Novels, Movies and Songs that are Widely Misinterpreted

Writing a story or song to send a message is really hard. You really have to make it obvious, or it will fly over the heads of your audience. And even if you have no message, sometimes people will look for hidden messages that aren’t there. And so, this week I honor those writers, filmmakers and songwriters whose work nobody got.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

This American classic is the fourth most banned book in U.S. schools and libraries. It appears American parents get offended by the prevalent use of the n-word, and call the book racist because of it. This is nothing new; the book has been controversial since 1885.

But having read the book myself, I feel most of the people who take offense to the book completely missed the point. They just see the bad words and some offensive behavior by the characters and don’t look at the context.

Mark Twain’s big thing was always satire. He wrote satirical works like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County or The Prince and the Pauper, and in between his writings he did stand-up comedy. One of his favorite things to make fun of was the antebellum south he grew up in.

The note on the first page should have been a clue to what Twain was doing:


PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap- hazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.


Does that not scream, “I am not being serious here”? Isn’t that the kind of warning you might get in a South Park novel?
Twain’s use of the N-word is part of a larger context where he is showing how ludicrous racism is, as well as how ludicrous most behaviors of “respectable” southerners were at the time. The story is about our title character helping a slave escape, for crying out loud. In between getting in the middle of a family feud, and hanging out with some frauds who prey on people’s religious sensibilities for cash. Twain was using the book as a mirror to his fellow southerners, to show them their follies, including racism.
Gone With the Wind

The highest-grossing movie of all time (if you take into account a little thing called inflation), Gone With the Wind was a film based on a book about the changes in the South surrounding the Civil War. Its main character was Scarlett O’Hara, one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. For generations, she has been a feminist icon for her supposed pragmatism and self-confidence. But is this picture accurate at all?
Let’s think about what she does in the movie and book. She starts out a spoiled brat who can’t get enough attention. She competes with her sisters for men, and is rude to absolutely everybody. Then, her home town of Atlanta is burned by the Union armies. She becomes determined to save her estate, a decision that is often interpreted as “protecting her family”. But her family isn’t all that interested in keeping the estate, and the way she saves it is marrying her sister’s lover. Oh, and did I mention she is rude and inconsiderate toward her family’s ex-slaves, who have voluntarily stayed on to help them out? And is chastised for it by her father who is in the early stages of dementia? And that she starts a business that saves money by employing Confederate POWs who are forced to work for her as slaves?
Eventually, we all know she marries Clark Gable, er, I mean, Rhett Butler, and in short order her selfishness and attention-seeking, as well as her unsavory business practices, alienates her from the rest of Georgia. And although she is married to Butler, she still pursues the actual man of her dreams, who is also married. To her best friend. Even in the end, as her daughter and best friend both die, she still seeks attention from everyone around her, and her husband is so off-put by all this he utters that famous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” If I had lived with such a manipulative, selfish, wretched woman for so long, I think I’d react the same way.
Randy Newman’s Short People and Rednecks
That song offended a LOT of people. Many radio stations refused to play the song, and the state of Maryland considered a bill to ban the song (it didn’t pass). Randy Newman even received threats over it. What people didn’t understand was that Newman was not condemning people by their height. In interviews, he explained that the lyrics are supposed to sound like the ravings of an insane person. But this was far from the only controversial song that Newman would write.
Rednecks was controversial for using the N-word nine times (I counted), the same thing that gets Huck Finn in trouble. The song also offended a whole lot of people in the South, because its lyrics read like a list of all the negative stereotypes of southerners. Actually, that’s kind of the point, Newman was not making fun of the South but of northern stereotypes of the South. Once again, Newman’s satire went over everyone’s heads.
Superman Returns
The story you heard about this movie was probably something along the lines of this:
After the disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Warner Bros. basically mulled about for decades trying to figure out what it wanted to do with the Superman franchise. Then, after the September 11 attacks and the success of the Smallville TV show, America was “ready” for a new Superman film, and Warner Bros. decided to go with a sequel to the classic 1970s movies instead of a reboot. The film was an utter disappointment with fans, because it only showed Superman taking on yet another Lex Luthor plot and throw a giant Kryptonite mountain into space. No big action sequences, no toe-to-toe fight with a super-villain. The film did poorly at the box office, and will go down in history as a flop.
But was this really fair? I actually liked Superman Returns, and I disagree with its critics. Here’s why.
If we are to assume that Superman Returns is a sequel to the classic series, then we should assume the film will have the same tone, thematic elements, and storytelling style, even if these are “updated” somewhat. The classic Superman films were not action schlock. They were dramatic movies written by the same guy behind the Godfather series, and even starring some of the same actors. They didn’t feel the need for Superman to beat anyone down – in fact, that would have gone against his character. In Superman he stops Lex Luthor by reversing time (silly, I know), and in the second film, no matter which of the two versions you watch, Superman wins by outsmarting his enemies instead of defeating them with brawn. Superman III sees him take on Richard Pryor. No, seriously.

No, really. This actually happened.

The only Superman film to feature him actually in a toe-to-toe beat-down with a super-villain is Superman IV, the universally-deemed worst of the set.
See, Superman was always about there being a moral to the story. It was about doing the right thing. I think Superman Returns delivered on that score. The lesson I got from it was “You don’t have to be Superman to do something good”. Lois discovers Lex Luthor’s evil plot; her fiancé attempts to save her from Luthor’s henchmen; Lois and Richard save Superman; and even Luthor’s girlfriend dumps the crystals Luthor was using for his scheme so that they can’t hurt anyone again.
But no. America didn’t want to see a moral lesson, they wanted to see an action movie recreation of Superman beat someone down. Now they are working on a reboot of the franchise to be released in 2013, that will be directed by Zach Snyder. The guy who directed 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch. And if there is any doubt as to where the film is going with the story, this is what Superman will look like:
Information from Wikipedia and other sources.