National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

DVD Picks & Passes

BY Steven D. Greydanus

July 22 - August 4, 2007 Issue | Posted 7/17/07 at 9:00 AM


Of Mice and Men (1992) - Pick

Henry V (1989 - Pick

Moby Dick (1956) - Pick

Inherit the Wind (1960) - Pass

Les Misérables (1952) – Pass

Cliffs Notes Ultimate Study Editions? Yes, this week MGM and Fox Home Entertainment re-release a passel of movie adaptations packaged with the corresponding Cliffs Notes “study guides” for the original works, and branded with the familiar black-and-yellow stripes.

According to a studio press release, the new line is intended to “support studies,” though of course Cliffs Notes are widely used to avoid studying the original works. This new line of DVD editions seems more a marketing device than anything, particularly since most of the movies are already available on DVD. But, if you’re curious how the movie departs from the original work, the Cliffs Notes could provide a convenient reference point. Or you could skip the Cliffs Notes, watch the films and read the original works.

Few of the films are the sole adaptations of their source material, and the choice of editions was dictated not by critical or popular acclaim but by availability to the studios.

Among the most worth seeing — and the most faithfully adapted — are the 1992 Of Mice and Men, with John Malkovich as Lennie and director Gary Sinise as George, and the 1989 Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.

Compared to the classic 1939 version, the newer Of Mice and Men is a franker and more straightforward adaptation of Steinbeck’s Depression-era classic, highlighted by outstanding performances from Sinise and Malkovich.

Screenwriter Horton Foote makes some changes but captures the tone and spirit of the tragic story of two migrant ranch workers in California whose hopes of settling down in comfort are dashed by cruel circumstances.

Branagh’s Henry V, his directorial debut, successfully overcomes both the familiarity of the source material and the long shadow of the classic 1944 version directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. Though Branagh’s brilliant performance, culminating in his indelible delivery of the famous Agincourt call to arms, is the film’s blazing center, the drama benefits enormously from a stellar cast including Robbie Coltrane as Falstaff, Ian Holm as Fluellen, Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly and Paul Scofield as Charles VI of France.

Though not in the same league, John Huston’s rousing, ambitious 1956 Moby Dick is definitely worth seeing for its seafaring action scenes and an excellent cast arguably marred only by star Gregory Peck, widely felt to be miscast as Ahab. (One critic suggests that Peck was “not demented enough” for the role, which might better have gone to costar Orson Welles, who plays Father Mapple here but played Ahab on the stage. Ironically, Peck himself went on to play Mapple in the 1998 TV miniseries version starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab.)

Other “Cliffs Notes” DVDs can be passed on, including the 1960 Inherit the Wind and the 1952 Les Misérables. The first is troublingly anti-Christian, stereotyping believers as narrow-minded bigots; the latter, despite a positive Catholic milieu, is ineffective.

Content advisory

Of Mice and Men: Some graphic violence; crude language. Might be okay for teens. Henry V: Intense, graphic battlefield violence; a hanging. Moby Dick: Stylized violence; okay for kids. Inherit the Wind: Prejudicial depiction of faith-versus-science conflict. Might be okay for discerning teens. Les Miserables: Restrained portrayals of hardship and violence; a suicide. Teens and up.