Oct 19, 2012

Tom and Huck

In Tom and Huck (1995), an idiosyncratic take on Mark Twain's classic Tom Sawyer, the standard elements are retained: Tom paints the fence, gets engaged to Becky Thatcher (with a tight-close up kiss), has a fake funeral, gets lost in the cave.  But as the title suggests, the relationship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is emphasized.

Tom is played by fourteen-year old Jonathan Taylor Thomas, whose short stature and baby face could easily mark him as prepubescent, especially given his previous cute-boy roles.  Huck, in contrast, is played by Brad Renfro (left), thirteen years old but already a head taller and considerably more mature looking than Thomas, and already saddled with a reputation for being bad, wild, and irascable.

Brad Renfro’s Huck is a creature of the wild, as unpredictable and enigmatic as forest sprite.  He appears without warning, lodged in a tree or lying on a river bank to comment on the action of the fools with the dispassionate interest of a Puck.

In one scene he appears unexpectedly before Tom, naked, his body coated with mud.  He explains – it is a form of camoflauge – but still we are shocked at the sight of an elemental spirit. Indeed, his wilderness home is no hut or cabin, but an earthen pit, the sort of place one might visit at night to conjure hobgoblins.

Huck has no need or desire for human relationships. When Tom says softly “I thought we was friends,” Huck retorts “You thought wrong. I ain’t got no friends.”

But Tom desires him with a intensity beyond friendship, beyond even erotic longing.  Though he knocks around with acts of minor mischief, conning his schoolmates and torturing his cousin, he yearns to be naked and muddy, to need no one, to be free.

Yet he also yearns for a connection with Huck: he seeks out the sprite, invites him places, gazes at him with glassy-eyed wonder, sometimes dares to put touch his shoulder or put an arm around his waist.  This version omits the traditional homoromantic idyll on the island, since, in a terrible paradox, if Tom ever succeeds in establishing a connection with Huck, it will destroy the very “no-strings” freedom that he finds so attractive.

Huck is mistaken, of course: he does need human relationships, and Tom is indeed his friend.  In the cave with Injun Joe, he risks his life to save him – not Becky, who has long since escaped, but Tom alone: “When a friend’s in trouble, you can’t run away.”

With an elemental human connection (and, coincidentally, a fortune), Huck accepts the Widow Douglas’s offer to civilize him.  He puts on pants and enrolls in school and church.    Now Tom feels betrayed.  He decides to stay in the pit and replace Huck as woodland sprite, proclaiming “Somebody’s got to carry on!”  But Huck convinces him that one can be both uninhibited and civilized, and the two walk off together to plan their minor acts of mischief. The outsider has become a schoolboy through the evocation of friendship, with Becky Thatcher long since forgotten.

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