Seek the Original (abbreviated): Gulliver's Travels

Sometimes there just isn't much to say about a book/movie comparison. So here's an abbreviated seek the original of:

Gulliver's Travels
(book by Jonathan Swift. Movie: 1996 by The Jim Henson Co.)

What book dares to criticize the government, law, the concept of a nobility and why they’re running things, intellectuals, and human nature itself? Gulliver’s Travels, the most scathing satire ever written.

Gulliver sails to four different lands. The first land is Lilliput, where the people are only six inches tall, a parody of the English monarchy, petty war and the completely illogical way members of government are chosen. The second voyage is to Brobdingnag, a land of giants, is also a parody of England, but now the natives are the nearly perfect society and Gulliver instead represents everything that’s wrong with England. The third land takes a strange detour to the floating island of Laputa and criticizes the academics and intellectuals of the time. The fourth land is the land of the Houyhnhnms, a people of intelligent horses. This is my favorite because its criticism doesn’t focus on the timely subjects of England in the 1700’s so much as human nature itself and how the human social structure is organized.

Essentially in each land Gulliver tries to understand the natives and they try to understand him and his country. In two of the lands he explains his culture and country, only to be met with ridicule. In the other two, he never passes direct judgment, but he comes out looking like the more civilized human being.

We pride ourselves on things that are detestable to other people, such as war, government, wealth, etc. We’re proud of our society, but when you think about it, society makes no sense. Why does society organize itself so massive amounts of people end up earning their living by maintaining a select few noblemen’s extravagant way of life? We’re proud of our weapons and our wars and conquests, but doesn’t the fact that we need weapons and make war and are good at both betray our savage nature? Why do people write volumes of books on government, when government should be led by reason and virtue? Just the fact that books need to be written about it at all implies something is wrong with it. Why do all the achievements of mankind seem aimed at increasing our own natural wickedness? War and conquest to increase greed and envy. The pursuit of wealth and intelligence to increase sloth and gluttony.

This book asks those questions, points these things out, and gives the criticism from the point of view of other nations who do things the right way. They are appalled by our system of government and society because they don’t make sense at all. In two cases, when we see other people doing things just as illogical as we are, it looks ridiculous. The directness of the criticism is appealing.

The language takes some getting used to, and it’s not a very visual book, but oh man the text is dripping in sarcasm and asks the obvious questions: why is the nobility in charge when they know nothing about how to run things? Why are government offices filled by people with the most money and not by people who actually make good decisions that benefit everyone? Why isn’t the world a better place? We know what it should be, so why are things so different? Swift wanted everyone to ask these questions, too. We’re still asking them today.

As for the miniseries adaptation... The differences are nearly infinite! Instead of four separate voyages away from England, it's now essentially one, long voyage. It preserves much of the satire, but mostly it is an action adventure told as a frame story of Gulliver returning home and struggling to cope with everything he's witnessed over the last nine years. It's a very dynamic way of telling the whole story of Gulliver. Most film adaptations just do the Lilliput section and then fade to credits, but there is so much more to the story and it's wonderful to see all of it acted out.

The floating island of Laputa is an improvement over the book, showing more pointless academic endeavors. Gulliver wandering the halls of the college is surreal and hilarious, unlike the book, which is quite boring. Lilliput and Brobdingnag are well-done--the size difference effects are superbly pulled off. The land of the Houyhnhnms, however, is minimal. The book describes a society very similar to England's, but with horses as the gentlemen and Yahoos doing all the tasks horses perform in England. The movie doesn't do much of anything with this, but then again how could they? It would have cost a fortune! I would have liked to see more of their society, but the satire was kept in tact and it still works.

It's a great adaptation of Swift's story. It's not worth pointing out every little difference between the book and the movie because the changes were appropriate to make it exciting, fascinating, and funny! Still the only film adaption of the entire book, and the most definitive.


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