Considering just how beloved Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are in the canon of American literature, there are relatively few movies that adapt the works of Mark Twain. Since the 1970’s, there’s been the not-often-talked-about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from 1993 starring Elijah Wood and the 1983 Christmas comedy Trading Spaces, which loosely adapts The Prince and the Pauper. And honestly, that’s about it.
My point is this; for as much as Twain is read, studied, revered, quoted, and misquoted, we get relatively few movies that are talked about or admired in a proportionate way. This wasn’t always the case; before the 1950’s, movies based on Twain’s work were a dime a dozen. Even his more obscure stories, like the literary classic Pudd’nhead Wilson and the literary travesty Tom Sawyer, Detective both had film adaptations.
I think that I (or someone more qualified) could do a whole blog post or series of blog posts about why the 21st century hasn’t had a Twain movie that has been not only financially and critically successful, as well as culturally relevant. But instead, I want to focus on my favorite adaptation of Twain’s work: the 2015 Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn adaptation Band of Robbers, directed by Aaron and Adam Nee.
Adapting Two Novels
If you’re familiar with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then you’ll probably notice from the trailer that the movie borrows from both books. The movie starts with Huck trying to “get civilized” and do the right thing as he does at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn, and Tom searching for hidden treasure as he does in Tom Sawyer. Essentially, it takes the complex moral decisions from Huck Finn and the light-hearted and childlike wonder/delight of searching for and believing in treasure that makes Tom Sawyer so fun to read. Both of these books could make their own worthwhile movie, but combined, they make for an entirely new story that blends themes of childhood and adulthood.
And then comes the question of how best to adapt it for modern audiences. An episodic “adventure” story is difficult to put to film, so the Nee Brothers decided to change it to a crime comedy in the style of the Coen Brothers, feeling tonally similar to Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou. (The trailer and DVD box use a quote from JoBlo that compares it to early Wes Anderson, which outside of this movie being vaguely similar to Anderson’s first and mostly forgotten movie Bottle Rocket, I don’t particularly see it.) My point is this: this movie is a stylized delight.
I’d further go into other aspects that the movie uses from these two books, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, because I feel like most people likely to be reading this movie haven’t seen it. Simply put, if you like either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, and if you like Coen Brothers-style crime comedies, this might just be the movie for you.
Characters and Character Arcs
As lively and fascinating as all of the side characters are, the story’s two main characters, childhood friends Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, are the focal point of the film. The narrative focus is on Huck, who at the start of the movie, is just released from prison. His goal is to “go straight” and not go back to prison. His lifelong friend, Tom Sawyer, is a police officer, who wants to help Huck go straight… by stealing a historic treasure that’s being held a local pawn shop. Huck’s arc throughout the movie concerns itself with trying to keep himself out of prison, learning to do the right thing, and losing and regaining faith in his lifelong friend. While I certainly think that Huck’s arc is compelling and important, it is almost eclipsed by Tom’s arc.
In adaptations, such as Band of Robbers and Robert Coover’s contemporary novel Huck Out West, Tom Sawyer becomes an infinitely more interesting character. Tom, as a character, is at his best when he’s seeking glory at the physical and legal risk of himself and others. In Band of Robbers, Huck Out West, and in the later parts of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer operates as a bit of a loose-cannon supporting character to Huck, the main character. Whether or not he really cares about Huck as a friend – or if he just wants Huck as one of his many admirers on his way to individual glory – can vary from interpretation to interpretation. And either way, it feels true to the character. (As I’m writing this, it’s dawning on me that this is what makes Tom Sawyer one of my favorite characters in just about any medium.)
The quote from this movie which really embodies this version of Tom can be found in the trailer, when somebody asks him about starting the new group which he calls a “Band of robbers.” Tom says: “Think of it like this: Robin Hood and his Merry Men; robbing from the rich, giving to the poor… keeping some money… keeping the money.” The way Tom completely misses the mark about what makes Robin Hood heroic is both comical and telling.
So fittingly, Tom’s character arc in Band of Robbers is mainly concerned with overcoming his desire to achieve personal glory and instead do something tangibly good. Obviously, this isn’t an unheard of character arc, since a character leaving behind the needs of the self and embracing the needs of many is just about the most simple and most common kind of arc you’ll see. The thing that makes it unique here is Tom’s obsession with “being a hero,” for finding a buried treasure, rather than doing something that is actually heroic. On a more basic level, Tom’s arc instead focuses on changing what his understanding of what the term “hero” really means.
Kyle Gallner as Huck and co-director Adam Nee as Tom give performances that are respectively compelling and humorous. They’re wonderful. But also worth mentioning are just about anyone in the supporting cast including Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler and Supergirl‘s Melissa Benoist. For how briefly he’s in the movie, Hannibal Burress is an absolute delight, as he always is.
But perhaps most worth mentioning is veteran actor Stephan Lang, from James Cameron’s Avatar (the movie you forgot grossed more than any other). As he did in Avatar, Lang plays this film’s villain, Injun Joe*. He’s incredibly creepy and menacing. While I couldn’t find any clips of him on YouTube to embed, hopefully the picture and the clips in the trailer conveys just how crazy he is.
The Nee Brothers and Masters of the Universe
After producing a humorous and fun (yet noticeably heartfelt) independent film, a pair of directors are considered for a big blockbuster focusing on a big Scandinavian-looking guy who wields a magical weapon. Yeah, that’s Thor Ragnarok. But it also describes the upcoming 2019 He-Man movie Masters of the Universe, which – currently, at least – Band of Robbers’ directors the Nee Brothers are currently slated to direct.
After Thor: Ragnarok, a lot of people went back to watch director Taika Waititi’s earlier movies, such as the movie he co-directed with Jermaine Clement What We Do in the Shadows. Since then, What We Do in the Shadows has become something of a cult classic. Thor: Ragnarok was Hollywood’s way of rewarding Waititi’s exemplary work in Shadows. And hopefully, Thor: Ragnarok will be the first of many more critically and financially successful films in his career.
But before Waititi had Thor, he had small-budget movies that worked as a stepping stone to blockbusters. While He-Man isn’t Thor, and doesn’t have the momentum of the entire MCU behind it, I think that the fact that Aaron and Adam Nee are slated to direct Masters of the Universe is a good sign. Their movies are tonally similar (funny, but heartfelt) to Taika Waititi, so I think that this is probably a great pick. I don’t particularly care about He-Man or Masters of the Universe (I think I was just born in the wrong generation) but I hope that this movie succeeds, and I hope it launches a long and prosperous career for the Nee Brothers.
As I’d said earlier, Band of Robbers seems like the perfect movie for any fan of Mark Twain or the Coen Brothers. Fans of either will be absolutely delighted. It’s a fresh take on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which remains fresh by adapting both stories for the modern age. The main characters are well fleshed-out and fascinating, while the side characters – including Hannibal Burress as comic relief Ben Rogers and Stephen Lang as the villain – are as perfect as they have to be.
I’m hesitant to give spoilers, as I was not in my Seven Psychopaths review. I think fewer people have probably seen this. And if you haven’t seen it; do yourself a favor. It’s a great movie. Here are two books that are written for and focusing on children; wonderfully translated to adult themes and adult lives. As I mentioned, Hollywood is due a Twain adaptation that is financially successful, critically acclaimed, and culturally relevant. Unfortanutetly, Band of Robbers couldn’t be a financial blockbuster, but hopefully in 10-20 years time, if people look back at how to adapt the works of Mark Twain, I can only hope that Band of Robbers provides a perfect example.
Band of Robbers is available on Netflix.
Let’s conclude with some questions:
- Have you seen Band of Robbers? Did you like it?
- Do you have a favorite movie adaptation of Mark Twain’s stories?
- What movie should we cover next in our Underrated series?
As always, thanks for reading!
*If you’re concerned that “Injun Joe” is played by a white man – which is a valid concern – it’s worth pointing out that the movie acknowledges this, with a few of the characters asking if perhaps a white man calling himself “Injun Joe” is racist, even if he “identifies with the culture and aesthetic.” (Hannibal Burress’ character laughs at the character’s use of “injun”: “Imagine if you were like, ‘spic Kenny,’ ‘Jap Tony,’ I’m just paying homage to Japanese culture.” While I can’t say this definitively, but I think having a villain who is a white man using a racial identity to be something he is not is better than having the only Native American character in the movie being the villain. This is definitely one way Band of Robbers improves upon Twain’s original work.