Sunday, January 1, 2017

Read the Book

Read the book. Always good advice. Books are warm and involving and work in the theater of the mind. However, especially in the case of Science Fiction, I enjoy watching the movie too to find out what was in the mind of the creative folks in Hollywood.

This time of year I get several peeks at one of my favorite movies. That’s A Christmas Story. Ted Turner owns the rights to the film and so it is usually played back-to-back for 24 hours around Christmas on one of his networks. That’s OK. I like the story. I’m crazy about nostalgia, and it does bring back some memories of a time long ago and how magic Christmas can be for a young boy.

As most know, the movie is based on a book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, written by Jean Shepherd. It isn’t the normal adaptation. Rather it takes parts from the book and even a little from Shepherd’s second book, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories (and Other Disasters, The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and A Fistful of Fig Newtons), the source of the "hillbilly" neighbor Bumpus and his hounds. Both of his books are made up of independent chapters or short stories, sometimes with an introduction involving some conversation in New York City or the imaginary town of Hohman.

Jean Shepherd was a disc jockey and humorist who performed on radio in the decades after World War II. Beginning in June 1964, he began adapting many of his radio stories for publication in Playboy magazine. He focused primarily on those stories which depicted his childhood in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana (a stand-in for Shepherd's real home town of Hammond, Indiana).

Playboy regular, author Shel Silverstein, had long encouraged his friend Shepherd to write down his radio stories, but Shepherd was reluctant to do so because he was not a writer. Eventually, Silverstein recorded Shepherd's stories on tape, transcribed them, and then, together with Shepherd, edited and developed them. Fellow WOR AM radio personality Barry Farber said Shepherd came to enjoy writing, as it allowed him to develop themes, and Shepherd began to work on written stories by himself.

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash was the first book Shepherd wrote, and contained his most popular radio stories taken from early segments that appeared in Playboy. Although they are often described as nostalgic or memoirs, Shepherd rejected these descriptions. He argued instead that they were fictional stories about childhood.

Whether the stories are truth or fiction is not entirely clear. Shepherd denied that he was merely remembering his childhood, and repeatedly asserted in interviews that his stories were entirely fictional. However, at least some elements of the stories draw on the real world. For example, the names of many of the characters in Shepherd's book can be found in his high school yearbook, "Hohman" is the name of a major street in Hammond, Shepherd's younger brother was named Randy, and Hammond has a Cleveland Street and a Warren G. Harding elementary school. Certainly much of the tale is drawn from his boyhood experiences.

Books made into movies often contain much more detail than what can be portrayed on the screen. In this case, I’ve found the answers to several questions, some of which I didn’t even realize needed asking, by comparing the book to the movie. Plus, I find the movie much better than the book and I’ll explain why.

Have you ever wondered why the “leg lamp” was the prize his “Old Man” won? There is an explanation in the book. Ralphie explains that his dad was a big contest player. That made it into the movie in the kitchen scene where he asks the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse. In the book Ralph describes a certain contest sponsored by the Nehi company, purveyor of a particular orange soda drink. (In some of their advertisements they would show a pair of sexy legs. Not sure why. Maybe a play on the name, “knee-high.”)

Ralphie’s dad had entered the Nehi contest that had a sports theme. His dad was not only an expert on all kinds of sports, but he also had an extensive collection of sports books and almanacs. His dad did very well in the early stages of the contest and moved on to higher rounds. As the contest continued, the questions got tougher and tougher. As mentioned in the kitchen, the prize was $50,000, so the Old Man kept on. The final round was very tough with questions about esoteric sports such as water polo. So Ralph's dad finished the contest and sent in the final questions. It is assumed his dad didn’t win first prize, but got a consolation prize.

Most of that detail was skipped in the movie, but there are some clues. Remember when Ralph’s mom asked what it was when his dad read the telegram? He said maybe it’s a bowling alley. But they don’t deliver bowling alleys. It seems that the Old Man was a very good bowler. Recall that he got a bowling ball present for Christmas. If he’d won the $50,000, he would have bought a bowling alley. Instead he got the lamp.

But that didn’t matter to him. It was the greatest present ever: “A Major Award.” You all know the rest. And now you know the rest of the story.

And speaking of presents, in the book you learn that Ralph gave his dad the can of Simonize car polish. Seems his dad was an avid car polisher. The dirigible that his kid brother loved was also a present from Ralphie that he complained about wrapping. He bought his mom a fancy bottle of perfume for Christmas, but that present doesn’t appear in the movie.

In the book, Shepherd is very negative about his home in Northern Indiana. He talks about the steel mills and refineries and how the snow was always covered in dust and dirt from the Bessemer ovens. He goes on and on about how cold it was in the winter with the arctic wind blowing over Lake Michigan at gale force and you see some of that in the movie with the dressing for school. He describes the scarf wrapped around your head until only your eyes show.

In the book he also describes the Indiana summers as hot and humid in his chapters about the stinking mud lake where the old men fished and the bugs and beer. Of course, none of the summer parts are in the winter story. The main premise in the book is he has returned to Home (Hohman / Hammond) from his job in New York, and is at the bar owned by his childhood buddy, Flick. He doesn’t have much good to say about his old home town. But, then again, he doesn’t have much good to say about New York either in his introductions at the automat and coffee shops. In his discussions with Flick he would get into the details that make up the Christmas Story.

You do recognize some of his excellent lines in the movie, although there are subtle changes. For example, in the scene where his mom “accidentally” breaks the lamp while dusting, the dad comes storming out of the bathroom. In the movie he’s in the basement struggling with the furnace. The book does describe the dad as a “fearless furnace fighter” going after clinkers. I suspect the movie deemphasized the bathroom for the sake of the children. (And talk about special effects: check out that black smoke rolling out of the basement when the Old Man opens the door!)

One line I like describes “a blue cloud of obscenities still existing somewhere over Lake Michigan.” In the movie that’s how Ralphie characterizes his dad’s cussing, but in the book that line is from when Ralph fought the bully and swore a blue streak. In both cases, his mom doesn’t tell his dad, much to the relief of both siblings worried that "dad will kill Ralph." Besides, we know his dad "worked in obscenities like other artists worked in paint or clay."

All in all, the movie had a softer tone and represented a more pleasing view of childhood, while the book was very negative on the town and its meteorological and economic conditions. I think that’s why the movie is better. It has a caring, nostalgic tone that resonates better with viewers than the tough — “happy I’m outta there” vibe of the book. Still the book allows the author to more clearly present his views. But I’m glad the movie came out the way it did. Most our childhood memories have softened and even the tough times with your tongue stuck to the flagpole are now fond memories.

Two of my favorite scenes are at the very beginning where the narrator (grown up Ralph) first sees his old home on Cleveland Street. I know that feeling. Your boyhood home is a place of many fond memories. The second is the very ending where the boys are in bed with their favorite presents and mom and dad are together on the couch, arms around each other, watching the snow outside with only the lights of the Christmas tree to illuminate the scene. Now that I'm "mom and dad" I get that too.

Plus I like all the fuse blowing and crazy electrical wiring scenes. That’s just fun. “My Old Man could replace fuses quicker than a jackrabbit on a date.” Think about that line for a moment, and then realize that director Bob Clark’s filmography includes “Porky’s,” well known for sexual innuendo. The movie may have downplayed the adult content and bathroom scenes, but it is fun reading through the book and spotting famous lines from the movie; at least famous now that Christmas Story had entered the nation’s psyche through simple repetition.

Still, after all my study and reading, there are several points of confusion between the two. The book states numerous times that it is in the “middle of the depression,” which would have dated it in the mid 1930s. But the look of the movie is definitely 40s, based at least on the automobiles. Little Orphan Annie is no help since that radio show ran from 1931 to 1941, although that would preclude mid forties for the time frame.

Neither the book nor the movie make it clear what Ralph’s Old Man did for a living, although it did appear he had a job, which was fortunate during the depression. His care with money is demonstrated in the scene with the flat tire where a quick observer will note the spare is bald. Or, as Ralph said, "These were only tires in the academic sense. They were round and made of rubber." But then again he did get the big Christmas tree, although we never heard what it cost, and he got the rope thrown in free.

In any case, it has been useful for me to read the book. I did that after I first saw the movie on TV, and that’s still OK. There are many other movies that I’ve also read the book. 2001, a Space Odyssey is a favorite of mine. It was based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke written in 1948 called The Sentinel, yet that was only about the monolith, not the voyage or HAL.

There is a book of the movie 2001. It was developed concurrently with Stanley Kubrick's film version and published after the release of the film. Clarke and Kubrick worked on the book together, but eventually only Clarke ended up as the official author. Of course, I’ve read that book too. Since it is based on the movie, there are few differences, but it does explain the final scene where the fetus is seen floating in space above the earth.

The book has an explanation for that final scene, but I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to “Read the Book.”

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