Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Lost Ones (1961)

Most readers would, like myself, probably come around to reading Ian Cameron's 1961 novel The Lost Ones by way of it's Disney film adaptation Island at the Top of the World. In fact, the copy that I was finally able to find at a used bookstore was the 1974 reprint retitled Island at the Top of the World, decorated with the Mouse's artwork.

If so, one would be very surprised by what they read. On celluloid, Island at the Top of the World is a high Edwardian Scientific Romance in which a group of intrepid explorers in their airship - the Hyperion - track down a long-lost group of Vikings living in a lushly green and secluded valley in the high Arctic. Their original goal was to find the errant son of the trip's financier, Sir Anthony Ross, who had gone off to track down the graveyard of the whales. Coming along were the French captain of the Hyperion and his poodle, an Inuit named Oomiak and archaeologist-historian Professor Ivarsson.

Disney's version is a fun movie that doesn't quite live up to its potential. The company actually had much loftier goals for it, with far more daring ideas. The Hyperion was supposed to be, for all intents and purposes, an aerial Nautilus. Island at the Top of the World was supposed to be a new generation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unfortunately it failed at the box office in direct proportion to how far back it was scaled.

Upon reading The Lost Ones, Disney's half-measures become even more obvious as they become even more inexplicable. The first thing one notices is that the novel does not take place in 1907 like the film does. It takes place in 1960. The Lost Ones is every bit a Scientific Romance, make no mistake about that. It is filled to the brim with the romance of exploration, adventure, history and the far-flung corners of the world, with well-studied accuracy in the details and a creative concept. It is a modern-day version of a Scientific Romance, however.

The date is not the only difference. In this short, 200-page dime novel, there is no Oomiak or Ivarsson. They are replaced by the narrator, a whaler named Keith Rogers, and Professor Somerville. There is no airship, though young Donald Ross did arrive to the titular island via helicopter. The rest arrived by pontoon plane and dogsled. What they arrived to was not the verdant valley of the film, but a rocky volcanic plateau populated not by full-blooded Norsemen, but "blond eskimos". Those "blond eskimos" may or may not be a subtle joke, depending on how one takes characters with yellow hair and fair skin and names like "Freyja" and "Loki" but who speak in an Inuit dialect and call the protagonists "white men".

Cameron did go to lengths to further weaken one of the threads of the Disney film. In 1974, Disney chose the stock villain type of the superstitious, primitive shaman to torment the protagonists with his backwards taboos. Rather than nuance this caricature, Cameron actually girds it up with a discourse on how religions form by the economic exploitation of the people by the priests. Especially, the narrator says without any voice of contradiction, the superstitions of savage people like these "Eskimos". It is a trope as tedious as it is fashionable, no less so in 1961 than now.

It is easy to see why Disney chose this novel and the approach they took. Evidently they were looking for something upon which to hang their hopes of a new Vernian romance, and they found it with The Lost Ones. Like how the current Pirates of the Caribbean movie is a loose adaptation of the entirely independent Tim Powers novel On Stranger Tides, Disney saw the skeleton of a plot they wanted and took the effort to purchase the rights. One this skeleton they built up the musculature of proper Edwardian dime novel characters and fantastic inventions while enhancing the wonder and exoticism of their destination. That is all fair enough.

Why then did they scale it back instead of going all out and full bore? Money, most likely, the savings on which cost them dearly.


Xenorama said...

none of Disney's adaptions bore much resemblance to their starting points- take "Bed Knob and Broomstick" - even the name was changed! I couldn't believe how different the book was.

well written!

Cory Gross said...

Oh certainly... Nothing is immune to Disney's sometimes nonsensical fussing. I have no idea why they even bothered to do Hunchback of Notre Dame to begin with, since they had to change it so much that it was offensive to the source material. And Sleeping Beauty would have actually had more emotional punch if they hewed more closely to Perrault and Tchaikovsky. I kinda' almost want to read the original Mary Poppins books.

With The Lost Ones, though, my question is just why they stopped so short.

Xenorama said...

it seemed to me, even as a kid, Disney kind of was banking on their name at the time. every kid I knew watched their tv show regularly, and usually it was a "Charlie the Lonesome Cougar" type of movie. they showed their world famous cartoons about once every three or four months.

so they thought they could spend the minimum amount of money and time and people would go see anything with their name on it, and it worked for a while. even their cartoons got a bit lackluster- i.e. Robin Hood or even The Jungle Book were cheaper than the older movies.

Cory Gross said...

I think it's safe to say that they still do that to a degree. The Disney brand doesn't have as much oomph to it as it used to, thanks to shennanigans in the late Eisner era (unfortunately, while his leadership was fantastic at the beginning, he didn't know when to step down), but they're still trying to pull that out with franchises. "Look kids, it's Tron/Pirates/Tim Burton/Cars/High School Musical/Marvel, go see it just 'cuz!"

There was even that one Disney exec recently who made trade magazine headlines by acknowledging that the axiom that tentpole movies should be about story was "bullshit". Well then, there ya' go...

Art L said...

In about 1969, my neighbor, who was in college, (UCLA - I think), was an English major. He gave the paperback, "The Lost Ones" to my Mom to read. My mom read it and suggested I would like it. I was 14 y.o. at the time and didn't really like reading, but that whale stuck in the iceberg intrigued me, so I read it. I still think it's one of the best books I've read and recommend it for all (especially teenage boys).