Kenneth Roberts on the Film “Northwest Passage” (1940)

I have yet to write a book, and if I do have the opportunity to author something worth publishing, I highly doubt that Hollywood will come knocking down my doors asking to do a film based upon my book.  I am quite fine with that.  If one considers the sheer number of books published each year compared to the number of movies produced based upon a book, the number of these kinds of movies is quite small.  With that in mind, it would seem the author of the book would be quite honored to have a film produced on his own work.  But that is not the case with Kenneth Roberts and the 1940 Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracey.

My correspondence with Tracey Levasseur (see recent post on the envelope addressed to Roberts) reminded me of Roberts’ disdain for Hollywood – a disdain that comes through in Chapter 1 of his I Wanted To Write.

With the publication of Northwest Passage, I had my first direct – a profoundly depressing – contact with cinema circles.

When MGM began to produce the screen production of Northwest Passage, Roberts sarcastically notes that they were lacking “in technical knowledge concerning the uniforms and behavior of Rogers’ Rangers.”  Instead of contacting Roberts, the studio employed the help of a “Miss Dorothy Vaughan, librarian of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Public Library,” who in turn sought out Kenneth Roberts’ answers to the studios questions!  She would relay Roberts’ answers to the studio, who would then, according to Roberts, end up using “their own conceptions, which were nauseatingly incorrect.”

In regards to the screenplay writing of Northwest Passage, Roberts states that the screenplay went through four different writers.  And when all was said and done, the silver screen version differed greatly from the novel:

…the dauntless and hard-boiled leader of the original Rangers had horribly turned into the sort of person who bursts into tears at a crucial moment of an arduous expedition; a woman character, shrewish and a harridan, had become a sweet and mealy-mouthed nonentity; all motivation had been discarded; the book’s thesis had ceased to exist; its essential portion, on which the name of the book and the film were based, was ignored; and a Hollywood flavor was added by introducing a sequence stolen from Arundel.

In our correspondence, Tracey pointed out that tt’s no wonder, then, that no “Part II” followed the 1940 film (recall that “Part I” was part of the 1940 film). It is probably a reason why, she surmises, why his works are still under copyright – to protect them from being mishandled by Hollywood producers.

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