Hello and welcome to the first installment of Film Library, a series of articles devoted to films based on novels. I’ll look at the film and the novel, then decide whether or not the film was an accurate adaptation, and answer the age old questions: Was the book better than the movie?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman
This is one of the most inventive, clever movies I’ve ever seen. It combines two things I really love in movies, ridiculous cartoon performances and noir detectives, and blended them together in a seemingly impossible combination. This movie has great acting, fantastic direction and effects, music, and humor, creating a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. Full of surreal images and humor, this movie creates a hilarious world to experience, peppered with scenes of dramatic noir sensibilities. It’s a tremendous film that defies any sort of expectations, becoming one of the weirdest and funniest movies I’ve ever seen.
The plot of the movie essentially is a take on a classic noir detective story, something that Chandler or Hammett would write. It’s full of intrigue, double crosses, schemes, and murder. But at the same time, it’s full of colorful cartoon characters. You have hard edged private eyes and down on their luck bartenders mingling with dancing hippos and penguin waiters, creating a surreal world that seems close to ours, but still completely alien. One of the things that makes this movie work is the fact that it’s played deadpan. They never once act like it’s weird that cartoon characters are alive and inhabit the same world as humans, that’s just how things are. They’re just actors, using their unique talents to film cartoons. Toons definitely seem to be mocked by humans, forced to live in their own little Toon Town and made the butt of jokes by the rest of humanity, but at the same time, they have some of the same jobs as everyone else, like bartenders and cabbies (even though he physically is the cab).
Private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by a popular cartoon film mogal named Maroon to find evidence that their star Roger Rabbit’s wife is cheating on him. Valiant follows Rabbit’s wife Jessica, a sultry femme fetale styled human, and manages to catch her in a somewhat amorous situation with the owner of Toon Town and the ACME Corporation (here meaning a game of patty-cake), Marvin Acme. Roger loses his cool with the revelation of his wife’s infidelity, and after swearing revenge runs into the night. The next morning, Marvin Acme is found dead, crushed to death by a giant safe, and Roger is the number one suspect, being hunted by the evil Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who is looking to execute Roger with his new Toon killing liquid he calls ‘the Dip,’ which is essentially just paint thinner . Roger comes to Valiant for help, claiming that he had nothing to do with the murder, and thus begins a madcap ride through 1940’s Los Angeles and Toon Town to help prove Roger’s innocence and find the missing will for Marvin Acme which would prove that the Toons are now in charge of Toon Town, and keep him alive from the murderous intentions of the evil Judge Doom. In the end, it’s revealed that Doom is behind everything, planning on demolishing Toon Town the Dip so that he can help put a freeway through LA, becoming rich and powerful. Valiant and Roger manage to stop Doom however, finding out that he himself is a Toon, and killing Doom with his own Dip, at which point Toon Town is given back to the Toons, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved this movie. It manages to become both a great noir detective film, and a great animated feature. It has all the right aspects of both. As far as the detective story goes, it’s got the right amount of bizarre plot twists and almost nonsensical motivations to give the same feeling as a Chandler book. They cruise around Los Angeles, letting the city itself be a character. They travel from posh Hollywood offices, to sleazy dive bars, and to Eddie’s tomb of an office. And Eddie Valiant himself is pitch perfect. He’s got the right look, the right style, the right voice, and even the right name. Eddie Valiant sounds like a detective, it’s just such a great name and character. He wears his fedora, keeps his bottle of Wild Turkey in his gun holster, and just generally acts like someone out of a pulp serial. You just really could see Valiant in a more dramatic film, and his performance is right out of something like The Long Goodbye, he’s just a hard boiled private eye, in a world gone mad with Toons. And Roger wonderful as the ridiculous fall guy, too naive and simple to realize that a vast conspiracy has unfolded, leaving him as the scapegoat. Delores’ a great character as well, providing a counter point to Eddie. The type of tough, no-nonsense woman that in the 40’s would have been called a broad, who gives Eddie some soul, and provides some legitimately dramatic scenes, when they’re not sharing the screen with a cartoon rabbit in overalls that is. It’s a well crafted and well paced noir, full of the tropes and general feel of a 40’s detective film that more than likely stared Humphrey Bogart. And at the same time, the movie is a great animated classic. There’s fantastic, Golden Age of Animation style humor and designs, really breathing as much life into these new characters as the old ones that are brought in for sight gags. It’s a world where cartoons are real, and you can hire characters like Dumbo or Betty Boop to appear in your cartoon. The world that they create for the Toons is just fantastic. They have their own personalities, history, and culture in their own little world, and the way they interact and live in the world of humans in fantastic. Plus it’s great seeing pairings that you would normally never see in the real world, like Daffy and Donald duck playing dueling pianos, or Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny sky diving together, which was the first time the two legendary characters ever shared the screen together. A scene that probably launched a generation of slash fic writers.
The movie was a huge gamble for the studios, requiring new technology and methods that had never been used before. True, animation and live action had been integrated before, in films like Pete’s Dragon, Mary Poppins, or even seeing Jerry the Mouse dance with Gene Kelly, but the animation had never interacted with the live action to the degree in which it did for this movie. You had the Toon Baby Herman holding a real cigar, a Toon octopus tending bar with real props in all eight tentacles, and numerous instances of humans grabbing or in some way physically assaulting the Toons. You couldn’t just animate over the film in this case, so they had to create several robotic rigs, puppeteers, and other practical effects to make the sets perfect for the Toons to then live in.
Who Censored Roger Rabbit?
Gary K. Wolf
Roger Rabbit is a classic example of a movie that few realize was actually based on a book. Most people are surprised to learn that Roger Rabbit first found life in the pages of a novel, not on the big screen. The book was written by Gary Wolf, a satiric humorist in a manner that seems to defy genre-classification. Practically every word in the book is dripping with classic hard-boiled noir styling, serving as something between a satire and an homage of the genre. The novel’s narrated by Eddie Valiant, the washed up gumshoe who works right in the heart of Hollywood, where Toons and humans go about their lives, used to the strangeness of this world. Wolf really did a great job recreating the noir writings of Chandler or Spillane, making it really feel like you were reading a cheap pulp from the 40’s, full of lines like:
“I keep my chess books on the floor, my gun in a closet, my dinners in the freezer and my booze under the sink.”
“Anyone Seeing her like this, elfin and vulnerable, might be tempted to write her off as a harmless piece of fluff. Until you saw her eyes. The kind of cool, luminous eyes that peek out at you through the jungle shrubbery and size you up for lunch.”
The world that Wolf creates is quite bizarre. It’s set in the then modern day of the early eighties, where humans live side by side with Toons, a strange race of creatures that have been around as long as humanity can remember, even being present at the landing of the Mayflower. But the Toons in this world are very different from the Toons of the film. Here Toons primarily speak through physical speech bubbles, which float around them, conveying their emotions with the font and size of the words, forcing the humans to read their every thought. By using tremendous willpower, Toons can suppress their word balloons and speak audibly, but few can actually accomplish this. They can also, under immense concentration, create duplicates of themselves that fall apart after a few hours called Dopels, that primarily serve as stunt doubles for the Hollywood Toons. Here, instead of staring in cartoons, the Toons get their photos taken, and become living comic book panels, and those who can’t get jobs in the comic industry, get normal jobs, just like anyone else.
The novel opens up with Eddie Valiant accepting a case from Roger Rabbit, the second banana to a popular character called Baby Herman. Roger is sick of being the co-star of the comic, and claims that his managers the DeGreasy brothers, are violating his contract by not allowing him to have his own title. Valiant begins investigating, but gets several conflicting stories. Roger’s photographer Carol is conviced that the DeGreasy’s a scum bags and are screwing Roger over, but the DeGreasy brothers insist that Roger’s insane, claiming that the seperation from his wife Jessica has caused him to go off the deep end. But after Eddie is about to give up the case, things get complicated when Rocco DeGreasy, the brains behind the DeGreasy brothers, is found dead, and Roger is the most likely suspect. Yet things get even more complicated when Roger is found dead in his home the next morning, his home trashed, his body atop his speech bubble that held his final words. After Eddie is questioned by both a human and a Toon cop, he heads back to his office, and is amazed to find Roger Rabbit there waiting for him. It turns out the alive Roger is the dopel of the original, who had been created right before the shooting to run an errand. Together Eddie and the dopel of Roger attempt to solve the murders before Roger falls apart. Roger and Eddie search the ruined house, but find the only thing missing is an old teapot of Rogers. The two begin investigating the murders, but Eddie quickly find that almost everyone involved in the case is more interested in the missing teapot that the actual murderers, with Dominick DeGreasy and Jessica Rabbit, the humanoid Toon wife of Roger both trying to convince Eddie to find the teapot for them. It becomes clear that Wolf is using this teapot in a similar way that Dashiel Hammet used the Maltese Falcon, as a MacGuffin that drives the plot along. Wolf even gives this teapot a ridiculous backstory, similar to the Falcon:
“In the early tenth century, a dying gourmet potentate wanted to provide for his royal chef. So he had the palace artisan construct for him a solid gold teakettle, inlaid with a single, huge blue-white diamond and a multitude of other slightly smaller but equally precious stones. Several hundred years later this priceless teakettle fell into the hands of the Templar Knight.”
So Eddie begins playing Jessica and Dominick against each other, finding out that a sleazy transvestite comic creator named Sid Sleaze had been trying to blackmail the DeGreasy brothers with a pornographic comic he made starring Jessica, and that Rocco’s son and Carol the photographer were trying to ruin the DeGreasy company and start their own together. At this point, the novel was very intense and well written, it was weaving the noir and the ridiculous satire together perfectly. But then the plot took a hard turn into weirdness. It turned out that the teakettle was actually a magic lantern that held a genie, and that the DeGreasy brothers had once been humanoid Toons, who used the genie’s magic to make them human, and Dominick needed it back, because the spell was wearing off, and he was reverting back to being a Toon. After finding this out, Eddie gets the teakettle, and gives it to DeGreasy, who is then killed by the vindictive genie who lived in Roger Rabbits teakettle. I’m seriously not making this up. We learn that the genie was the one who killed Roger, becuase Roger had accidentally used the genie by speaking the magic words without intending to, making him famous and getting him Jessica. At this point Eddie had run Carol and Rocco’s son out of town, both DeGreasy’s were dead, and Jessica was revealed to be behind trying to destroy the DeGreasy’s for her own gain. By then the only remaining mystery was who actually killed Rocco DeGreasy and set this whole insane story in motion. And this twist, I really didn’t see coming. It was actually Roger. Roger created his dopel as a way to create an alibi, and killed Rocco DeGreasy for screwing him over, and taking Jessica from him. He then planned to frame Eddie for the murder, but his own death got things botched. Roger’s dopel expressed regret to Eddie, and says that he truly loved being his partner, before dissolving into dust, erasing both parts of Roger Rabbit from the world.
Overall, I found this book really enjoyable. True, the ending got rather ridiculous with evil genies and Toons becoming humans, but in the end, the book was really solid. It was a great balance of hardboiled detective noir and zany cartoon antics. It was a little shocking to read these clae classic characters from the film engaging in these darker plots. It was genuinely strange to read Roger’s death as something like:
“Triangular flaps, the kind you get when you push a pencil through a piece of paper, ringed a gaping bullet hole in Roger’s back.”
That’s just rough. The whole book was full of amazing lines, great characters, and a generally fun story, ignoring the evil genie.
So now the question remains, was the film an accurate adaptation of the novel? Well I think the fact that even the titles are different gives you the answer. The movie is similar to the book, but quite different. However, I don’t think that was a bad thing. They’re both great stories, and I really enjoyed both of them. Honestly, I don’t think the book could have worked as a straight adaptation. The word balloons and comic book character just wouldn’t have worked in film as well as making the Toons cartoons, and using the Disney, Warner Brothers, and Tex Avery characters. True, the plot is different, and the characterization are a little off between mediums, but I think the main thing you had to worry about when it came to adapting Who Censored Roger Rabbit? was getting the mood and the world right. And I think the film got that down perfectly. It really was a topsy turvey world where a classic Marlowe-esque detective could get a case working for a cartoon rabbit.
But there are some differences between the two that I think is really interesting. First of all, the Roger Rabbit of the novel is much smarter than the Roger of the film. Halfway through the novel, when Roger is trying to bond with Eddie, he gives this rather touching line:
“”I could never figure that,” said Roger. “I mean why humans don’t like Toons. We’re no different from humans, not really. We have different mannerisms, and different physical makeups, and a different way of taking, butwe have the same emotions. We love ad hate and laugh and cry exactly the same way humans do.”
Roger was a capable character, hell, he came up with the plan to murder Rocco and frame Eddie using his dopel. The movie Roger could never come up with something like that. But when seeing Roger in the film, I think it made more sense to make him a bumbling fool, like a real cartoon.
Yet the main thing that I think is missing from the movies is the strange motif that runs through the novel that makes it seem like Wolf was trying to compare Toons with minorities. Even though it was taking place in the early eighties, the novel had frequent references to things like Toon’s only bathrooms, or Toon only elevators, making it seem like they’re segregated. There’s even a strange part where people are in an uproar because they’re letting Toons join the NFL and people think they’re ruining the game. They made it clear that while Toon and humans lived together, they were not treated equal.
“The police force contains one division of humans and one of Toons, with each faction investigating only crimes committed against its own kind.”
It just seems weird to me that the movie that actually took place in a period of real racial segregation would drop the racial metaphor. Maybe it was because the movie was more marketed to the whole family, and racism is probably a little too much for the little kids, or at least that’s what Disney thought.
In the end, despite their differences, I think both stories are solid, and that the film succeeding in bringing the world that Gary Wolf created to the silver screen, even if they lost the exact story in the process. Even though it was the movie that created some hardcore nightmare fuel.
Categories: Film Library