Three Men in a Boat (1956)

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.

A recommendation:

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.


16 thoughts on “Three Men in a Boat (1956)

  1. Interesting review. Seems an okay film. I’ll watch that tv film you have mentioned or even ‘the three stooges’ instead. Wonder how much the stooges are known in India.
    One question, when anyone recommends you films in regional languages of India in the “comedy” genre, specially from the south, don’t you get wary of missing the regional context (or not getting the humor) while watching those? That is one genre for which I feel the subtitles are not enough many times. Some Hindi comedy films themselves can be tricky to translate to foreigners (like Andaz apna apna), unless they are crime capers.

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    • Oddly enough, I have my own anecdote to share about the three stooges: many years ago, when it was next to impossible to buy VHS tapes (this was pre-VCD/DVD) of English language films in India, my father had to go to the US on work. From there, he brought us several tapes, including one of the Three Stooges, which he remembered watching as a child and enjoying a lot. Unfortunately for us, that was the one tape that never worked, no matter what we tried! We even took it to the homes of friends who had VCPs, but no luck. :-( Someday, I must watch at least one film of theirs.

      I agree about comedy getting lost in translation. In fact, it’s happened to me at times (and you’re right, with South Indian cinema). Sometimes, of course, there is still humour (an actor might be really good, like Nagesh), but there’s always the chance of really not understanding all of it.

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  2. Thank you Madhu for that feeling of nostalgia!! I remember loving the book and luckily did not see the film. This and ‘My Family and Other Animals’ two books I found most enjoyable – which had me in splits, so so many years ago!!

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    • I completely second the love for My Family and Other Animals! I love that book. Incidentally, that too has been adapted several times for the screen: I have watched two versions , the 1987 BBC series (very good), and the 2005 film (suffering from the same malaise as the 1956 version of Three Men in a Boat: romance and drama being bunged in where it’s least needed, and thus spoiling it all).

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  3. I began reading your synopsis of the film and shuddered in horror (and continued to shudder in horror). What a travesty they have made of one of the most delightful pieces of literature ever to be written! Thank you for warning me off (and thank you, also, for the recommendation to the later adaptation… with reservations. :) )

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    • I cannot understand this desire to force romance into every single film. It’s a common trait with Hindi cinema too (my pet peeve about Hindi historicals, from Changez Khan, Halaku, Taj Mahal, Jahanara to Nadir Shah, is that everything seems to hinge on romance. Invaders invade for love, they give off invading for love. Aaarggggh! So irritating and frustrating.

      Yes, please give this one a wide berth. But the 1975 one is truly good, it captures the essence of the book very well. :-)

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      • I cannot understand this desire to force romance into every single film.
        Sharing your love for My Family and Other Animals, I want to warn you off a BBC-PBS series called The Durrells in Corfu. What a travesty they made of a what is a very delightful set of books (My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods).

        It was very highly rated, but I can only assume that the people who raved about it had never read the original books. FIrstly, they had Mother romatically interested/involved with Theo (which was never there in the books); secondly, they made both Larry and Margo so over-the-top; and the most sacrilegious, there was nary an animal to be seen!

        It was horrible!

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        • Oh, yes! I have seen The Durrells in Corfu (mostly because I saw it rated so highly), and I completely agree: the people who liked it so much must be those who never read the books. I hated it, it was simply awful. :-(

          But I have very fond memories of seeing a version made in 1987. That had the animals (including Quasimodo) in it, and I remember it as being very good. I must rewatch that, sometime – I have it lying around somewhere on a hard drive.

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  4. It sounds like a bunch of mystifying choices were made with this. I thought the whole point of the book was to reflect the carefree pre-marriage/responsibilities days, so introducing the fiancee and then the romance is missing the point.

    I was coming here to see if this would be a good addition to the 1975 one but looks like it isn’t. Predictably, I LOVE the 1975 version. It still has a bunch of differences from the book, yet in feel and tone I think it’s very similar which I think is the most important.

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    • I completely agree; the whole point of the book was about being footloose and fancy-free bachelors (or grass widowers, if one may coin a term). The romances and the women mess up the whole thing horribly.

      I second the love for the 1975 version – yes, it does get the tone and the feel right. A really enjoyable adaptation.

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  5. Madhulika,
    This comment is irrespective of this post. I wanna recommend you a book, which is, in one of the genres you literary career is based….Historical fiction. From the well known urdu critique, Shamsuddin Rahman Farooqi, it’s a novel in hindi ‘Kai chand they sar-e-asmaan. It’s available in english as the mirror of beauty title. Do read it…It’s an epic…750 paged! But u won’t be bored a percent

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  6. I had planned reading this in my school days since we had “Cheeses from Liverpool” as part of our lessons and it was hilarious. But then I read the Count of Monte Cristo and this faded away from memory.You have to admit that the Count is more entertaining and leaves competition far behind.

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    • “You have to admit that the Count is more entertaining and leaves competition far behind.

      I have to admit that I never got around to reading The Count of Monte Cristo in its unabridged form! I did read an abridged version as a child, and enjoyed it, but not enough to want to read the full version. :-) Three Men in a Boat, though, I have re-read so many times, I know large sections of it pretty much by heart.

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