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COUNTERPUNCH

Are Films Using Names in Vain?

May 26, 1997|ALEXANDER NIBLEY | Alexander Nibley is a freelance writer and managing editor of the Instrument Business Outlook

There is a growing trend of using the names of great authors in the titles of films--"Bram Stoker's Dracula," "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" are examples. Sincethe authors are dead and can't sue the socks off the producers, I can't help feeling that someone should speak up on their behalf about the use of their names to sell products.

The latest film is "Rudyard Kipling's Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo" ("Thin 'Mowgli and Baloo' Goes Back to the Jungle," May 16). I believe the late Mr. Kipling deserves an advocate, and I also think that unsuspecting audiences, especially children, who appear to be reading less and less, deserve to know that what is in this movie and others touting literary greats in their titles are not the products of the masters whose names they appropriate.

Let me make it clear, though, that I am not a literary purist. I have no problem with adapting literature for the screen, and I do not believe that it is important to "be true" to the literary source.

I also have no argument with artistic borrowing. Shakespeare stole his stories, and Mozart wrote variations on themes by other composers that were better than the originals. In fact, much of the canon of great literature and music could not have been created if artists in earlier centuries had benefited from the representation of competent Hollywood lawyers.

In the end, movie adaptations only need to do two things: They should entertain with good stories well told, and they should be honest in their billing and not use deception to get me to buy a ticket.

The most recent "Jungle Book" incarnation is the fourth movie I have seen springing from the Kipling classic. The 1942 original and the 1967 Disney cartoon versions fell short, but they were movies and made no pretense of being honest to Kipling.

When Disney released the live-action version in 1995, I was drawn into the theater because of Kipling's name on the marquee. Surely, I thought, this means they are really going to try to make the master's stories come alive on the screen.

Silly me.

The only thing Kipling contributed to that piece was his own name and the names of a few characters. The characters themselves, along with the story, had no resemblance to anything Kipling wrote.

The latest version seems to be even more cynical in its marketing, hoping to profit not only from the fame of Kipling but Disney's as well. In this case, the credits of the movie cite a specific story from the "Jungle Books" collection, "Kaa's Hunting," as the source of the screenplay.

But it is shameful and revolting to sell lesser efforts to the public under the name of a great storyteller whose works it appears they have never read, much less followed. If you're going to do a loose adaptation based vaguely on some names of characters once appearing in a story by Kipling, fine. But don't put a Mercedes logo on your dune buggy and sell it to me as an S class sedan.

It would be wonderful if Hollywood showed restraint in using the names of dead authors out of respect for their artistry. That, of course, is more than we can expect since respect can't be enforced with contracts and punitive damages, and respect doesn't show on the bottom line. But truth in packaging is something the public can and should demand, and possibly something the government should enforce in movie titles as it does in canned goods.

Copyright law allows me to quote from another author's piece to an extent, but if I take too much and publish it as my own, the courts will find me liable. What then of those who take too little of an author and use his or her name to sell their own inferior product? It is also ethically wrong and deceptive to audiences to use dead authors' names like this, because literary and cinematic art forms are so different.

Shakespeare was a great master of two difficult forms--plays and poetry. Kipling's stories survive on their power to evoke imagery that makes us feel as if we have been to exotic places and experienced amazing adventure. But how these men would have approached the much different craft of screenwriting we can't know. I personally think they would have done it much better than those who have been usurping their names recently.

Perhaps the greatest harm that can come from this trend, and a strong argument for exercising some control to stop it, is that as mediocrity tries to raise itself by associating with greatness in name only, the effect is more to cheapen the great works than to make the shoddy better.

So our young, having seen "Rudyard Kipling's Second Jungle Book," which is based, so the credits claim, on "Kaa's Hunting," may someday find themselves faced with the opportunity of actually reading Kipling's version--a riveting tale in which a young boy learns great lessons about life. "Nah," I can hear kids saying, "saw the movie. Pretty lame."

Who could argue with them?

But here's a recommendation: For less than the price of admission, and for a little more than it costs to rent the Disney versions, you can buy paperbacks of "The Jungle Books." Read "Kaa's Hunting" with your children. You'll find there's more to masterful storytelling than marketing gimmickry.

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