Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


As I wrote the other day, a Writer's Almanac entry in mid-March about the birthday of comic writer Max Shulman (1919-1988) got me thinking again about his work and about the films and TV shows that arose from it--specifically, his 1957 novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys!--a story about Putnam's Landing, CT, and the intent of the U. S. Army to build a rocket base nearby.

Last Sunday, I wrote about the 1958 film (with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, & Joan Collins) based on Shulman's novel, a film I'd recently seen (for the first time in a half-century) via Netflix. Well, during the last week I've also re-read the novel and want to talk a little about it--and about some of the differences between it and the film.

A main difference: In the novel, it's a Nike base the Army plans to build. For those of you who are chronologically challenged (young) and think that Nike is a brand of footwear, a couple of reminders: (1) Nike was the goddess of victory (not a bad name for athletic shoes, eh?); (2) Nike was also the name of an anti-aircraft missile, and the army built missile sites all around the country--including a base in nearby Cleveland on Lake Erie. (Wikipedia has a list of all the sites around the USA.) The system is outdated now; Nike has flown away.

So why the change from book to film? By the time the film came out (1958), the Russians had already launched a dog into orbit (Nov. 3, 1957)--Laika, a poor critter that did not make it back alive. But everyone knew it was a matter of time before monkeys--and then men (more advanced monkeys)--would soar into orbit.

There are all kinds of other changes--most of which you expect in a transformation from book to movie. Characters added or dropped. New dialogue (though some of the film's talk comes directly from Shulman). Events added, events dropped, events altered.

A few changes, though, are interesting to think about in 2014. In the movie (as I wrote the other day), the soldiers used the term boojum to refer to young women. The Urban Dictionary tells me that this word first appeared in the final line of Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark." Here's that final quatrain ...

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
   In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

(By the way--Jack London fans will remember that he named his yacht the Snark--this, the vessel he used
Jack London's Snark
in his plan to circle the globe in 1907--it didn't work out.)

The OED gives only this definition (also crediting the word to Carroll): An imaginary animal, a particularly dangerous kind of ‘snark’.

The dictionaries of U.S. slang I have do not include boojum at all. But it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what the screenwriters were doing: avoiding trouble. For the word that Shulman uses in the novel in the same scene is poon. Not exactly the most PC word to write these days--and unthinkable to include in a popular film in the late 1950s. Thus ... boojum. I mean, the screenwriters could always say, Hey, it's Lewis Carroll! How dirty could it be!?!?!

Another big--and understandable--difference. In the film, Joan Collins plays a neglected suburban wife who wants to reclaim her husband's interest by having an affair--and she picks out Paul Newman (not a bad choice), who does indeed get drunk with her once (in an amusing moment, he swings around on her chandelier), but they do not ... Do It. Newman resists admirably--though his wife (Joanne Woodward) is convinced they did ... Do It.

In the novel, though, the Newman and Collins characters do ... Do It--more than once. Newman regrets his actions, reforms, eventually earns the forgiveness of his wife. (The film is a comedy, after call--can't have any lingering bitterness.)

Again--no popular American film comedy of the era could have endured the censure that would have ensued if it had included marital infidelity--multiple times. Thus ... the change.

Remaining pretty much intact are the other principal aspects of the film--the conflicts between town and military, soldiers and young men in town (vying for the attention of the young women), parents and their offspring failing to comprehend one another--with some details changed to keep up with current events.

But the final scene is changed quite a bit--from a Nike base to a full-fledged rocket base. And what happens in that final scene? Somewhat similar, somewhat different.

But I think you should run out and read Rally Round the Flag, Boys! There are used copies for as little as one cent! Or order the film on Netflix.

But I also discovered a problem on Amazon: It seems there is a stage play of the novel, as well (Dramatic Publishing, 1965). Now I've got to order and read that!

But at least I'll have material for another post!

Cover of the play script

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