I love to read. I just don't read many novels. Since these are the books that most often get turned into movies I was in a bit of a quandary when I came across the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Liz of Now Voyaging and Kristina of Speakeasy (hope they don't mind what I've done to their banner). It's a blogathon where participants are invited to discuss books and the great films based on them. I was having serious issues remembering enough about a book I read and its corresponding movie. Then I remembered there was one novel that I read not all that long ago that I was quite fond of and watched the movie pretty shortly afterwards. Technically, I'm breaking the rules of the blogathon because this isn't a great movie, not by a longshot. However, I think it still fits because it did something great.
Some of you may know that I work in the school system. Currently, I'm a one-on-one with a special needs student in a regular classroom setting. I'll spare the details, but understand that when he's having a really good day, I'm having a really day. Those days are so good, I have almost nothing to do. One such day happened last school year while the class was reading the 1991 novel Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. It's an award-winning children's book about a boy and his dog. There was an extra copy lying around so I picked it up and noticed that it was a bit on the slim side. I checked to see how many pages there were. If I remember correctly, there were 140. Give or take a couple if I don't. We had a few hours before the class was to go anywhere so it felt doable. The class was on chapter eight or nine and working through it together the way fourth grade classes do. My guy was engaged, locked in. I opened up to the beginning of the book and started reading. A couple ticks beyond two hours, I finished the last last page.
Shiloh, like many novels aimed at the pre-teen and tween set, is a morality tale. At its core, however, it really is just a story about a boy and his dog. I didn't put it down until I finished that day because it is beautifully written, compelling us to keep turning pages. No different from any decent novelist, Naylor brought her scenery to life. I really saw the places she described. What makes the book exceptional is that the circumstances of the people involved jumps off the pages to lodge themselves in your heart. She makes them feel like real people. Their dialect and vernacular is so authentic you think you are in their world, not just observing it.
Our protagonist is a youngster named Marty. He's a rough-and-tumble country kid who spends most of his summer days exploring the local landscape and doing "boy stuff" with his bestest buddy David. One day, Marty comes across a stray beagle that follows him around. Naturally, he takes the dog in. Since he knows that his family can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone a pet, he keeps the in the woods near his house and sneaks food to him every night. Marty names the dog Shiloh. The problem with all this is that Shiloh's real owner, a local ruffian named Judd, wants the dog back. Judd keeps a bunch of canines that he trains and uses as hunting dogs. He's also know to be abusive toward them. The story progresses from there.
In my head, this all plays out in a dingy place. It's the type of place where the roads and trails are indistinguishable to the bare feet that tread them. I picture Marty as a kid who comes home from each day's adventure wearing a fresh layer of dirt and thinking nothing of it. Shiloh feels mangy and frightened due to the abuse he's suffered. Marty's dad is the epitome of decent and hardworking. We're told he's a mail carrier, yet he still comes across as weathered from years of tough labor and tougher luck. His wife, much the same. Judd is a particularly nasty character. I see stained clothes matted to his perpetually sweaty body. His disregard for his personal appearance matches that for his dogs.
Sitting through the time it takes an entire fourth grade class of near thirty to read a novel together entirely during the time when they are in school feels like an eternal journey. The teacher has to stop often to make sure she hasn't lost anyone. What's happened "to this point" has to be discussed every few pages. Themes and subtexts have to be pointed out. Predictions have to be made on what they think is happening next. Rinse and repeat chapter after chapter. Two more weeks passed while they slogged through it. Occasionally I had to fend off questions from impatient students who all saw me in the back of the room rapidly devour the same book from which they could only meticulously nibble. When they got finished, they and I were happy for the same reason: we would finally get to watch the movie.
Watching the film version of Shiloh proceeded much like the reading of the book. There were numerous pauses to discuss the differences between the two. It can only be watched during the time allotted for English, so it took three days to get through a movie that runs a little shy of two hours. General thoughts are also shared. As with the book, hands shot up all over the room in those moments. The kids would make comments all day if you let them. For that reason, there are always arms still frantically waving when the teacher must move on.
The unfortunate part of spreading this particular film over the course of so much real time, for me at least, is that I hated it from the first frame. I had just read a novel where every character intimately knows struggle. They know that even the necessities can be luxuries. Once the film starts it's clear these people will not be present. We were now in the land of pristine white picket fences and manicured lawns. Marty (Blake Heron) appears to have stepped off the cover of a department store catalog. Naylor's book tells a story happening deep within America's bowels. The movie I watched instantly presents itself as a puffed up piece of Americana. The elements I deemed most important to making the story work were stripped away in favor of a new reliance on the cuteness of both the boy and the dog. To be fair, Shiloh is not a bad movie. It does nothing egregiously poor, moves along nicely, and portrays the novel's ethics nicely. It is never anything more or less than pleasant, so this was not some excruciating grind. If I had watched it without reading the book, I'd find it perfectly likable, if ultimately, forgettable.
As the film played, I took periodic breaks from the screen to check on my guy and to scan the room. During one of these on day two, I had an epiphany. My opinion didn't matter, here. That's a hard realization for someone like me. I've been an avid movie watcher for forty years. My best friend and I have been verbally analyzing them practically since the day we met nearly a quarter-century ago, those within earshot serving as our audience. A decade or so ago I put my pen to work on the matter and began sharing my thoughts online. A few years later I created this blog to give my voice an even bigger platform. All of this simply means I'm jaded.
Around the room I saw looks on the faces of children that said they knew something, but they're also unsure about it. Some were outwardly inquisitive, others just anxiously waited on the next moment to unfold. All of them seemed like they were trying to process things faster than they ever have. This was the first time most, if not all, of them had ever watched a movie after having read a novel. Faces lit up when things happened like they had in the book. Changes to the material they spent weeks ingesting were cause for pause. You could see many of them were thinking through the film in a way they never had before. Though not a movie that will ever come up when I think of the classics and/or the best movies I've ever seen, Shiloh is great in it's own little way. It opened up at least one fourth grade class to the idea that probing a film can be as fun as just letting the sights and sounds wash over you, if not more. They were watching a movie critically for the first time. And it was beautiful.
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