Book vs. Movie: Gulliver's Travels
By Russ Bickerstaff
December 28, 2010
In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.
And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.
Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie.
In the early 18th century, British satirist Jonathan Swift wrote a fantastical travelogue that quickly became immensely popular. Writing under the pen-name Lemuel Gulliver, Swift told of a series of expeditions to strange new worlds — islands on an Earth that was even then beginning to shrink considerably. More than simple fantasy writing, Swift’s novel was a heavy and intricate satire on politics, religion and other vices. The real stroke of genius that Swift managed with Gulliver’s Travels was its universality. Yes, there were comic elements aimed quite squarely at established power structures, but the elements of fantasy written into the story also hold an appeal to young readers. What’s more, the satire itself is universal enough that its deeper concerns continue to be relevant today.
The story has been adapted into a variety of different forms over the years, most recently in a big-budget film version brought to the screen by 20th Century Fox. Directed by a man known for animated features (Rob Letterman of Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens,) the film stars Jack Black as the title character. The film opened a dismal seventh place on Christmas Day. With some industry insiders estimating the budget somewhere in the $90-$110 million range, the film is already registering as a colossal flop. A classic work of literature that hasn’t gone out of print in over a quarter-millennium vs. a film not likely to be in theaters for much longer than a month. How do the two compare?
A staggeringly prolific writer, Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift wrote a great many things. A tireless intellectual, Swift wrote pamphlets, poems and books. What with politics being what they were in the early-to-mid-18th century, Swift had been known to write under various pen names in order to avoid an unwanted attention. Foremost among Swift’s major works, Gulliver’s Travels (originally published under the title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World) is a staggeringly clever work still capable of holding a reader’s imagination more than a couple of centuries after it was first published in 1726.
The book opens with a quick look into the life history of the fictional narrator. Swift wastes little time getting his protagonist on a boat, which promptly crashes. He awakens to find himself captive to a small civilization of people who are very, very short — the tallest among them being no more than six inches tall. Having some difficulty with the language at first, Gulliver comes to understand that he has been taken prisoner by the miniature nation of Lilliput. When Gulliver manage to convince his captors that he means the no harm, he is treated as a guest of honor who is quickly drawn into the politics of the miniature nation and its rival nation of equal stature — Blefuscu.