Few other works of literature have received as many film and television adaptations as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to the many straight adaptations of the book, numerous children’s films based loosely on Twain’s characters have also been made. And despite being a hallmark of American literature and history, Twain’s book has also received several treatments by international filmmakers, including the Soviet adaptation Hopelessly Lost (1972) and the German adaptation The Adventures of Huck Finn (2012). Only the most historically significant American adaptations of Twain’s novel have been listed below.
Following on the success of his earlier Twain adaptations, Tom Sawyer (1917) and Huck and Tom (1918), William Taylor directed this silent film adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The plot of Taylor’s version is largely faithful to the original, though the film’s ending differs from the novel, with Aunt Polly informing Mrs. Phelps that she will take Huck back to Widow Douglas. Though initially released to very positive reviews, Taylor’s film was considered lost for decades. A 35mm print of the film was found in the 1960s, and finally received a full restoration in 2006.
Norman Taurog’s adaptation retains the comedy of Twain’s novel while largely avoiding the ethical issues it raises. In particular, the film does away with Huck’s moral crisis regarding whether he should help Jim escape or turn him in. Critics have noted that Taurog’s adaptation is very dated, especially with regard to the stereotypically racist depiction of Jim.
Although widely seen as superior to Norman Taurog’s adaptation for Paramount Pictures, film critics ultimately found Richard Thorpe’s version for MGM lacking the spark of Twain’s original. The central plot of the novel remains largely intact, except for the strange fact that the screenwriter completely eliminated Tom Sawyer from the script.
This is the second adaptation of Twain’s novel for the studio MGM, and it is notable for being the first adaptation of the book to be filmed in color. The film is also noted for its cast, which included the former boxer Archie Moore as Jim and the theater, television, and film star Tony Randall as the King of France. Michael Curtiz, who had previous gained fame as the director of Casablanca (1942), brought additional renown to this adaptation.
J. Lee Thompson’s adaptation is remembered for being the first and only musical version of Twain’s novel. Despite enjoying moderate critical success, the film experienced numerous setbacks that marred its production. In addition to the sudden death of one of the producers, Thompson also faced issues with the management and musical direction of his cast. Perhaps most famously, Roberta Flack, who sang the film’s key song “Freedom,” threatened to file a lawsuit against the filmmakers because she was unhappy with the instrumental arrangement.
Robert Totten’s adaptation is primarily noted for its main star, Ron Howard, who had gained notoriety as a child celebrity on The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s. Like Norman Taurog’s 1931 adaptation for MGM, Totten’s adaptation, which was produced for television as an ABC Movie of the Week, privileged the more lighthearted aspects of Twain’s story. Specifically, this version avoids the challenging social and moral questions posed by the novel’s engagement with slavery and instead emphasizes the amusing tomfoolery of the duke and the dauphin. In a notable twist, this film also features Mark Twain in a fictional cameo appearance, played by Royal Dano.
Stephen Sommers’s adaptation for the Walt Disney Company achieved critical and commercial success. Although the film does not fully address some of the darker moral issues at the heart of the book, critics have praised the film for not completely avoiding such issues, as previous adaptations had done. That said, Sommers’s adaptation does alter the ending of the original, completely excising the appearance of Tom Sawyer. In this version, it is Huck who liberates Jim from prison and who gets shot during the attempted escape. Furthermore, Jim narrowly escapes being lynched by the same mob that tarred and feathered the Duke and the King. Following the news that Jim has been freed, the film ends with an image of Huck running into the sunset, presumably to avoid going back to “civilization.”