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  • Gulliver's Travels
  • Karen Gevirtz
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels. Screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Joe Stillman. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010.

For film critics and most moviegoers, the 2010 production of Gulliver's Travels, directed by Rob Letterman and starring Jack Black as Lemuel Gulliver, is now headed for a lingering, probably diminishing existence on DVD after being briefly mocked and lamented during its time in theaters. For people interested in Swift's work or in the eighteenth century, however, Gulliver's Travels has a different afterlife as we confront its effects. Film adaptation theorists such as Imelda Whelehan, Deborah Cartmell, and Brian McFarlane have suggested that adaptations are not subordinate to originary texts but rather stand in an "intertextual" relationship with them, each affecting the perception and enhancing the cultural standing of the other. As I have proposed elsewhere, adaptations may increase attention to an original, but the nature of that attention is significant. In the case of this Gulliver's Travels, what do people now know or think they know or have had confirmed about Swift's narrative or about history by this film? What was the "cultural capital," to borrow a favorite phrase of intertextual film critics, of Swift's work before and during the film's run, and what is it now? During fall 2010, for example, Fox Television used Gulliver's Travels to open episodes of its reality show Hell's Kitchen. Each week, audiences watched the contestants as irritating and vaguely menacing Lilliputians force-feeding Chef Gordon Ramsay as Gulliver before the cooking competition began. This unusually large presence in popular media is complicated by the fact that Fox Television is the sister company of Twentieth Century Fox, which released the film. Gulliver's Travels thus takes on a life both as a merchandising tool and a product to be placed: a commodity whose value is important to new economic forces and both definable and measurable in new ways. Encompassing all these issues is the matter of our own historical moment, [End Page 559] its nature, and how we construct what came before "now." Although unimpressive even at its best moments, this Gulliver's Travels does raise some issues about adaptations and the construction of history worth thinking about.

As an adaptation, the film's connection to the original narrative is primarily indirect. Direct transfers include a main character named Lemuel Gulliver, who travels to the island of Lilliput where he seems big and to another island where he seems small. He extinguishes the palace fire in Lilliput by urinating on it (the film's General Edward Edwardian, called "Edward" throughout the film after he introduces himself, shouts at Gulliver about "evacuating" on the palace, a small borrowing from Swift), and captures the Blefuscian (as it is called in the film) fleet by grabbing their anchor ropes and pulling them to shore. More numerous are elements that have been transposed. The film's General Edward conspires against Gulliver for stealing his glory and credibility at court and for supporting the general's rival for the princess's affections, whereas in the text a cabal including an admiral (goaded to action after Gulliver triumphs over the Blefuscudian navy), a general, and a treasurer (enraged by rumors of his wife's indiscretions with Gulliver) forms to eliminate him. General Edward goes to Blefuscu to get rid of Gulliver; Swift's Gulliver flees to Blefuscu after learning of plans to execute him. In the film, some of Gulliver's possessions wash up on shore (thus providing the General with his plan for a robot), while the original Lilliputians itemize the contents of Gulliver's pockets. And so on. Despite the frequent laments of reviewers (many of whom characterized the "palace fire" scene as an offense against a classic text) that screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller abandoned Swift's narrative, in fact, attention to Swift's work reveals that the screenwriters have included a larger number of elements than might be thought.

This transposition of pieces from the original narrative does not mean that Swift's ideas came with them, however. In modernizing, that is, "updating" the story—instead of a pocket watch, the Lilliputians discover Gulliver...


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