which certainly can’t help.)

The best English-language adaptation (there’s a 1961 German transposition which sounds pretty bad) is certainly the 1975 BBC version, scripted by Tom Stoppard, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Tim Curry (Jay), Michael Palin (Harris) and Stephen Moore (George). They should have chased up Vyvyan Stanshell, I feel, but this is a fine trio. Best of all, they’re all deadpan — Curry plays it like Brideshead Revisited, Palin plays it like Ripping Yarns — and he’s a marvellous actor for using the frame in comic ways, as scene in the Hampton Court Maze scene, staged properly as a flashback here. He’s also the best at falling over, and he makes sure to do this a lot.

One of the few laughs in the Annikin film is the pineapple tin bit, reproduced from the novel, but this limply rendered, based solely on the idea of three idiots without a tin opener trying to get at the sugary fruit with blunt instruments. JKJ gets FAR more comic value out of it than that ~

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast.

There’s this odd pre-Lovecraftian sense of the uncanny in English comic writing — think of Bertie Wooster’s reaction to the cow-creamer.

And Stoppard goes still further, setting up the slapstick with a set of wonderfully precise tributes to the desirable qualities of tinned fruit ~

“Nothing quite like tinned pineapple.”

“Puts fresh pineapple in the shade.”

“It’s the juice.”

“It’s more of a syrup, really. It’s not exactly sweet. It’s not exactly bitter.”

“It’s the way it’s not exactly crunchy, and yet it’s firm, and clean-tasting.”

“Where’s the opener?”

Poignant!

The TV version isn’t perfect. It truncates a few things that would only have really worked if done whole, includes a few things it could have done without, and of course has to leave out lots. But it’s sensibly short, at just an hour — plotless things being trick to sustain for longer. And Stoppard is the only one of the various writers to have tackled the book who can not only adapt ready-made bits, but make up new material that feels JKJ-ish (while also being pure Stoppard, as when the careless heroes collide with an anachronistic Percy Bysshe Shelley). And of course he includes some of the strange bits of poetry and tonal shifts.

It’s pretty well worth watching, but not so much as the book is worth reading.

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. It seemed as if, in the silence and the hush, while we her children slept, they were talking with her, their sister — conversing of mighty mysteries too vast and deep for childish human ears to catch the sound.

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god the have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

And yet it seems so full of comfort and of strength, the night. In its great presence, our small sorrows creep away, ashamed. The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained faces up to hers, and smiles; and, though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.

 

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12 Responses to “Three Three Mens”

  1. Thanks for this! Interesting to note that the ’75 version actually precedes both Ripping Yarns and the telly Brideshead.

  2. Then there’s a definite set of things wafting about the ether that all three shows tapped into. Dreamy daft poshness…

  3. I haven’t seen any of these films, but I heartily agree with you about the book. A successful adaptation would require a director who can handle both physical comedy and dreamlike poetry, and has a sense of period as well: I don’t think there’s any such person at work in the UK today, unless Bill Forsyth could be coaxed out of retirement.

  4. Oh, he’s not even retired… just very particular.

    I do recommend the TV version above, if you don’t mind using YouTube. Frears is just good enough at everything you mention, so much so that I’d like to see him try some more physical comedy…

  5. Judy Dean Says:

    I was raised on Three Men in a Boat, having been born in Windsor, and the river has always been a potent source of nostalgia for me, still featuring in my dreams, although it is many decades since I left the Thames Valley. The obvious choice of director for an adaptation of the book would be John Boorman, were he not now in his eighties. He’s a Shepperton lad, a few miles downstream of me, but his autobiography makes clear his emotional relationship with the river and the riverside scenes set in Berkshire in Hope and Glory make me ache to be there on the water.

  6. Boorman’s disqualifying trait would probably be his near-total lack of humour — except there are traces of a very odd kind of wit in his work which maybe WOULD mesh with the JKJ tone.

    I guess his version of this is Deliverance. They even both have banjos!

  7. Matthew Davis Says:

    One of the unexpected changes of mood in the book is the appearance of a suicide’s body drifting in the river. Does that appear in any of these adaptations?

    About twenty years later Stoppard returned to pastiche Three Men in a Boat in “The Invention of Love” because JKJ played a tiny part in Wilde’s downfall. In the dreamscape of the play Jerome re-enacts the boat trip in the vicinity of Reading and its gaol – all in the manner of the original novel – feeling slightly guilty for exposing Wilde in the newspapers but still denigrating Wilde as a writer and a perverse unmanly comedian.

  8. Does Chesterton appear? He wrote an interesting piece a few years after Wilde’s disgrace, a sort of reappraisal in the light of what was then known — at least he felt bits of Wilde were worth rescuing.

    Stoppard briefly includes the drowning victim — I think it deserves slightly more time than he allows it, but he’s at least trying to honour the author’s odd intentions. He leaves out my favourite line, “Anyhow she had sinned — some of us do now and then.”

  9. Matthew Davis Says:

    No Chesterton unfortunately. I spent the last ten years of Richard Griffiths’ life hoping someone would produce a Chesterton drama in which he could play the lead. The fundamental problem being that while he would have tons of good lines, and lots of cameos by famous figures with their own good lines, there’s precious little actual drama to his life

  10. Oh, that would have been ideal. Failing that,an adaptation of John Dickson Carr’s Chesterton-inspired Dr. Gideon Fell stories.

  11. That wonderful book has been with me since childhood (even tho’ I have a soft spot for the film, which introduced me to the novel when I was 6. It was released on Xmas Day 1956 and I seem to recall was my Boxing Day treat that year).
    If you cast your mind back, you vaguely may recall that I was hospitalized with a TIA (translation: mini-stroke) late last year (you sent me a kind greeting on my f/book page, anyway) and my husband took a pic of me in the ER. Although barely conscious I was clutching my Penguin edition of Three Men in A Boat, which has made several transatlantic trips with me to and fro between London and Los Angeles and which I always reach for in a crisis or panic. Although oddly, I have never bothered reading Jerome’s sequel Three Men on The Bummel.

  12. I’m planning to get my hands on the sequel and some of JKJ’s other work. Must be something there. And even is the sequel is, as everyone says, disappointing, it must surely have MOMENTS…
    Hope you’ve been making the speediest of recoveries.

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