Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lost in Translation: Converting Literature to Animation and a Closer Analysis of American Classics

Where to begin, this is my third draft of this idea.

This entry is going to mainly concern Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Walt Disney and UB Iwerks animated versions of the story. I’ve been mulling over these specific pieces for a while now. Sleepy Hollow is considered an American Literary Classic, but do we know exactly why? Have you honestly even read the story? Or do you just inherently know the tale of the Headless Horseman?

Personally, I never read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow until this summer, when in class my professor had us read excerpts from the tale. It sparked my interest because I always thought I knew what this story was about, until the day, that is, when I actually decided to sit down and read it. I was amazed as to how much the story referenced the American Revolution. I always thought it was a ghost story, but that is not the case. It’s a story mainly concerning different individual American personalities that arose after the Revolution, framed within the context of a folktale.

However, this is not the only aspect of the story that garnered my interest. Another detail arose in my mind as to why I had never read the story. When I thought about it, the only reason why I was familiar with this particular piece of writing was because of Walt Disney’s 1949 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

Because of that cartoon, I felt I was familiar with the work of literature. Then, recently when I bought the UB Iwerks Cartoon DVD collection, I saw that in 1934, Iwerks was actually the first animator to create a cartoon version of this tale. However, when I watched it, I realized it had some “added details” that the Disney version did not.

Notice anything you may not have seen in the Disney version?

I will just point it out. It is the depiction of African Americans that I found pretty shocking in this version. Aside from the characters being pretty much insulting, I also didn't really appreciate, you could say, the transitioning of the song in the beginning of the cartoon from the spooky headless horseman melody to "Old Man River". However, I am going to leave my criticism at that, for now at least. You will understand why in a moment. At first, like I said before, I was shocked at this. I immediately thought it was a part of that one loathsome detail of Depression Era animation to throw in a cheap shot at another ethnicity to draw a cheap laugh from their audience. Yet, after reading the actual story, penned by Washington Irving, which is considered "an American classic", I understood why this detail was in the film. It is because Irving makes these distinct descriptions in the story, and Iwerks, subsequently, was being true to the literature.

Here are the parts of the story, written by Irving, that Iwerks does not stray from in the cartoon:

“In this way matters went on for some time, without producing any material effect on the relative situations of the contending powers. On a fine autumnal afternoon, Ichabod, in pensive mood, sat enthroned on the lofty stool from whence he usually watched all the concerns of his little literary realm. In his hand he swayed a ferule, that sceptre of despotic power; the birch of justice reposed on three nails behind the throne, a constant terror to evil doers, while on the desk before him might be seen sundry contraband articles and prohibited weapons, detected upon the persons of idle urchins, such as half-munched apples, popguns, whirligigs, fly-cages, and whole legions of rampant little paper gamecocks. Apparently there had been some appalling act of justice recently inflicted, for his scholars were all busily intent upon their books, or slyly whispering behind them with one eye kept upon the master; and a kind of buzzing stillness reigned throughout the schoolroom. It was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a negro in tow-cloth jacket and trowsers, a round-crowned fragment of a hat, like the cap of Mercury, and mounted on the back of a ragged, wild, half-broken colt, which he managed with a rope by way of halter. He came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merry-making or "quilting frolic," to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel's; and having delivered his message with that air of importance, and effort at fine language, which a negro is apt to display on petty embassies of the kind, he dashed over the brook, and was seen scampering away up the hollow, full of the importance and hurry of his mission.”

Another Excerpt:

"And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. The musician was an old gray-headed negro, who had been the itinerant orchestra of the neighborhood for more than half a century. His instrument was as old and battered as himself. The greater part of the time he scraped on two or three strings, accompanying every movement of the bow with a motion of the head; bowing almost to the ground, and stamping with his foot whenever a fresh couple were to start.

Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. Not a limb, not a fibre about him was idle; and to have seen his loosely hung frame in full motion, and clattering about the room, you would have thought St. Vitus himself, that blessed patron of the dance, was figuring before you in person. He was the admiration of all the negroes; who, having gathered, of all ages and sizes, from the farm and the neighborhood, stood forming a pyramid of shining black faces at every door and window, gazing with delight at the scene, rolling their white eyeballs, and showing grinning rows of ivory from ear to ear. How could the flogger of urchins be otherwise than animated and joyous? The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner."

Now, having these examples from Washington Irving's "American classic", we come upon the conundrum of how literature is translated into animation, and when the literature possesses blatantly racist details, should those details be sacrificed in exchange for political correctness, or, on the other hand, should they be depicted simply as they are presented upon paper? It is a difficult question. You could say, well, both Irving and Iwerks are racist, and just leave it at that. Racism should not be tolerated. Yet, as much as I would agree with that answer, it is too simple for me. As a person who studies literature, every minute detail, even if it is the use of obviously racist descriptions, deserves analysis, in my opinion. I need to know all the whys and hows.

Regarding questions about depictions of race in both literature and animation, these are questions that I am both prepared and unprepared to answer all at once. My answer is usually, “It depends.” Like the subject of race in any genre--from books, to film, and music, what I am most concerned about is how race is addressed and how the subject of it is applied, how race is depicted, and in what context is the subject used, that is what I am mainly concerned with before forming an opinion. I am going to refrain from answering the question in full here, mainly because I would like to construct a better study of race in Depression Era animation and the Gothic and I don’t feel I have enough source materials to base my research around. However, very briefly, as I said before, it depends on how it is used and what my initial response is to the question of how race is reflected--reflected being the key term--in Depression Era animation is that it is not the animators who are responsible for how race was perceived by the American population, but the population itself that is responsible for the creation of specific stereotypes. This goes for Irving as well during his lifetime. In viewing the cartoons from this angle, what they give us is a reflection of the mindset of the time period in which they were created. As well, being that cartoons are mainly a pantomime of real life, we have to question just exactly who the joke is on, the specific race being depicted, or the ignorance of the people and the population that created the stereotypes. In this sense, and in retrospect, it is not the people of whatever race is being featured in the cartoon that is being mocked, but the society which created these views. Because what these specific cartoons show us, like I said before, is the mindset of the era. What has persevered throughout history, in my opinion, is not the acceptance of the stereotypes, but the blatant ignorance of the people of the time period to have viewed their fellow human beings in these ways. If we look at it in this way, we can then question why specific cartoons featuring negative race or religious suggestions are banned even: because of their depictions of specific racial or religious stereotypes, or because the banning of the cartoons safeguards the population that may have assigned themselves to those specific beliefs of racial or religious differentiation? In my opinion, I believe it has a little to do with both, but more so with the latter question. It should also be mentioned that the Hollywood Hays Code of the era mentioned nothing completely specific about creating stereotypes. You can view the code here . The act of omission, in any case, allows the general viewing population to forget that these were prominent views of the era. But I don’t think we should forget, not at all. I think the short films and pieces of literature should be shown and studied for how ridiculous these stereotypes actually were.
As James Weldon Johnson said in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the topic of race should not remain a sphinx in our culture. It needs to be analyzed. Also, concerning The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it makes us think of what is considered an American classic. Think about it. All this time, I was not aware that this story had any mention of race in it whatsoever. Then, however, we enter into another conundrum. How is Irving, himself, using race in his story? Now we enter into the problems of narrative.

Sleepy Hollow
is narrated by a fictional character of Irving's creation named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Now, it is known from Irving's other works narrated by Knickerbocker, such as The History of New York, that Knickerbocker is not a tolerant man, of anyone, especially the Dutch. However, it was part of Irving's plan to make Knickerbocker the typical intolerant "closeted" historian--a person who augments history to suit himself, and is not shy of admitting it. So is it the character who is creating the racist descriptions, much like Twain's Huck Finn, or is it Irving? Is Knickerbocker, much like my comment on Depression Era cartoons, a reflection of his time? Was it on purpose to create irony that these descriptions were added? Can we then even rightly conclude that Irving or Iwerks were indeed racist? I do not know. But, these are questions that must be asked in order to fully understand the details. And it is, in the end, all about the details.
Art is a genre of detail.

(I added this on August 30th, 2011) The question of narrative also changes when literature is converted to film. We have to keep this in mind also. There is no narrator for the UB Iwerks Headless Horseman. It is just a cartoon with a soundtrack, for the most part. It completely lacks dialogue. The actions of each character, as decided by the story boarding artists, define the plot. So, in a way the film becomes a rhizomic extension of the original story, but is an individual creature in itself. So, in that sense, can the cartoon be considered racist? My answer is yes. It lacks the loophole of author/ narrator separation. Yet, what that creators didn't realize was that they were creating an modern extension of the conundrum presented by Irving, which is explained below.

So, now I endeavor to analyze this from the Gothic angle, since this is a blog about Animation and Gothic literature, in hopes of redeeming myself from seeming too passive when it comes to my views on controversial subjects.

Not only is
Sleepy Hollow an example of an "American classic", but it is also an example of early American Gothic. We remember names like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allen Poe, and more recently, the wonderful Flannery O'Connor, but we never really consider Irving as a candidate to throw into this genre. Or maybe people have. Who knows. In any case, I am of the opinion that the Gothic literary genre is one that is fueled by controversy, whether it be racial, religious, or cultural. If you look deeply into the stories that are deemed the most notable of the Gothic, it cannot be denied that their plots rely upon specific views of socio-cultural differentiation. Frankenstein is about a cultureless being who has no way into human society, Dracula is based around the fear of the old world European culture making its way back into modernity, Wuthering Heights is about a cultureless man who threatens the ideological social structure of a specific family, and in recent times, Flannery O'Connor's Wiseblood talks about the ignorance of the post-Civil War American South. O'Connor specifically has her characters use racial slurs and hold specific racial stereotypes in order to reflect their ignorance of their own destitute situation.

From these examples then, what is Gothic about
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, both story and cartoon, are not the ghost story elements, which are nevertheless required frameworks for the Gothic, but what is inherently Gothic about these depictions, are their views of Race. And not only African Americans, but the Dutch, as well as the New American citizenry.

The other details which I have not yet discussed, and are only merely touched upon in the Disney version of the story, are those that deal with the ghosts of the past inhabitants of the New England area. Irving specifically states in the beginning of the story:

From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols. "

From his mention of the ghosts of the High German doctor and the old Indian chief, whether it be Irving or Knickerbocker, the narrator alludes to the idea of the past cultures, which have been conquered by British and European forces, that still haunt the area. The aftereffects of these imperial endeavors are suggested, through the mode of local tales and "voices in that air", to still hold sway over the cultural memory of the current population. Yet, as the narrator mentions, "the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people," by crafting a story around a Dutch community whose change in cultural character will be dominated by two poles of the post-Revolutionary American personalities, in this case either the brutish and conquering Brom Bones or the opportunistic Ichabod Crane, the story suggests that there are cultural remnants that linger on in a population and indeed haunt their very being. These remnants, along with the building of new cultural quirks as provided by the two main characters, as well as by the unconscious population, will in the future be the cause for more superstition fueled by cultural guilt. It seems as though the message the narrator is trying to convey is that the actions of the past will come back to haunt the present, and the actions of the present will persevere to haunt the future. If the story is interpreted through this lens, then it can be safely said that any commentary on the present culture of the area, whether it be on the Dutch, the personalities of the contending patriarchal figures, or on the American practice of slavery, these details will have a sort of "haunting" effect on the collective consciousness of the new country in the years to follow.

The tale of the Headless Horseman then is a tale of irony. It is a story of people who do not think of the cause for their superstition and are not astute enough to realize the consequences of their present actions. In a way, they gallop around the land headless themselves--they exist completely unaware of the results of the history they create. Even the historian documenting the tale is unaware of the ideas he is conveying, which can be interpreted as history being completely unaware of itself. The ghosts of our historic guilt haunts us, for we are not coherent enough in the present to think of how our actions will affect the future.

I think, with all this being said, that within the cartoons of Disney and Iwerks, Iwerks' depiction is the more suitable to the over all project of the story. Although both cartoons rework Irving's story to focus mainly upon the love triangle aspect, to ignore the mention of race and cultural contentions is to ignore Irving's main point. If it is ignored, the story serves no purpose but to be just another piece of superficial entertainment centered around a shallow story of unrequited love. For however agitating it is to see members of our community depicted in a negative light, we must remember that this was a part of the history of the United States of America that carried over for generations, even as far as up until the day when the story immigrated from paper to film. Even the argument of political correctness in the animated versions of the story is part of the consequences the tale warns of. Omission of the aforementioned details of the story would render the entire tale impotent. What is the purpose of folk tales if not to have us think about the mistakes of our past and how those mistakes have shaped our lives in the present?

With the transition of literature onto a piece of film or in a work of art, we have to keep our minds thinking about what messages are chosen by the artists to be communicated to their audiences. In my opinion, by not mentioning the issue of race in their cartoon, the Disney version of the tale of the Headless Horseman tried to enshroud the actual grotesque, gothic nature of America's past, and in doing so, did a disservice to their audience. What they perpetuated by not mentioning the controversial details is cultural ignorance on the topic of race. If we don't talk about it, if we don't show it, then there is no problem, right? Distract the audience with the soothing and enticing voices of celebrities, make the story happy-go-lucky with the addition of an upbeat musical number, and focus on the quirks of a lanky school teacher who doesn't fit the culturally accepted norm of strong armed manhood. Don't show them the cruder part of their history. Make sure they leave the theatre not feeling like they have to think about what they just saw.

Iwerks, on the other hand, whether he knew it or not, created a cinematic timepiece of a literary timepiece--a two tiered approach to an on-going dilemma. This cartoon, which is virtually void of dialogue, through images documented two separate generations popular views on the question of race, and because of that, causes us to think about how the popular culture of those specific generations viewed the issue. This approach as well can be applied to recreations of literature in our own time. It provides us with a platform to better understand the messages the people who ultimately have the control over the viewing material of our era choose to communicate to their audience. By taking a more in depth view of ways popular art forms deliver a message to the population, by broadening our comprehension of what exactly is passing before our eyes every second of the day, we can then better understand the world from which we spring and develop an awareness for decoding those messages. Perhaps, by doing so, we can then come to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the past, and develop a better way to THINK about and communicate the issues of our time to the future.