Hollywood's relationship with the literary world has always been rocky. Sometimes the film version of a novel can capture the essence of the source material (as was the case with 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy) or develop a new perspective on its themes (as with PD James' 'The Children of Men'). But more often Hollywood just molests the novelist's creation like it was the last starlet in Los Angeles.
Such was the case with 1949's 'Omoo Omoo The Shark God
', purportedly based on a novel by Herman Melville.
Naturally the script had about as much to do with the writings of Herman Melville as 'The Muppets Take Manhattan' had to do with the collected works of Truman Capote. As a matter of fact, 'Omoo', the title of Melville's novel, is Polynesian for "rover" or "nomad", and has absolutely nothing to do with pearl-eyed shark gods. But Hollywood was never going to let a little technicality like that get in its way.
The film opens on a ship sailing for Tahiti. Captain Roger Guy is gravely ill, and seems to believe that his only hope of survival lies at their destination. Eventually his beautiful daughter and his crew learn that his illness is actually the result of a native curse, cast against him when he stole the pearl eyes from a Tahitian idol on a previous voyage to the island. As word of this gets out, the crew become divided over whether to return the pearls and save the captain, or keep the pearls and sell them for a fortune. Unfortunately the Captain hid the pearls on Tahiti, so they all have to bide their time until they get there.
Other than the captain's illness the mechanics of the terrible curse are never fully explained, although I gather it had something to do with the crew being forced to endure reel after reel of badly integrated stock footage wherever they went. Few things could be quite as hellish as standing around gawping at a charging tiger, while fully cognizant of the fact that there's more chance of seeing Bjork in Tahiti than there is of seeing a tiger.
Or standing on the deck of a ship watching an octopus attack its prey, while pretending not to notice that the octopus' suckers are splaying on the glass of its aquarium.
Eventually Captain Guy is beaten to death by his evil first mate, and the curse, fully appraised of the western laws of inheritance, transfers itself to his daughter. When she finds the pearls, the first mate steals them from her, and he in turn becomes the object of the curse. Frankly the curse is so powerful that I wonder why I bother with Presbyterianism, given that Omoo Omoo the Shark God clearly has omnipresent powers. It’d be just typical if, after centuries of war, argument and research, it turns out that obscure shark god worship is the one true religion.
In due course the evil first mate is speared by a native, the pearls are returned to their rightful home in the eye sockets of the idol, and everyone rejoices that the adventure is over and they can finally stop being assailed by endless theremin music.
Given this successful translation of Herman Melville’s novel to the silver screen, it’s no wonder that Hollywood has continued to pillage the great works of western literature for ideas. It can then take those ideas and beat them with baseball bats until they are just smears on the sidewalk, which are then scraped up, mushed back into some semblance of life, and then shown to a waiting world. Personally I'm looking forward to the following new releases in 2011: 'Hookin' Up!' by Henry James, 'Bloodbath High' by PG Wodehouse, and Charlotte Bronte's tender coming of age story, 'Alien v Predator III'.