Tuesday, April 17, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Though Nathaniel Hawthorne's works had been occasionally translated to film prior to the 1960s, Sydney Salkow's 1963 anthology-adaptation of three Hawthorne stories seems to be the first not to approach the author in terms of a "veddy literary" film but in terms of a "blood and thunder" horror-opus with broad audience-appeal.  It seems very likely that Salkow and his collaborators sought to establish a Hawthorne-adaptation franchise with commercial appeal comparable to that of Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe during the same decade.

Though Salkow's effort to create such a franchise was not successful, the idea was not without merit.  In the American public-school educational system, the works of both Poe and Hawthorne were widely distributed to the same audience that spent a great deal of money at movie theaters (particularly for films in the horror genre).  In their own time Poe and Hawthorne used elements that one might tend to associate with popular "blood and thunder" entertainment-- witches and family curses for Hawthorne, torture-devices and vampiric presences for Poe-- but which both authors re-interpreted within a high-literary context.

When Poe came to the movies, adaptations often ignored or run roughshod over the abstruse symbolism of his works, as well as interjecting normative narrative story-patterns to make the stories more easily comprehensible.  Fidelity aside, though, this process did result in some very good movies, ranging from Edgar Ulmer's 1935 BLACK CAT and Corman's  1960 HOUSE OF USHER.  Why then could one not do the same thing with Hawthorne, playing fast and loose with the narratives but still formulating works with great popular appeal, particularly for devotees of horror?

Let's examine first what Salkow and his collaborators (henceforth "Salkow") did to make Hawthorne more broadly appealing.  For TWICE TOLD TALES, he re-interpreted three Hawthorne works (only one of which had appeared in Hawthorne's own 1837 anthology of the same title) and injected them with one dominant theme: the conflicts arising from sexual jealousy.  Of the three stories so adapted-- "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "Rappacini's Daughter," and "The House of the Seven Gables"-- only the last story possesses a distinct jealousy-theme in its original form.  Thus this would seem to be the element Salkow thought most useful in giving Hawthorne works popular appeal.

The film's version of "Experiment" is the least like the author's original tale.  In that story, the titular doctor discovers a "Fountain of Youth" potion.  He and his three equally aged friends test it, and all four revert to their younger selves.  In a comic denouement, the three males began fighting over the one de-aged woman present and spill the elixir.  All four promptly become their normal old selves again.  Since no one else witnessed the supposed transformation, Hawthorne leaves it open as to whether they de-aged physically or simply thought that they had become young again.

In the film, "Experiment" is played for a "menage a trois" tragedy.  Heidegger (Sebatian Cabot) and Medbourne (Vincent Price) are two aging friends who happen across a "Fountain of Youth" elixir and learn that it literally returns them to their middle-aged selves (presumably because having two middle-aged actors play anything younger would've made it a comedy).  They also learn, again by accident, that the elixir can restore life to Heidegger's Poe-esque lost beloved Sylvia.  However, once Sylvia lives again, it comes out that she and Medbourne had a previous relationship unknown to Heidegger.  The tragic ending destroys both Sylvia and Heidegger, leaving Medbourne-- once more an old man-- cut off from both his oldest friends and further access to the youth potion.  This segment sports both the strongest writing and Price's best performance, possibly because Salkow re-interpreted the original so freely.

"Rappacini's Daughter" is the closest emulation of its prose model.  As in the original, a young Italian man named Giovanni stumbles across a magnificent garden on a private estate in Padua, and meets Beatrice, daughter of the estate's eccentric owner, Dr. Rappacini (Price in the film, of course).  Guiseppe and Beatrice quickly fall in love, but Guiseppe learns to his horror that Rappacini has used his vast botanical knowledge to transform his daughter into a "poison maiden," so that it is death for a normal person to touch her, much less make love to her.  Because Guiseppe continues to visit Beatrice in the garden replete with other poisonous plants, he begins to become a "poison man."  (The film-adaptation differs in that Rappacini, rather than simply observing this process come about, goes out of his way to transform Guiseppe to become the "Adam" to share the garden with Beatrice's "Eve.")  Thanks to the intervention of another scientist, Guiseppe obtains an antidote with which he hopes he can nullify their poisonous natures and return them to normal. In the story it kills both of them, while in the film only Beatrice dies, with her distraught father killing himself thereafter.

The original story contains no overt theme of sexual jealousy, though one could argue that Rappacini has played the "jealous father" by making his daughter so inaccessible.  However, Hawthorne's scientist cares only for science, and thus is entirely willing to see his daughter have a husband as long as it serves his experiment.  In the film, Salkow psychologizes the doctor, telling viewers that his wife left him for another man, strongly implying a motive of possessiveness toward his daughter-- yet such Freudian possessiveness doesn't accord with Rappacini's easy acquiescence in giving his daughter a new husband.  This story probably would have been lively had Salkow followed the Freudian pattern more resolutely, or perhaps made Beatrice a more heartfelt character.  She's somewhat more resentful of her condition in the film than in the prose tale, but she remains a rather weak character in both media.

The last "twice told tale" attempts to boil down a complicated Hawthorne novel, with seven major characters, into a simpler plot that sets four characters against one another in a combination treasure hunt/ancestral curse storyline.

The novel does invoke a curse of sorts, though as with Hawthorne's version of Dr. Heidegger's experiment, the reader is never entirely sure as to the reality of the supposed supernatural phenomenon.  In the novel the titular house was constructed during the days of the Salem witch-trials, but the land it was built upon was stolen from a warlock accused by a Pyncheon ancestor.  After a few generations pass, the house is inhabited by an aging brother and sister, Clifford and Hepzibah, as well as a young distant relation Phoebe and a boarder who (it is eventually revealed) is a descendant of the warlock.  Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, the sibling's rich cousin, wishes to find certain lost papers within the mansion and blackmails Hepzibah to get them.  However, the warlock's curse apparently kills him while Phoebe marries the scion of the warlock, so that the dead man both kills a representative of the Pyncheon clan and effectively usurps the clan's bloodline.

In the film, Salkow manages to keep the essentials of the denouement even though he mixes the character-functions somewhat drastically and to uneven effect.  This time spinster Hannah occupies the house alone but finds herself intruded upon by her nasty brother Gerald (Vincent again) and his mostly neglected wife Alice (which name is attached to a minor Pyncheon character in the novel).  Gerald wants to find the location of a vault concealed somewhere in the house, but the only one who seems to know is the mysterious Jonathan, a direct descendant of the warlock Gerald's ancestor slew to gain possession of the House of the Seven Gables.  Jonathan and Alice are drawn together in the film as Phoebe and the boarder are in the novel, but Price's Gerald is so consumed with finding the treasure that he never shows the least jealousy of the situation.  If anything he seems more consumed with not only finding the treasure but with cheating his sister out of any share, as he ends up murdering her for no clear motive.  Then the curse that was only indirectly suggested in the novel kicks into high gear for the film's conclusion, as portraits shed blood, a skeleton strangles Gerald and the whole house collapses in loving homage to Corman's HOUSE OF USHER.

None of these Hawthorne adaptations are bad in and of themselves, and possibly they were reasonably entertaining to the horror-loving audiences of their day, though as stated earlier TWICE TOLD TALES did not lead to a Hawthorne horror-franchise.  However, the biggest problem with updating Hawthorne may be that an adapter has to work harder to take the "blood and thunder" elements in Hawthorne stories and rethink them for popular audiences, as against the elements as Poe used them.  Poe himself commented on how extensively Hawthorne tended to allegorize his narratives in an essay from 1847:

The "peculiarity" or sameness, or monotone of Hawthorne, would, in its mere character of "peculiarity," and without reference to what is the peculiarity, suffice to deprive him of all chance of popular appreciation. But at his failure to be appreciated, we can, of course, no longer wonder, when we find him monotonous at decidedly the worst of all possible points--at that point which, having the least concern with Nature, is the farthest removed from the popular intellect, from the popular sentiment and from the popular taste. I allude to the strain of allegory which completely overwhelms the greater number of his subjects, and which in some measure interferes with the direct conduct of absolutely all.
I myself don't find Hawthorne as monotonous as does Poe, but anyone attempting to adapt Hawthorne for wide public consumption-- particularly for the cinematic medium-- does have to weed out tons of Hawthorne's allegorizing mediations.  Poe has such meditations as well, but they don't override most of his narratives, so that Poe's torture-devices and vampiric presences possess their own "direct conduct" rather than being puppet-mastered intellectual devices, as are Hawthorne's witches and family curses.

Still, Salkow's experiment might someday, unlike Heidegger's, be picked up and developed by other hands.  Given that Tim Burton enjoyed a popular success by updating Washington Irving, who knows what he might do with a modern Goth-reading of "Feathertop," in which an old witch brings a pumpkin-headed scarecrow to life?

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