“What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read. All my many pages — future waste of paper — surely I am a fool.” — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in her journal (1825)
Final installment, this week, for the list I began a couple months ago. Unforunately, we missed a couple great anniversaries last year — namely, Bram Stoker’s original Dracula (1897) and the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in print (1887). However, we still have some oldies to celebrate. First off, though…
Superman (1938, 1978): 80 & 40 years
It is difficult to overstate the popularity and impact that the superpowered hero known as ‘Superman’, created by high-schoolers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has had since his debut in Action Comics #1 back in May (cover-dated June) 1938. Tales of the Kryptonian, Kal-El, and his alter-ego on Earth, farmboy/journalist Clark Kent, have abounded for 80 years. Comic books & strips, novels, radio, TV (live-action and animated), movies, video games, even a Broadway musical, and tons of related merchandise — the character, along with his allies/colleagues and enemies, has become one of the biggest pop-culture icons in the world. He ranks first on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes; he was named the ‘greatest comic book character’ by Empire magazine; and various Superman works and/or their creators have received numerous industry awards. The character, his popularity, and his symbolism (American, messianic, etc.) have been analyzed by everyone from literary critics to philosophers & theologians.
Of course, over those eight decades, Superman has been portrayed on-screen (and on-air) by many actors. Bud Collyer was the voice of Superman/Kent for the radio serials and Fleischer cartoons in the 1940s. With the jump to movie serials, Kirk Alyn assumed the role, followed by George Reeves, who continued into the first TV series. There have been and are others. But, arguably the most-beloved actor to portray the Man of Steel was Christopher Reeve, who starred in probably the two most popular Superman movies: Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Richard Lester’s (w/ Donner) Superman II (1980, but released 1981). Thus, we have our second anniversary, i.e., 40 years since the debut of the Reeve/Donner ‘Superman’. Most fans would agree that Reeve’s portrayal was the best. When you add screenwriting by Mario Puzo (and others); co-stars including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, Terence Stamp (and others); and terrific set designs, cinematography, and musical compositions by John Williams (that theme music still gives me goosebumps); it’s no wonder that these two films are so popular and, perhaps, iconic in themselves.
King Kong (1933): 85 years
Yup. It has been 85 years since the giant, quasi-gorilla first showed his ugly mug in theaters. Kong was the brainchild of aviator/adventurer and American filmmaker Merian C. Cooper (who the ‘Carl Denham’ character was based on). Inspired by a book he had as a child about the adventures of explorer Paul Du Chaillu in Africa, as well as an encounter with baboons as an adult, Cooper eventually developed and produced his “giant terror gorilla picture”. Cooper even came up with the iconic ending first, in which Kong climbs a NYC skyscraper with the leading lady (literally) in hand, fights off warplanes, and falls to his death(?), with Denham uttering the memorable pronouncement, “It was beauty killed the beast.” Novelization of the film was actually published a few months before the film was released.
Despite his aggressive behavior, Kong’s solitary life and tragic death, along with certain anthropomorphic traits, endeared him to movie audiences. The big ape went on to star or co-star in several sequel and remake films, animated series, novels, e-books, comic books, and video games over the years. (There was even an Australian musical adaptation back in 2013, and there’s an upcoming Broadway musical planned for later this year.) I, for one, remember thinking it was scary-cool when I first saw the original movie as a kid. The Toho version of Kong (which fought Godzilla and other giant creatures) was dopey-looking, but the one from the 1976 remake was scary-cooler! (I need to watch those again….) The latest version, though, is the biggest and baddest!
The War of the Worlds (1898, 1938, 1953, 1988): 120, 80, 65, & 30 years
With this one, we break the centennial mark! As was common practice back then, the tale was first serialized in magazine format (in the UK & US in 1897), but the completed The War of the Worlds was first published in hardcover in 1898. Its author, of course, was one of the fathers of science fiction, H.G. Wells, who had already found fame as a futurist writer with The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897) — all now considered genre classics. An avid follower of Charles Darwin, his works (which included other genres) often reflected a distinctly Darwinian worldview. With its plot of a Martian invasion, this particular novel…
“…has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears and prejudices. At the time of publication, it was classified as a scientific romance…. The War of the Worlds has been both popular (having never been out of print) and influential, spawning half a dozen feature films, radio dramas, a record album, various comic book adaptations, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. It has even influenced the work of scientists, notably Robert H. Goddard, who, inspired by the book, invented both the liquid fuelled rocket and multistage rocket, which resulted in the Apollo 11 Moon landing 71 years later.” (Wikipedia)
Three of those adaptations are particularly noteworthy. (Well, to me, anyway.) Of course, 1938 was the year that Orson Welles perpetrated his infamous radio dramatization. As per Wikipedia,
“The first two-thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a news bulletin and is often described as having led to outrage and panic by some listeners who had believed the events described in the program were real. However, later critics point out that the supposed panic seems to have been exaggerated by newspapers of the time seeking to discredit radio as a source of information.”
The first on-screen treatment came in 1953, when Gene Barry and Ann Robinson starred in a pretty good film adaptation of The War of the Worlds. But, the one I remember best is the live-action TV series (1988), which was a sequel of sorts to the 1953 movie. The premise was that the Martians had not all died in the 1950s, and the survivors had gone into hiding/hibernation after their defeat. Adrian Paul and Philip Akin were in it (and would both later star in “Highlander” (1993)), but the stars I remember were Jared Martin and Richard Chavez. And, to this day, my brother and I can elicit a chuckle one from the other by mimicking the Martians’ guttural oath, “To life immortal!”
Around the World in Eighty Days (1873): 145 years
It is only fitting that French writer Jules Verne, another “father of science fiction”, has an entry in this list. The idea of traveling around the world was popular in those days, and others before and after would publish both fictional and non-fictional accounts. But, Verne’s was clearly the most popular and longest lasting. More adventure novel than sci-fi/fantasy, it followed British gentleman Phileas Fogg and his new French valet, Jean Passepartout, in their exploits as they attempted to win a bet to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. What happens next involves several colorful characters, dangerous encounters and near-misses, a bit of romance, and a *lot* of time spent on trains and steamships (and a few other things). (Note: The hot-air balloon from the 1956 movie was never used in Verne’s novel.) I haven’t read or watched the story myself, but it sounds like an Indiana Jones adventure, but very different. 😉
At the time it was written, things were very difficult both for France and for Verne personally. But, the writer was intrigued with recent technological breakthroughs and excited about exploring them in his new book. As noted by Wikipedia,
“Rather than any futurism, [Verne’s most popular work] remains a memorable portrait of the British Empire “on which the sun never sets” shortly before its peak, drawn by an outsider. It is interesting to note that, until 2006, no critical editions were written…. However, Verne’s works began receiving more serious reviews in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with new translations appearing.”
There have been many films (live and animated), cartoon series, theatrical adaptations (yes, including musicals), and radio productions. In fact, the first radio adaptation starred Orson Welles (as Fogg) and began the week before he did The War of the Worlds.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818): 200 years
Two hundred years! Holy cow!
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a mere 20 years old when the first volume of her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously on Jan. 1, 1818. Quite an accomplishment! Even at such a young age, Shelley had already lived a life full of tragedy and scandal, which figured into her famous tale. According to English professor Karen Karbeiner:
“[T]he novel is her only work to remain in print since its first publication…. From the start, we have been eager to help the monster live off of the page, to interpret the tale for ourselves. Within five years, the first of what would eventually be more than ninety dramatizations of Frankenstein appeared onstage….
Frankenstein is a nineteenth-century literary classic, but it is also fully engaged in many of the most profound philosophical, psychological, social, and spiritual questions of modern existence…. By combining never-before-combined ingredients from her diverse reading, Shelley broke from established tradition and even concocted a new literary recipe known today as science fiction.”
Just as an aside, Victor Frankenstein’s monster (aka “creature”, “daemon”, “wretch”, etc.) does not have the familiar flat-top skull, greenish skin, or electrode bolts protruding from its neck, as seen in the Universal films starring Boris Karloff. It is also quite emotional, sensitive even, and teaches itself to read and speak quite eloquently.
I finally decided to read the novel myself and am working my way through it now. (Technically, I am reading the 1831 revised edition.) The pre-Victorian writing style is a bit wordy but elegant in its own way. I guess you might say that speech moved at a slower pace than it does today, as is true for most things. But, if you like historic period pieces or fantasies that take place in ancient Europe or other lands, you might enjoy the rhythms and picturesque style. But, I have to warn you, it is a tragic tale, and not just for the creature.
I hope you enjoyed this series, dear readers. Maybe, like me, you’ll be inspired to pick up an “old” classic and give it a try.