Murphy’s Law – What’s in a name?

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

This December, a film version of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel Gulliver’s Travels will hit theaters. If you are a fan of the novel and are excited to see a modern adaptation of the story … then sadly, you are probably in for disappointment. Fox has released a new trailer for the film, which makes it abundantly clear that this film version bears little resemblance to the original story.

The new film is a “contemporary re-imagining” of the original story, which essentially means they took the idea of a man shipwrecked on an island full of tiny people and changed everything else about the story. In this contemporary version, Jack Black stars as Lemuel Gulliver, a mail room clerk who is finally given a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a writer. An editor sends him off to the Bermuda Triangle to write a travel story (which may seem far-fetched, but let’s be honest – if you were a travel editor, you’d probably send Jack Black off to the Bermuda Triangle just to get him out of your office too).

The new trailer (which you can see below) is about what you’d expect in a Jack Black comedy. In it, Black breaks out all of his signature moves, including delivering lines with wacky inflections, wiggling his eye brows to punctuate jokes and, of course, breaking out his unorthodox karate chop style dance moves. Fans of Jack Black will no doubt be satisfied with this movie.

Fans of Gulliver’s Travels, however, will most likely not be. The original story, written by Jonathan Swift in 1726, was both a social satire and parody of traveler’s tales of the era. Though everyone remembers Gulliver’s encounter with the tiny Lilliputsians, it is only one of four stories in the original novel. There is also a land of giants, a floating island whose inhabitants love the arts and music and a final island filled with disgusting, apathetic creatures. This new film seems to abandon the other three stories and all hints of subtle social satire and instead provides viewers with a broad Jack Black comedy. (Perhaps if this film does well enough, we can expect to see three sequels that send Black off to these other three lands. He can karate chop hideous monsters and serenade giants.)

I find myself wondering why Fox would bother to even call this movie Gulliver’s Travels. I understand that it is cheaper to remake a classic story that doesn’t require you to pay an author royalties, but what is the point of doing Gulliver’s Travels if your story bears little resemblance to the original? Fans of Swift’s novel are going to be turned off by what a huge departure this is from the source material and fans of Black will see this movie regardless of what you call it, so why not just make a movie about Jack Black on an island full of tiny people and drop the Gulliver’s Travels title altogether? You are not going to sell tickets to this movie on name recognition alone, so why bother?

If you call this movie something else and drop any pretense that it is an adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, when people see Black towering over the tiny inhabitants of the island, they will think it is simply paying homage to the original Swift story. But by actually calling this movie Gulliver’s Travels, instead of seeming like you are paying homage with your broad, modern comedy, it now just comes across like you are desecrating Swift’s work, which will no doubt upset people.

A real “contemporary re-imagining” is something like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which faithfully kept the dialog from the original Shakespeare play, but set the story in modern times. West Side Story, on the other hand, was a Broadway musical with a similar story structure and theme to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but set in modern times without any of the original dialog or characters. It’s a brand new story that pays tribute to the classic Shakespeare play and, as such, the people behind it were smart enough to call their play West Side Story to distinguish it from the very different Romeo and Juliet.

I don’t understand why modern-day Hollywood has lost that perspective. It’s one thing to churn out countless remakes and sequels because you think they have a built-in audience. But it’s another to simply slap on a name of a known commodity on to a movie that is completely different than the story you are claiming it was adapted from. Why even bother to use the name at that point? It seems counterproductive.

Besides, won’t someone think of the poor, lazy child who gets assigned a book report on Gulliver’s Travels and thinks he can get away with watching the movie instead? How will that kid ever live down the shame and embarrassment of standing in front of his class and, with a straight face, telling his fellow students and his teacher that Gulliver was given a wedgie by a giant robot and that he forced the Lilliputsians to wear Kiss makeup to reenact the game Rock Band?

I want to live in a world where that child can cheat on his book report without having to worry that the new film strayed too far from the source material. I want to live in a world where Hollywood doesn’t allow Jack Black to turn classic literature into one of his broad comedic films.

Hell, if all of that is too much to ask, at this point I’d settle for living in a world where someone really does ship Jack Black off to the Bermuda Triangle to get him out of our hair.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at

  1. Sasparilla Gretsch November 4, 2010
  2. dagnabbit November 5, 2010
  3. Joel Murphy November 5, 2010

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