Friday, February 27, 2015

Adventure classics -- Who needs a happy ending?

The Red Pony/My Friend Flicka

by John Steinbeck/Mary O’Hara


Did John Steinbeck compromise his art by grafting a happy ending onto the screenplay based on his story collection, The Red Pony? It’s a common complaint among avid readers that the movies made from book are never as satisfying as the books themselves, that the authors of books must be gnashing their teeth over the changes screenwriters make to their stories.

In The Red Pony, though, the changes were the author’s own, with Steinbeck using only material from three of the stories and adding a controversially happy ending. “If a producer who had acquired the rights to an original work made such extensive changes in it, admirers of the original could justifiably raise cries of protest against the treatment of the source¼ ( but) Steinbeck was obviously not interested in simply transferring his story cycle to the screen; he wished to tell the story of Jody Tiflin’s initiation into manhood in a way that he deemed suited to the new medium, critic Warren French wrote in “The Red Pony as Story Cycle and Film.”

And why not? It’s an author’s prerogative, after all, to change his mind. But I can’t help suspecting a little influence from another story about a boy and the young horse he nurses through a serious illness, My Friend Flicka.

Written by Mary O’Hara (herself a Hollywood veteran), 1941’s Flicka went on to become successful enough as a 1943 movie to get a spin-off TV series and 21st century remakes.

Both Flicka and The Red Pony feature young boys on their way to learning hard lessons; both revel in the natural worlds their authors loved -- California’s Salinas Valley where Steinbeck spent much of his boyhood at his grandparents’ ranch, the Wyoming of the Remount Ranch where O’Hara moved with her equestrian husband. And both stories, of course, have a horse at their center. Significantly, though, the equine heroine of Flicka lives. Jody Tiflin’s pony, at least the one in the first story of The Red Pony cycle, the story on which most of the movie is based, dies.

Did Steinbeck take that into account in collaborating on the screenplay of the 1949 Red Pony movie? His original stories, although with a child protagonist, were written for adults. The movie was expected to appeal mainly to children. Was the death of a beloved animal deemed just too difficult for kids to handle?

“Children should be allowed the great themes, which are also often tragic themes,” Rosemary Sutcliff, another author of what would now be considered YA stories, once said.

Sutcliff herself knew tragedy through a painful and disabling illness that kept her secluded most of her childhood. She never quibbled about describing the deaths of characters, even major characters in her historical fictions, only differentiating between her fiction for adults and younger readers with sensitively-handled sex scenes. But how much acquaintance with tragedy can children handle, and how much becomes too much?

(For more about Rosemary Sutcliff’s work at this site see, “An Arthur for our time,” May 20, 2011; and “This game’s a fight to the finish,” May 30, 2012. For more about My Friend Flicka and Mary O’Hara at this site, see “A little horse to love,” February 17, 2012.)
(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a month of thrillers and suspense with Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.)

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