Which was better, the book or the movie?
It's an old question, with constant new examples to debate. Plus even basic cable airs obscure movies now and then, so we can rehash this all over.
When I was, let’s say 11, my reading was overly centered on three books, Fred Gipson’s “Old Yeller,” its very fine sequel “Savage Sam,” and “My Side of the Mountain,” by Jean Craighead George. To say I memorized them would be an exaggeration, but to say re-re-read them at the expense of other literature would not. There are worse vices.
“My Side of the Mountain” is the most offbeat of the three. It proceeds from an old fantasy. A boy – let's say 14 – runs away from home, setting out with little more than an ax and a knife to live in the woods, free of people and cities. Live off the land. Find simplicity.
The boy struggles and learns, makes it for a year, and then Mom and Dad show up to end the party, but he has learned much about life, the land and himself.
Of course it had to be made into a movie, a movie that inexplicably popped up on cable the other night.
You want to say this might have come out better in the hands of, say, Disney, but then you remember what those people did to both “Old Yeller” and “Savage Sam.” Both were terrific mid-20th-century American books of a certain style. Disney just didn't get it. Not even Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk and the fabulous Dorothy McGuire could save the movie version of “Old Yeller.”
Still, “My Side of the Mountain” was directed by James B. Clark, who after all was nominated for an Oscar for film editing for “How Green Was My Valley,” which after all won best picture and a slew of other Oscars in 1941. So that's something, right?
It's not enough. The movie is an earnest wreck.
It's a 1959 book but now the boy has a shaggy 1969 haircut, and it goes downhill from there. Most of the book is his inner dialogue, so in the movie they give him a pet raccoon – one he brought from the city – to talk to, tediously explaining how to build a fire and that he needs to catch a peregrine falcon to train to catch food. (By the way, next time use a real falcon, not an off-the-rack red-tailed hawk.) Sadly, it's not a talking raccoon, so we are still left with long stretches of monologue, not dialogue. It drags a little.
Then they kill off the falcon, all to make some muddled point about the ethics of hunting. And then after six months of trial and triumph – and in the middle of a Canadian winter – he just declares victory and goes back home?
Wait. What? There’s a passage or two that’s true to the spirit of the book, but overall it feels like a subtle and thoughtful book about solitude turned into a movie about, well, six different things that don’t add up.
You watch a movie like that and ask, how did this get made? Then again, you see some movies today and ask the same thing. Sometimes, with a good book, it’s best to just let it be
Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter: @FoxEJC