Gulliver’s Travels (1996)

Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Ted Danson, James Fox, Mary Steenburgen

I have long been on the record that just because something shares the same title as its source material doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it must follow the source material’s lead. In practice, what that means is that film adapters should feel real freedom to edit the book their film is based on; that could mean any number of things, from making cuts to adding material to smoothing material over. The best adaptations are not the ones that adhere most faithfully to the source, but the ones which recognize what works in the source and go back to it over and over again. In my third post on this blog, I gave The Hunger Games some guff about its over-reliance on unimportant book details (like Effie Trinket) while eliding the Haymitch-Katniss connection that was probably the best part of the novel. The Lord of the Rings movies, if you ask a real Tolkien fan, are in many ways very unlike the books. What Peter Jackson understood was that Tom Bombadil simply wouldn’t work in Fellowship of the Ring, or that the Valar have a limited effect on what the film characters can do.

Gulliver’s Travels, one of the last shining examples of the TV miniseries (a charismatic species that, like the Amur leopard, is functionally extinct much to the detriment of its ecosystem), gets adaptation. Gulliver’s Travels is a 1720s satire on 1720s English politics, at least in its most famous chapters. For a 1990s audience, which was as likely to recognize that brand of humor as it was to recognize that the Washington Consensus was a bad idea, it was more important to pump up whatever thematic meaning could be groused out of Swift’s novel. (This is the wrong novel to give the BBC-verbatim treatment, and the creative team seems to have recognized that at the outset.) That meaning – that corruption goes arm in arm with power, or that replacing foolishness with wisdom can be psychologically painful – pops up consistently throughout Gulliver’s Travels, in the first and second halves alike. To make it clear, though, Gulliver must not actually be gadding about from Lilliput to Brobdingnag, etc., but he must be at home in England, trying to convince people that his unbelievable stories are, in fact, the truth. Gulliver’s wife (Steenburgen) and son (Tom Sturridge) are important characters in this Gulliver’s Travels, and so is the stern Dr. Bates (Fox), Gulliver’s replacement and romantic rival. Robert Hardy plays one Dr. Parnell, the unsympathetic administrator of the mental hospital that Gulliver lands in not long after he makes it home. For whatever the Gulliver’s Travels equivalent of a Janeite is, this is heresy. In the hands of Charles Sturridge (who practically fulfilled auteur theory in his work on Brideshead Revisited) and writer Simon Moore, this foray into England is wonderful, the glue that makes the entire story stick together. Gulliver’s adventures are physically mirrored in his English milieu, but it also makes the philosophical perspective of the text shine through as well, far more than it would have done by merely shipping Ted Danson off to a host of made-up countries over three hours and two nights. Gulliver is rooted in something in this interpretation: the promise of his home and family, perhaps, or the potential for justice to be done once he’s trapped in an insane asylum. The stakes of the second half of the program connect with each other because of this choice to let Gulliver narrate his voyage to his wife, son, and enemies. “I have to get home, to England” and “Let me go home, to my house” are the two strands of that second night, and both are imbued with more drama because of the audience sees how both can fail. “He does get home, but at what price?” intersects with “His home will be more out of reach in Bedlam than in Brobdingnag!”

Most of the adaptations of Gulliver’s Travels revolve around Lilliput, and perhaps touch on Brobdingnag. And that’s true for half of this Gulliver’s Travels as well; the entire first night regards those two places in concert with Gulliver’s awkward homecoming and his interment in the asylum. The problem is that Lilliput and Brobdingnag are old news, especially the former. The silliness of the government of Lilliput, although played up amusingly by Peter O’Toole and Phoebe Nicholls, is too familiar an example to hit home. Brobdingnag, where the queen (Alfre Woodard) dissects the ills of English government with enough vagueness to make everyone watching say, “Huh, guess that’s my government too,” is similarly simplistic. Gulliver’s well-being – will he be safe in Lilliput? who’s putting him up in Brobdingnag? – is given more currency in these chapters than any statement of politics. Lilliput is hilariously dystopian, and Brobdingnag curiously utopian, and there’s not much else to be said about either. Someone else has already been over this territory.

Gulliver’s Travels begins to pick up in its second half, even though the execution is, perhaps unavoidably, choppier on the second night than the first. Not only does Gulliver’s time in the asylum have to come to a head, which is its own issue, but Gulliver must also be picked up at Laputa, wander around Balnibari, almost get stuck in Glubbdubdrib and Luggnagg, and wind up with the Houyhnhnms. (Japan is, perhaps mercifully, excluded from this lineup.) Yet the questions move away more from the overly simple perspectives of government (“people in charge are bad at it and no one from below fixes it!”) and more towards issues of immortality, a topic that is far more interesting because it is far less reductive.

The Struldbrugs, who are given their most important face by Kristin Scott Thomas, are literally immortal. They have drunk from the Fountain of Youth, but as Gulliver discovers, it comes at a terrible price: blindness. (O ho!) With the mysterious historian (Omar “my servants are out looking for the horses” Sharif), Gulliver is given the opportunity to speak with the most famous icons of history in person, with the help of a little blood magic, but what Gulliver gains from the experience is, at best, negligible. In Laputa (and in the Academy below), science run amok and the pursuit of any knowledge is given permanent precedence, even to the detriment of practical actions like “farming” or “common sense.” John Gielgud makes a cameo as a scientist “extracting sunlight from cucumbers,” which I hope goes on my tombstone. Gulliver finds them each wanting: immortality with a debilitating price, history that will keep him imprisoned in shadowy, unreal surroundings, science that may live forever but for no good purpose. None of them are worth sacrificing his dreams of home. It’s an attractive message, that heart tops mind, and one that can push a plot further; indeed, if at any point Gulliver decides to stay and extract sunlight with John Gielgud, or delve into history with Omar Sharif, or drink living water with Kristin Scott Thomas, then the story as we know it ends. The Odyssey of Gulliver was never meant to end as a lab report.

The country of the Houyhnhnms creates maybe the great crisis of the story, and because of Gulliver’s overwhelming desire to remain there, it’s maybe the part of the novel where Sturridge and Moore veer off most from the source. The Houyhnhnms are marked not by their good sense and charity in the novel, but by their unflagging commitment to reason without emotion. For example, Houyhnhnm reason dictates that there should be one son and one daughter in each Houyhnhnm family; if you have two daughters, swap one of them for a son to achieve balance. In the miniseries, that brutal reasoning is absent. The Houyhnhnms lead a practically perfect life, deviled only by the Yahoos, humans-turned-beasts as surely as Houyhnhnms are sentient horses. The Houyhnhnms are invested in kindness, in commonality, in simple comfort and good health. Gulliver is intoxicated by it. His Houyhnhnm friend, Mistress (voiced by Isabelle Huppert), tells him that the Yahoos dig shiny things out of a cliff for no discernible reason.  Gulliver wanders over with her and realizes that the Yahoos are finding diamonds, huge ones, but refuses to tell her the immense value that these pretty objects have outsized effect on the world he comes from, doesn’t even hint that a few pocketfuls of these diamonds could secure himself and his lineage for decades. Not only does he have more in common with the Yahoos than he wants to admit in terms of background, but even in action he resembles them; it isn’t till later that he begins to throw diamonds into the ocean, lamenting the fine wardrobe and the country manor that he is disposing of before he can even purchase them. “I’m going to be a Houyhnhnm!” he cries, neighing to the open ocean.

He’s not, of course – he has some of his clothes stripped off by two Yahoo women, and the resulting image turns his Houyhnhnm friends against him for good. (Ted Danson’s a fine actor, and he’s impressive over the course of both parts, but the line, “Am I just another Yahoo in the end?” might be beyond salvation.) His banishment from the land of the Houyhnhnms is a psychologically shattering event; when he does return home, after longing for so much time to get there, it’s far more bitter than sweet. His Odyssey, complete with a suitor intent on poaching his circumspect wife and confused Telemachus, has none of the homecoming triumph that Odysseus’ does. Gulliver does not have to hide himself – in fact, until he seems to be losing his marbles, everyone’s glad to have him except Dr. Bates, who’d just about worn Mary down – but accordingly there is no sunburst of revelation, no archery contest, and no slaughter of the suitors. Gulliver has to prove over the course of months, to his wife and his son, to his doctors and psychologists and (effectively) jailers, that his titular travels did, in fact, happen.

In the original novel, such a subplot is totally superfluous. In this, as I’ve said before, it’s what makes the story cohere, what with its rapidly changing locales and its unusual perspectives. The series romanticizes and problematizes home simultaneously, which is at least unusual; in alternating scenes, Gulliver desperately wants to go home and desperately wants to stay away. That dual impulse is, strangely enough, one of the abiding contributions from the book. In the novel, Gulliver’s separate travels occur on literally different voyages; he’s the man who went to Lilliput and Brobdingnag and then decided he wanted to go back to sea…and then went to many lands and decided to go back to sea…and so on. The series makes a wise decision, streamlining Gulliver’s adventures and character and thus strengthening him as a single individual. It’s the strength of adaptation; Sturridge makes his desire for home and wife (and child) far more powerful, providing the emotional center of the series, while still allowing him the chance to ramble across unseen, unknown portions of the earth.

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