My latest read for the Gaia Reading Challenge was The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary, considered ” the first identifiably ecological novel in the literature of France, and perhaps the world.”- David Bellos
I had watched the movie of the same name earlier in the year featuring Errol Flynn, of course playing the town drunk. Sadly, I doubt any acting skills were required and released only twelve months before his death should be enough to paint the picture. Poor ol’ Errol.
It’s not a good movie, prone to preaching, being over wordy, and all the big name actors try to outshine each other which grates: Trevor Howard, Eddie Albert, Orson Wells, and Juliette Greco’s bosoms. However, the storyline about a wildlife enthusiast who attempts to protect African elephants from being hunted for their ivory was interesting enough to encourage my pursuit for more information which surely says something positive for the movie. (As does the cinematography featuring jumbos in all their magnificence in French Equatorial Africa.)
The book, written between 1953-54, received the Prix Goncourt for fiction ( “for the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”) and was translated into English in 1957. It too is wordy though beautifully written, and a great deal of effort goes into explaining the motivations of each of the characters’ stance on the killing of elephants.
In begins with Morel, played by Trevor Howard in the movie, seeking signatures on a petition to cease the hunting. In all, he obtains only two names. Even the local Priest refuses to sign as he has enough misery in solving the issues of the Africans with their leprosy, poverty, illness and starvation. Morel bellows, “this is nothing to do with politics – it’s a matter of humanity“. All the misfits come together – the nightclub hostess (Greco), the American outcast dishonourably discharged from the Army ( Flynn), the journalist (Albert) – after much navel-gazing in an attempt to thwart an attack on a large herd.
Of course, the novel isn’t that simple with a cast of characters with different viewpoints; the “environmentalist” capturing elephants as zoo specimens, the commandant in charge of the territory with political aspirations, the Jesuit priest, the politician using the demise of the elephants to promote the view that Africa’s natural resources are being “stolen” promoting Africa’s stance that it should become an independent country.
” There’s a law which allows you to kill as many elephants as you like when they are trampling down your fields and threatening your crops. It’s a wonderful excuse for the good shots among us. All you have to prove is that an elephant has crossed your plantation and has trampled a field of squash, and there you are, free to decimate a herd, to indulge in reprisals, with the government’s blessing.”
Honestly, it all becomes too complex especially when you realise the elephants become a symbol for human life.
John Huston, the Director of the movie, said he was “completely responsible… for the badness of The Roots of Heaven. I really wanted to make that one and Daryl Zanuck got me everything and everybody I wanted. But I had the screenplay done by someone who had never done one before, and it was bad. By then the cast, crew and me were in Africa; it was too late to turn back, we would have spent a fortune for nothing, so we went ahead and did the best we could.”
Producer, Zanuck (and sheet warmer for Greco) said “This picture is really great for us – intellectually great. Whether it’s commercially great, whether people will grab on to it, we must wait and see. If they grab on to a man in love with a bridge, then why shouldn’t they grab on to a man in love with an elephant?”
Answer : Because there comes a point when a line is drawn between being lectured and being entertained.