It’s not uncommon for popular novels to be made into movies. Almost all of Shakespeare’s works have a corresponding film adaption of some kind, although, to be fair, they were originally created for the stage, so the transition is a little more natural. But plenty of works of literature that were never intended to be performed have lives on their own on the silver screen. The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird is likely just as adored and revered as Harper Lee’s book. Plenty of people who’ve seen the Ang Lee-directed Sense and Sensibility have never read a word of Jane Austen. These days if a book achieves a certain level of commercial (or sometimes critical) success, it’s a safe bet that a movie version is already in the works.
It’s less common to see a staged musical version of a classic novel. Musicals have been adapted from dramatic plays, from movies, and even from popular music, but not usually from literature. That’s what makes the musical Big River so unique. It’s a Broadway musical based upon Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story and characters are same; Huck even begins the show by describing his adventures with one Mr. Tom Sawyer, but the more emotional and poignant moments of the tale are emphasized with full-sale musical numbers.
When Huck is being lectured that he needs to go to school to learn to read and write, the chorus breaks out into a song called “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?” For any Twain enthusiast, this may be a light-hearted, joyful interpretation of a well-known story, or nothing short of sacrilege. For those willing to overlook any liberties taken with the original text (which most viewers of adapted works should be willing to do, otherwise they’ll spend the entire show pointing out inaccuracies), this musical can be real delight. And those not yet acquainted with Twain’s great novel may just be inspired to read Huckleberry Finn for the first time.
For anyone who’s worried that the musical glosses over the more complex issues of Huckleberry Finn, namely the effects of poverty and racism, they need not. In fact, Big River devotes an entire song to Huck’s father’s strong hatred for the government and it’s movement towards racial equality. This, one of the more unpleasant Huckleberry Finn quotes, “They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment...” is turned into a woeful ballad song by Huck’s father, appropriately titled, “Guv’ment.” The musical also tackles Huck’s complicated feelings about abolition, as well as the cruelty of slave trade.
It might be hard to imagine that a story about a young boy and a slave heading up a river to escape a lynch mob would make for a delightful musical production, but it was probably equally difficult to imagine that a play about the Salem witch trials would become an Oscar-nominated film, but that’s exactly what happened with The Crucible. A great story is a great story, regardless of its form.