Today is World Book Day, so it seemed appropriate to post something related to books: a review of a film based on one of my favourite books.
I must have read Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat when I was in my early teens. A not-quite-story of three men who go down the Thames in a boat, along with their dog. Many descriptions of the countryside, of sights to see and places to visit. Several reminiscences of various events and incidents that aren’t even part of this trip. No romances (and yes, I must admit to having been a fairly typical teenage girl in being quite addicted to romances). Three Men in a Boat, seen only from that limited point of view, would not have sounded like a novel that would appeal to me.
But it did. And how. I laughed my way through all the adventures, the madness, the utterly hilarious trip that this was. Jerome K Jerome (who, by the way, was amazingly versatile, writing very well in various genres, including horror) brought to Three Men in a Boat a humour that I find irresistible. He’s very witty, of course, but what makes that humour even more brilliant for me is the fact that it’s so relatable. The circumstances, the incidents, the dialogues: all could have happened to one of us; what makes Jerome so hilarious is that he manages to exaggerate the nuttiness just that wee bit that turns it utterly hilarious. Something as simple as what happens when two men try to put up a tent in pouring rain; or when they get together to pack for a trip…
How would that translate into a film? I have always been a little sceptical, since much of the humour of Three Men in a Boat lies in Jerome’s language, in the brilliant way he looks at everyday incidents through that deliciously witty lens of his. The story itself is bare of a plot of any sort.
A few years ago, I did find this adaptation of the novel, and (with reservations) decided to give it a try. Within less than five minutes, I had given it up, with a shudder. Because this film begins in a style that has nothing to do with the book. Harris (Jimmy Edwards) is roaming around the zoo with his fiancée Clara (Adrienne Corri) —and, much to Harris’s disgust, her overbearing mother. Clara’s mother has had enough of this long engagement of Clara’s and Harris’s, and gives him an ultimatum: set a date for the wedding.
This much was enough, back then, to make me stop watching the film. But recently, someone recommended the film again, saying that it was indeed very funny. I began wondering if I’d been too impatient with it, and gave it a second chance. To see what happened next…
Harris is peeved, and decides London’s getting too stifling for him. He needs a break, and what better than going on a boat trip up the Thames? He and his friends George and J have been meaning to do that for a long time now, and this seems like the right time.
He suggests it to J (David Tomlinson), who agrees with alacrity. Later, as it happens, the fates conspire to make it possible for J to go off on this trip: his wife Ethelbertha (Noelle Middleton) receives news that a cousin is coming, and intends to spend all her time shopping with Ethelbertha. J can go boating; Ethelbertha will obviously not miss him.
The third man, George (Laurence Harvey), who works as a bank clerk, is too busy wooing several women simultaneously to leave London… until the number of women starts to get out of hand. All of them phone him at the bank, constantly interrupting George’s work. Not that George minds, but his boss does, and gives George an ultimatum: if George can’t get his girlfriends to stop phoning, he’d better leave.
So George too decides he could do with a break. (Why the boss would be happier to let George go on leave is something that eludes me; I thought the point was to put in more work).
George can only leave London in the afternoon, so they decide that J and Harris will take the boat up to Hampton Court, where George will join them. Meanwhile, George, J and Harris pack, and make a mess of things. They sit down on the butter, they spill stuff, and when J and Harris finally get into the cab along with J’s dog Montmorency, it’s to find that Montmorency has brought along a bunch of disreputable friends, all of whom insist on seeing him off. The cab, loaded down with odds and ends, goes trundling off down the street, trailed by a motley crew of dogs of all shapes and sizes.
Harris and J have a good deal of trouble getting into the flow of things: they drop oars, they flounder about and go whizzing all across the river, and when they arrive at Hampton Court, Harris lunges for the dock just as the boat veers away. Harris hangs, stretched out between dock and boat, the perfect bridge for Montmorency to go running over, onto the dock.
While they wait for George, Harris and J decide to go check out the Hampton Court Maze. Harris is superbly self-confident: he has a map, and all that’s needed, according to Harris, is to keep turning right. That’s the key to the maze. Soon, Harris’s self-confidence has won over various other people who are wandering about the maze, and they decide to tag along too, convinced that Harris will be the messiah to lead them out of the maze.
Soon, of course, it’s obvious that Harris is actually as clueless as anybody else (though Harris goes on insisting he knows what he’s doing). Harris’s little band starts getting antsy when a woman, who’s got a baby in her arms, points out a bun on the ground, which her baby had thrown there a short while back, on what now appears to have been a previous jaunt around the same stretch.
Things get worse, tempers fly high, and finally the group, happening to see a Hampton Court attendant climbing up a tower overlooking the maze, yells to him for help. Not knowing, of course, that this is the man’s first day on the job, and he’s as unaware of the intricacies of the maze as they are.
Meanwhile, George has arrived at Hampton Court too, and the first people he sees there are a couple of pretty girls. George being the ladies’ man he is, he follows after them and tries to flirt with them, even though Bluebell (Jill Ireland) and Primrose (Lisa Gastoni) tell him off.
It was at this point that my worries about this film began to kick in again.
And I was right; Hubert Gregg and Vernon Harris, who adapted Jerome’s book into this film, and director Ken Anakin, seem to have decided that there was no point making a film without a romantic angle. Or without girls, at any rate. So the three men in the boat (to say nothing of the dog) end up being teamed up with three women, and their various relatives, in other boats.
What I liked about this film:
The bits that are adapted from the book. The humour of episodes like the Hampton Court Maze one, or Harris singing a comic song, or Harris and J trying to pitch a tent in the rain, or the three trying to open a can of pineapples: these, while they may be somewhat slapstick in places, are still funny. Or perhaps my memories of the episodes as written by Jerome are so vivid, I find them funny even when translated onto the screen; it could well be that what I am laughing about is what I remember from the book.
Jimmy Edwards as Harris was pretty funny too.
What I didn’t like (and some comparisons):
The second half of the film. This is an example of what Greta, at memsaabstory, calls ‘the curse of the second half’: a perfectly good film which goes all to pieces midway and ends up awful.
It’s not as if Three Men in a Boat goes south right after the women put in an appearance, in the Hampton Court scene with George. No; the three men do go their way and have some more adventures— with a tent, hoops for canvas over the boat, a can of pineapple, at a crowded lock and so on—but the women play an increasingly important role in the proceedings, until the last half hour, which descends into some irritating shenanigans, with the three men trying to climb up a window to the women’s bedroom and catch a peek of their friend Sophie (Shirley Eaton) having a bath.
… which is just so unlike the book. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is about the three men, the dog, and their escapades, in a completely non-sexual, non-romantic way. There are women in the book, but they appear as passersby, so to say; in recollections of picnics long past and previous boating trips gone haywire. There isn’t the faintest whiff of romance in the book, and that is what makes the book so deliciously funny. Which, sadly, cannot be said about this adaptation. It fell flat for me; not a film I would recommend at all.
But I do have a version to recommend (and it’s on YouTube, hurray). In 1975, a TV film adaptation of Three Men in a Boat was made, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Tim Curry, Michael Palin and Stephen Moore. This one is much more faithful to the book, without anything extraneous to what happens in the book. It also scores in one respect: by providing a voiceover for some of the sections where the narrator waxes eloquent in the book (which is often hilarious),it is able to convey the wit of Jerome in a more true style. If you love the book, this is one adaptation you might consider watching.