Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seek the original: The Fox and the Hound

91% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

When I saw Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, I didn’t know it was based on a book. A contemporary book at that, very odd for Disney. As soon as I heard about it, I had to check it out.


The Fox and the Hound
By Daniel P. Mannix


The life of a red fox over the years as he survives hunters, trappings, hounds, human encroachment, drought, and the hound who’s hunting him.

The story takes places from two points of view: Tod the fox, and Copper the hound. The hunted and the hunter. The book starts with the hunting dog, Copper, as he and his master are enlisted by the police to find a missing man. Copper doesn’t know this, only that he is to track a scent. At the end is a dead body, and the scent of bear. Shortly afterwards, Copper and his pack are enlisted to track down the killer bear, and this leads to a fight to the death. The master is maimed, but Chief, the old dog who is currently alpha, grabs the bear by the balls (literally) and pulls it off the master, giving him time to shoot the bear.

The story then picks up with a family of foxes. A group of hunters finds the den, the mother is only able to save one of her pups and is then ripped apart by a pack of hunting dogs.

This is not a children’s book.

The fox pup (named Tod) is raised by compassionate humans. Eventually he starts feeling his oats and runs off after the scent of a female in heat. Now the fox lives in the country on his own. He comes across Copper and Chief’s pack. Chief breaks off his leash and chases the fox. Unable to shake the dog, Tod leads Chief across the railroad tracks just as he feels a train approaching. The train kills Chief, and from then on Copper’s master wants Tod dead.

For the rest of the book, Tod is hunted and chased, his family is murdered twice, and the hunter tries to trap him, but he survives. Copper is eager to accompany his master on the hunt, but it’s not out of vengeance. It’s not a vendetta that consumes his life. From Copper’s point of view, he simply enjoys being with his master, being useful to him. This is farm country, and foxes are a nuisance in general, so the master is called upon to exterminate the fox population. Copper is eager to help hunt and kill because it means he gets to be useful, earn his master’s favor, make him happy by tracking scents and finding prey. It’s his entire world.

Over the course of his life, Tod loses all his children and both mates to the hunters. Meanwhile the world changes. The farm country is developed and suburbs take over. Through it all, with his wit and ability to learn from successes and failures (both in himself and those around him), Tod survives. He lives on the razor edge of his senses, and using those senses to survive the dangers around him is satisfying. It’s his entire world.

The story is difficult to read in many places because it’s so densely packed with expressions that don’t connect with anything visual. Such as: “own the line” (finding the scent). “Give tongue” (hounds sounding off). “Windfall” (fruit that’s fallen from trees). “Hounds in check” (hounds sniffing around trying to find the scent again). These phrases are strange and didn’t help me visualize what was happening.

There are very long, dense passages that frequently use expressions like these instead of describing what’s going on and where we are. Nothing much happens. It’s all narration that just plods on and on without much relevance to the story. Then, finally, something starts happening, visuals lock in place again and the story becomes exciting!

The most interesting thing about the book is the animals don’t talk. They don’t reason. They don’t communicate. They are natural, wild animals. Only the omniscient narrator weaves their thought processes into something humans can understand. We see the world the way Tod and Copper see it, in monochrome shades colored with pure scent. We get to know how they think, and see the chain of logic that leads them to conclusions an animal would come to.

Copper just wants to make his master happy. He feels no vengeance for Chief’s death, or hatred for his prey. Scenting prey makes him useful to his master, catching prey makes his master happy, and he does it to bond with him. He enjoys being with his master. Tod, however, just wants to survive. He doesn’t kill Chief out of anger or spite. He doesn’t really comprehend that his actions led to the old dog’s death. He was just running for his life and saw an opportunity to get the dog off his trail. There’s no anger on his part for years of being chased, watching his family killed, as well as his entire world destroyed. Neither he nor Copper hold a grudge against the other. They can’t because they are animals. They don’t comprehend such things, and the book shows this very well.

The ending is... Wow... It’s quite depressing because it just ends. There’s no moral, no reason for any of this to happen. It’s a tale of animal perspective. It presents an animal’s motivation from the animal’s point of view, showing us: this is how they live. This is how they see the world. This is how they learn, how they adapt, how they deal with these problems. This is how the bloodhound sees the hunt. This is how the fox sees the hunt. Completely in animal terms. It’s an insightful look into the world and thought processes of animals.

Compare that to...



The Fox and the Hound
Disney (1981)


Remember my review of How to Train Your Dragon? Remember how the movie was so completely different from the book they may as well not bother calling it an adaptation? Remember how much better the movie’s story was compared to the book’s? Well, that’s the exception. The Fox and the Hound is the rule. Now that I’ve read the book I have to wonder whose idea was it to turn Mannix’s book into a family movie? There is nothing in the book that makes me squeal “ohhh, that would be so cute to show the kids!”

The Disney version is about a red fox and a hunting dog who befriend each other as puppies only to become enemies as adults. I expected to read a stronger, more adult version of this tale in the book, but to my surprise, it’s not there. Not at all. In the book Tod and Copper don’t know each other as pups, so from the very start the movie has nothing to do with the book.

But the idea is pretty powerful. Friends as kids only to become enemies as adults. There’s a lot of story potential in the concept, and when I first watched it I wondered how it would play out and yet still be Disney.

The movie starts off with Tod’s mother shot by hunters off camera, and Tod raised by an old woman as a pet. Meanwhile on the farm next door, the hunter brings home a new puppy named Copper, and the older dog, Chief, is annoyed having to tolerate this kid. Both pups wander off and meet. They’re kids, so they don’t know they’re supposed to be enemies, and they do normal kid stuff together.

After two scenes and about 3 minutes of screen time together, Tod and Copper are separated. Tod grows up into a sneaky fox, and Copper is trained to be a hunting dog.

Here’s my problem with the movie: it doesn’t establish that Tod and Copper become friends. They have two scenes together, and the second scene is less than a minute long. They jump in a pond, and as soon as they meet, Copper has to go home! It’s the only time they’re together, and they don’t do anything! If the theme of the story is their friendship, you’d think Disney would go out of its way to show them being friends. You know, kid stuff in the country like cow-tipping, chicken-harassing, bird-chasing, howling at the moon. Anything you could do on a farm to show they’re having a great time together, but they don’t do any of this. They meet twice, do nothing together, and then they’re adults. We’re told over and over they had good times as a kids, but we never see it.

The whole point of the movie is to show two childhood friends becoming enemies as adults, but the movie totally fails to get this across. So when Copper has to hunt Tod at the will of his master, there’s no sense of tension or remorse for them. As far as we know, they were never close, so they may as well be strangers.

The only scene from the book that made it into the movie is the scene where Chief is hit by a train. Ironically, this could have been the moment they become enemies, and the movie tries to use it in this way, but it still fails. In the book, Tod knows there’s a train coming and intentionally leads Chief onto the tracks just as it does. In the movie, Tod is running for his life and the train happens to come by at the same time. Copper hates Tod for what happens to Chief, but the anger is misplaced because it really isn’t Tod’s fault. It’s an accident. As if that weren’t weak enough, Chief doesn’t die in the movie, but is merely injured. Why did Disney soften that? It’s not like Disney hasn’t killed off characters before, and it would’ve given Tod and Copper a real reason to become enemies. It comes across as a flimsy way to make enemies out of old friends.

The rest of the movie wastes so much time with absolutely unfunny scenes of Tod being released into the wild and making a complete idiot of himself because he doesn’t know how to survive in the wild, or how to act in front of a vixen. And is it just me, or did Mickey Rooney phone in his performance as the voice of adult Tod? He is so unconvincing and his voice is so unsuited for the role I’d call him a bad actor if I didn’t know who he was. He barely has any lines, too.

Meanwhile Copper and his master are hunting Tod and his new girlfriend out of vengeance. The chase scenes are well-animated, and kudos to the background artists and animators for creating an environment that feels as far out in the country as anywhere in West Virginia. But again, because we’re not convinced they used to be friends, and the reason they’re enemies now is mostly accidental, there’s no tension between these two.

I actually felt worse for Tod and the old lady when she leaves him in the woods and drives away. That relationship is built up a lot better than the one between Copper and Tod. It isn’t possible to watch that scene with a dry eye.

Finally, Tod saves Copper’s master from a bear, and because of this Copper convinces his master to spare Tod’s life. This undermines the point of the whole movie. Their alleged childhood bond doesn’t come into play at the end. Tod’s recent act of attacking the bear is what convinces the hunter to spare his life, not friendship. It’s a very weak climax to what could have been a very powerful conflict.

What does the movie have to do with the book? Almost nothing. I suspect someone read the second chapter of the book, saw that Tod did make friends with the household dog briefly before running off into the wild, and thought it would be so cool if that dog and Copper were the same. It would have been cool. I can see the potential there, even if it changes the entire theme of the book.

It actually makes me wish the book had told the Disney story in a stronger way, because it could have been great. The book shows the struggle of survival from the point of view of Tod, and the thrill of the hunt from the point of view of the dog, keeping their animal perspectives in tact. The movie does the exact opposite, humanizing them completely and putting them into a very human situation. If it were done right, it would have been an improvement on the story, but nope. Book is still better, if for no other reason than the very believable way it portrays animal logic.

The Disney version had the potential to tell an even stronger story than Mannix’s novel. It could’ve been like How to Train Your Dragon, surpassing its source material, but it falls totally flat. The book, however, portrays an animal’s perspective on things in a very realistic way and on the whole is much more interesting than the watered-down, half-done story the movie tries to tell. Skip the movie. Read the book. If you can find it.

5 comments:

  1. Hey, this is an awesome review. I totally agree with you about the movie, and the book... I was seraching for PDF and came here by accident, so I still have to read it!

    By the way, you should read "Children of men" and make a review to. It's another case where the movie is WAY better than the book!

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  2. Tod was not a pup or puppy, baby foxes are called kits. I think it establishes their friendship quite well quite well in the allotted time. These are not adults and they make bonds much faster.
    Tod is naturally loyal, which is made obvious by the rest of the film. Copper is the one who is torn between loyalties. Chief's death would have made Copper's anger make more sense, however. The fact that he is so filled with hate when Chief didn't even die makes little sense and that's what I think weakens the story. In the end, Tod's sacrifice and loyalty prompt Copper to make one last stand for his puppyhood friend. Ultimately, he chooses his master, though. It doesn't have the happiest of endings, which was powerful in itself. They can never be friends again, they had to let go.

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  3. I didn't know The Fox and the Hound was based on a book either! It's interesting to see how movie adaptations are different from books. I'm sure they had to alter the book's story line quite a bit to make it more interesting and appropriate for young kids. http://www.disneyquotes.com/the-fox-and-the-hound-quotes/

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  4. Now I just saw The Fox and the Hound recently as a Disney Fan and I loved it very much. It's a simple tale that touches the heart, and I accept the fact that it doesn't try too hard to reach the heights of the Golden Era or Renainassance films. I do, however, would like a slightly darker take, especially as I knew how dark the novel is when I watched it. eg. kill off Chief? yea idk just imo. It earned a profit back then and has somewhat of a following in the furry fandom

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