Original post here.
You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about the Muppets running roughshod on a couple works of literary classics?
Now, more than ever, the world needs the Muppets.
And probably also the Fraggles…
Who, incidentally, are CanCon — and, in fact, several Fraggle-related puppets and objects are in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History.
But I digress.
Now, shockingly, coming from a guy who writes about pirates, this one’s gonna be about pirates.
Incidentally — and coincidentally, the two authors of the original stories, according to Wikipedia (in turn citing an article on Stacker.com) are the 25th and 26th-most widely-translated authors.
Now, according to Wikipedia, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s popularity has been sort of parabolic: well-received and widely-read in his own lifetime, then shunned by the Literary Establishment apparently for having the temerity to about pirates and/or for children, as opposed to writing proper, intellectual real books.
But, seriously, what kind of MONSTER writes pirate stories for children?
Thankfully, the Literary Establishment kinda got over itself since then. Well, no — it didn’t. But it got over itself for sticking it to Stevenson for… reasons, apparently and he has seen been reappraised and rehabilitated for his work as a writer, an academic, and an observer of colonial-era Polynesia (he died in Samoa).
Treasure Island is probably one of those classics that everyone can summarise but no-one has actually read. The book is almost single-handedly responsible for establishing most of the things the general public associates with pirates: X marking the spot, parrots, the Black Spot.
And the various early-to-mid 20th century adaptations (Disney‘s, for example) are largely responsible for the stereotypical Pirate Voice thanks to versions of Long John Silver — who, of course, went on to become the namesake of a popular seafood restaurant — fittingly, he was the cook.
Now, Treasure Island is ostensibly a children’s book (intended specifically for boys; and that’s not me editorialising or generalising, it’s original title was literally The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys).
It’s not a bad read, but I don’t foresee many children in the 2020s having much interest in a story that reads like:
Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the “Admiral Benbow” inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:—
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.
“This is a handy cove,” says he, at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?”
My father told him no, very little company, the more was the pity.The opening of Chapter 1, as taken from Wikisource.
So, it’s not exactly surprising that the Muppet version, well, Muppets up the source material.
Basically, the Muppet version of Treasure Island simplifies both the story and the storytelling, makes the pirate characters a little less reprehensible, and adds a lot of characteristic Muppet wackiness — though it remains, to my knowledge the only Muppet movie to feature one of the characters‘ onscreen death.
[A fact which does not escape the notice of the Muppet themselves, and which in turn has led me to discover a shockingly morbid article on the Muppet Wiki…]
Also, it’s a musical now — as most Muppet movies are. A high point is Long John Silver, played by Tim Curry in a rare villainous role.
The movie starts off strong with one of the most widely-beloved Muppets opening numbers ever in Shiver My Timbers, and the music and songs are all consistently at least Pretty Good — worth noting that Hans Zimmer did the score (predating Pirates of the Caribbean by about twenty years).
Overall, the movie does sort of drag on in the middle and the beginning of the final act, but it never gets bad.
It’s not a great adaptation. The Treasure Island aspect is honestly barely more than window dressing. With a few fairly minor changes, the movie could have just been “Muppet Pirates” and nothing would really changed, except perhaps the names.
But, like, “Muppet Pirates” is basically a selling point in its own right.
Incidentally, you can watch the trailer of IMDB here.
Unlike Stevenson, A Christmas Carol author Charles Dickens has basically never not been popular or well-regarded.
Which is kind of weird, because Dickens also wrote ghost stories of the sort that Stevenson was dismissed for writing.
Of course, he did literally save Christmas.
And I’m not even joking about that.
In brief, at the time, Christmas wasn’t actually popular in Britain at the time for reasons we don’t need to get into here. Basically, A Christmas Carol played a major role in encouraging people both to actually celebrate the holiday again and to be good to be each other on the holiday.
On the other hand, modern readers and academics are a little leery about the apparent racism in Dickens’ work — and, in fact, Oliver Twist is literally categorised on Wikipedia as an “Antisemitic Novel.”
I have not read nearly enough Dickens to have anything insightful to say about this…
Especially compared to Muppet Treasure Island, and given that the tone and verbiage of the writing isn’t really that much more accessible than Treasure Island the book,
Like I said before, The Muppet Christmas Carol is shockingly faithful to the source material for a Muppets movie — certain Muppet-centric modifications are inevitable to be all to fit the Muppet characters into the story, but they remain true to the spirit of the text and are largely superficial alterations that don’t really change the story so much as only changing the presentation of the story.
Rizzo and Gonzo are the narrators and audience surrogate — basically, the movie is happening because we’re seeing what they’re seeing.
Well, technically, Gonzo is the narrator (ostensibly playing Charles Dickens); Rizzo is more of a Greek Chorus who provides quippy little asides.
Also, in order to get Statler and Waldorf screentime, there’s two Marleys, rather than just one, haunting Scrooge to basically kick off the entire plot. Also, knowing the Muppets, the fact that the second Marley is named Robert (“Bob”, if you will) is probably deliberate.
Now, yes, it’s Muppets, so you know it’s going to be funny. But it’s also a fairly direct adaptation of one of the most popular stories of all time — the story that basically single-handedly vindicated the very idea of Christmas in the popular imagination — so it carries some very real, very touching emotional power.
I except a lot of that emotion was very real to a lot of the performers, too. Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie after the death of Jim Henson.
Actually, it’s especially meaningful to me in a very personal way. My Grandmother died on Christmas Eve a few years ago. I have very clear memories of Muppet Christmas Carol being the first thing on TV after we heard the news. And, yeah, basically, I can’t watch it without devolving into a complete wreck anymore…
Which, again, is fitting in a way given the source material basically single-handedly spurring people to rectitude through sheer weight of sentimental force…
And, again, thanks to not being able to find good links to the trailers on Youtube, here’s the trailer on IMDB.
To end on a lighter quote and a bit of unrelated Muppet trivia,
Did you know the earliest form of the Muppets got their start advertising coffee?
It’s true. The first appearance of puppets that can rightly be considered Muppets came in the 50s, with a serious of commercials promoting Wilkins Coffee on local TV. As a pretty neat aside, Jim Henson actually filed patents for the two proto-Muppet characters.
The commercials revolved around the pro-coffee Muppet resorting to increasingly hilariously-sadistic methods of punishing the anti-coffee Muppet for his unforgivable offence of … not liking Wilkins Coffee?
Yeah. He’s a real piece of work.
It’s the same basic premise as a Looney Tunes cartoon, really. And this sort of slapstick is a big part of the Muppets’ brand of humour. It’s interesting to see that it was there from the beginning, even before they could really be considered “Muppets”.
Honestly, I shouldn’t have to do much of a sales pitch for these movies. It’s Muppets. You know what you’re getting into. And you know it’s going to be great.
Unless, perhaps, you’re a Simpson…
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman. Revised and expanded 2023.
The rest of my recommendations are here.
And you can follow me here:
Sign-up for my email newsletter here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.