What a difference a big budget film makes.
Earlier this semester, I Netflixed the classic 1950 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, for an article I was working on for The Film League. I found it fascinating: an imperial English love story set against the backdrop of Africa, using real Africans and footage of real safaris. I also found it problematic in all the usual ways: an imperialist period piece using the legacy of imperialism to gain footage of “exotic” Africans, which in turn could spice up the otherwise ho-hum white, heterosexual love story, which itself uses Africa and Africans as both catalyst and afterthought.
Actually reading the book for my Victorian lit class was quite a different endeavor, even moreso than I initially imagined it would be. For one thing, the love story is totally fabricated. The novel actually follows three men into the wilds of Africa in search one’s lost brother (and the treasure). This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t rehash another white person love story; instead, the “love” is the homosocial bond between the three men, who all represent various points on a spectrum of masculinity. (I kept thinking about the male identity-trinity from Star Trek: The Original Series as reference point.) Haggard rather self-consciously sets the three up as positive masculine role models, each representing several different possible masculine expressions from which his boy readers could choose.
The novel is famously free from any “petticoats,” narrator Allan Quatermain’s metonymically reductive description of white women. Much as been written about the treasure map representing the female body to be penetrated (like Africa), and the terrifying depictions of African female identity. But somehow — and this rarely happens — I find myself much more interested in Haggard’s strange masculinity project, and what it meant for Victorian ideas of manhood, and why on earth this was deemed unsuitable for a blockbuster film adaptation.
I don’t have any answers to those questions or problems, but they’re sticking in my mind, along with several others. Why such vitriol against women? Why reconstitute the family as homosocial male bonding mechanism in the final pages of the novel? And why has this story above so many others stayed in our pop culture consciousness and been replayed over and over again?