When size does matter
When Jonathan Swift published Gulliver's Travels in 1726 "to vex the world rather than divert it", he can scarcely have imagined that his subversive and often scabrous work would eventually be bowdlerised into a children's favourite. Today, so settled is the image of Lemuel Gulliver as a benign giant among quaintly terrified midgets, that few outside university English literature departments know of the satirical thrust of the original.
The latest film version of the story will change all that. Directed by Charles Sturridge, who also directed Brideshead Revisited, this handsome, two-part production of Gulliver's Travels makes extensive changes to the story, but does so in ways that keep sympathy with Swift's lampoon. Purists will doubtless be unhappy; others will have their eyes opened to meanings hitherto unsuspected.
Returning from his voyages, Lemuel Gulliver finds his household much changed. His home and medical practice have been taken over by the scheming Dr Bates, who clearly hopes also to take over his wife Mary and son Tom. Gulliver meets only ridicule when he tries to tell of his adventures, and seeing an opportunity to rid himself of his rival, Dr Bates has him committed to an insane asylum, where his extravagant re-enactments of his exploits confirm the doctors' views of him as insane. In the end, only a most unexpected event serves to show that his stories are actually true.
These family matters introduce a domestic strand into what is to become an unexpectedly weighty piece. But this also serves a larger dramatic purpose. As Gulliver relates his history to all who will listen, clever time-shifts help merge present circumstances with past happenings.
These adventures are the highlights of the film. Not only are there some excellent special effects "Man Mountain" Gulliver striding among the tiny buildings of Lilliput but great fun is also to be had in identifying who's who in a star-studded cast headed by Ted Danson, unexpected but likeable in the title role.
Swift's intention was to make his readers both laugh and wince at the vanities and absurdities of mankind, sometimes by using extravagantly crude imagery, occasionally by parodying contemporary institutions, and often by inserting violent denunciations of human behaviour.
Here, for the first time in any film adaptation, Gulliver puts out a fire in the Lilliput royal palace by urinating on it and inadvertently on the Empress, who is herself quite put out as a result. The "leaping and creeping" rituals of the court are comically demonstrated, with Peter O'Toole as the dotty monarch. As in the book, a bemused Gulliver visits the Grand Academy of Lagado, where self-indulgent theoreticians pursue crackpot ideas. And when dwarfed by the Brobdingnagians, he reflects on the magnified ugliness of the human race. While the specific nature of some allusions will be lost on many viewers, most will recognise the general meaning.
Other episodes make their meaning very plain, such as Gulliver's description of the morals, legal institutions and politics of Europe to a monarch of exemplary wisdom and humanity, the queen (in the book, the king) of Brobdingnag. Having listened to Gulliver's enthusiastic account, that shows complete ignorance of all the corruption, avarice and brutality he is describing, the queen delivers her verdict precisely as Swift worded it: "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."
An impressive scene, it fulfils Swift's original intention of looking at human foibles from an altogether different perspective. The more viewers appreciate the queen's scalding assessment, the more comical they will find Gulliver's astonished reaction.
The point is underlined, of course, when Gulliver finds himself in the land of the Houyhnhnms, a country where wise, honest and benign horses rule over undisciplined, unreasoning animals, the Yahoos, who strongly resemble human beings. This, the most complex and important section of the book, ignored by previous productions, is skilfully handled. Before an assembly convened to judge his sanity, Gulliver tells of his life among the placid and benevolent Houyhnhnms and his admiration for their horse sense. He testifies to his distress when, having found true contentment in their company, he is forced to leave because of his physical kinship with the Yahoos. Outraged at this apparent reversal of the natural order of things, the packed assembly brays and threatens Gulliver, thereby proving the very point they most object to.
Interesting though this finale is, it does pose problems. Small children especially will be mystified by much of the language, if they manage to stay the distance. Nor will more demanding viewers be entirely happy with a close that takes much of the sting from Swift's own. But even they should give credit to a production that takes seriously one of the funniest books in the English language.
Television adaptations of English classics Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion often push the original work into the best-selling lists. This thoughtful, witty version of Gulliver's Travels deserves to do no less.