The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Literary and Media Comparison

Though the movie is preceded by the preface of the book “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer“, in which Mark Twain talks about trying “to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves”, it is obvious that he and Norman Taurog and David Selznick, the director and producer of the movie, had two different primary audiences in mind. Consequently, their concepts and as sets of artistic techniques and means differ to a great extent.

Mark Twain originally intended “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to be a book for grownups, and he thought of it as an adult book. In some parts of the book, Mark Twain overtly addresses the adult reader, saying, “The reader probably remembers how to do it, if he has ever been a boy.” It was actually William Dean Howells, the person Mark Twain sent the book to for editing, who recommended that it should be a children’s book, to which Mark Twain agreed. However, the inner dialogues, deepest desires and unfeigned motivations of the characters are most appealing to adults as well. There is no doubt whatsoever that Mark Twain had in mind the mature audience, because to interpret correctly Tom’s choices and understand the wholeness of his character, the reader should be mature enough. Mark Twain endowed his characters with multilayered inner world, splendid imagination, comprehensive, ambivalent and conflicted motivations; his characters need to be acknowledged and understood. Twain’s Tom Sawyer needed to be noticed and admired; he describes Tom as an ambitious, clever and bright person, who is outspoken, honest and honorable by his nature. He underlines that Tom Sawyer acts only in a way considered as respectable and admirable among the boys and girls of St. Petersburg.

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On the other hand, the creators of the movie targeted a wide children’s audience. Therefore, their Tom Sawyer is troublesome, smart and light-hearted boy, who does not miss an opportunity to play impish jokes on his younger brother Sid. Just for the fun of it, Tom puts the bucket with white paint on Sid’s head and throws a cake him; moreover, Tom steals from Sid two tickets. However, Tom does nothing like this in the book and he honestly exchanges all his “treasures” for tickets entitling him to a free copy of the Bible at school. In the movie, when Tom runs away after being unfairly treated by Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher, any boy and girl watching the movie understands his decision. His escapade of attending his own funeral is also acceptable for the child’s mind, because it is so funny. In the movie, Tom does not think much but acts impulsively. On the contrary, Tom often thinks of being gone in the book, because he wants Aunt Polly and Becky to realize how much they miss and love him after they have lost him. He even envies a boy who has died recently and wishes he could die temporarily. The need to be missed and loved is so important to Tom that he swims all the way from Jackson Island to the town to see if anybody misses him. The opportunity to attend his own funeral is not only an escapade, but a dream of all his previous life. Mark Twain writes about Tom’s impression of this event as being ”the proudest moment of his life”. The price that some people are willing to pay for such moments is more straightforward for adults. What sacrifices would some people not be willing to make in order to get that moment of acknowledgement, admiration and superiority, and the moment of realization their dearest and innermost hopes?

The famous scene of Tom Sawyer being sentenced to whitewashing a fence by Aunt Poly is strikingly described in the book and splendidly in compliance with the book presented in the movie. Tom transforms the idea of work into a privilege, and makes his point by saying, “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Thus, Tom manages to get all the boys of the town to whitewash the fence; moreover, he sells the right to whitewash the fence and becomes tremendously wealthy by the end of the day.

Tom Sawyer is not the only character who is represented differently in the movie. The characters of Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn are less complex and intriguing than they are in the book.

Beginning from the first pages of the book, it is obvious that Aunt Polly loves Tom very much. She has to remind herself all the time to be strict with Tom, and it is not easy for her, because he is her late sister’s only child. Aunt Polly in the movie is much stricter, and she likes Sid more than she does Tom. Twain’s Aunt Polly is so happy seeing Tom alive that there is no rebuke, but only kisses; however, Aunt Polly in the movie gives Tom a clip round the ear and promises to punish him at home.

The movie’s romance between Tom and Becky is charming, innocent and childlike. Tom and Becky’s first date is meant to make children laugh; for example, a frog croaking under Tom’s hat while he is talking with Becky about their engagement and eternal love. Moreover, when Tom is trying to earn Becky’s forgiveness for mentioning being engaged to Amy Lawrence, he presents Becky with the frog, his dearest treasure, which causes Becky to  scream for fear.

Mark Twain describes the relationship between Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in a typically sentimental manner, i.e. as a true love story imbued with passion, pride, prejudice and jealousy. Tom and Becky have their first date, first kiss and first fight; after that, they are both too proud to forgive each other for a small misunderstanding.

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The Becky’s character plays a passive role in the movie. She usually just accepts or does not accept Tom’s courtship. It is not clear how much she cares about Tom either.

Twain’s Becky cares about Tom very much; her inner dialogue is filled with suffering when she believes that Tom is drowned; she cannot forgive herself for being mean to him. Her grief is so immense that she cannot stop sobbing.

However, when Tom returns alive and well, Twain’s Tom and Becky continue to feign indifference. This chapter of their relationships is completely skipped in the movie. Tom flirts with his ex-girlfriend Amy Lawrence, while Becky flirts with Alfred Temple, the good boy of St. Petersburg. Tom and Becky suffer and feel jealous, but neither of them wants to surrender first; the dissension could continue forever, but Mr. Dobbins and his mysterious book interfere.

The scenes involving Mr. Dobbins were changed in the movie, and his dreams and desires remained behind the screen. Mark Twain portrays him as a middle-aged village schoolmaster who has unfulfilled ambitions, because he has always wanted to be a doctor, but had no money to study for a physician. Every day he reads a book on medicine in the schoolroom and fantasizes about being a doctor. Every student at school is intrigued about the contents of the mysterious book. Therefore, when Becky notices a key in the lock of the desk where the mysterious book is kept, she can not resist the temptation to get that book. Tom Sawyer appears just in time to catch Becky in the act, and Becky accidentally tears one of the precious book’s pages. However, Tom claims responsibility for her actions, and such a noble deed finally leads to their reconciliation.

To increase suspense, the director of the movie inserted a sequence in which Becky and Tom run away from Injun Joe in the caves, during which Injun Joe trips and falls off a cliff. Becky Thatcher’s screaming and fainting, during the chase corresponds with the image of an easily excitable little lady.

In the book, Tom and Becky have been lost in the caves for at least four days, which gives the reader an opportunity to see the unusual willpower and courage of both children. Twain’s Becky is not a sweet little lady, but a strong, understanding and loyal friend of Tom’s who stoically faces such a desperate situation. She loses hope at some point, but she never loses faith in Tom; she fully trusts him and shares the responsibility for their reckless deed. They both show the fortitude and endurance that few people could demonstrate under similar circumstances, and there is no doubt whatsoever in the reader’s mind that they are made for each other. There is no excessive drama in the book, nor does Becky faint and scream. It is already intense and dramatic enough to know that the two children have been in the caves for a long time, with a dangerous and immoral criminal lurking nearby. 

The significant part of Tom’s character manifests itself in his and Huck Finn’s adventures. The way the movie depicts the murder of Dr. Robinson in the graveyard and the characters of Injun Joe and Muff Potter is almost identical to that of the book, but the pangs of consciousness, horror and anxiety Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn experience are depicted in the movie only superficially. However, these feelings of the main characters are indispensible for understanding their kindness, integrity, conciseness, fairness and bravery. Mark Twain underlines the fact that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are sure that Injun Joe is a devil’s servant; moreover, they see the compelling evidence that the devil supports him. Nevertheless, they agree to testify in court against Injun Joe to save the innocent man. 

Several adventures, in which Huckleberry Finn plays one of the main roles, are excluded from the movie. They include the treasure hunt, Huckleberry saving Widow Douglas from Injun Joe’s “revenge”, and Tom Sawyer and Huck getting the treasure.

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Tom is a loyal friend, but this feature of his character is not emphasized in the movie. Only the reader can see what a devoted and genuine friend Tom is. Tom shares the treasure with Huckleberry, but then, seeing how everyone starts to pity Huck, he proudly announces that Huck is rich. Moreover, when Huck decides that he is tired of being rich and runs away, Tom persuades him to return and live with Widow Douglas. Tom can fool his friends in small things, such as whitewashing a fence, but he will never do this when it comes to something big and important.

The inner dialogues, thoughts, worries, torments and desires of its heroes, not to mention its intriguing plot make the book captivating and compelling. Mark Twain is a master of detective, drama and love stories, as well as adept at creating complex and verisimilar characters. Therefore, despite being equally appreciated by adults and children, the book produces the biggest impact on adults by stirring up the nostalgic memories of their childhood.

Made in 1938 and directed by Norman Taurog, the movie “Tom Sawyer” is the most remarkable screen version of the book “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. It is funny, amusing, spectacular and emotional. The elaboration of dramatic effects of some scenes and humor or nonsense of others make the movie captivating and irresistible for a wide children audience. The movie provides plenty of sheer amusement with sensational scenes of children’s ingenuousness.

However, the movie fails to appeal to adults and children by intertwining these two different levels of perception into a single artwork.

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