Teachers can use the film in three ways: as auxiliary to a formal reading of the novel; as a story with all of the important elements of conflict, resolution and theme; and as an example of the Hero’s Journey of internal growth and development in a boy struggling with notions of individuality and righteousness. The first step for all three ways of using the movie is to make sure that the class knows the information in the Introduction section above.
The Movie as an Auxiliary to Reading the Novel
or as a Story on Its Own
As auxiliary to the novel, teachers should consider showing the film only after the book has been read and then having the students compare and contrast ideas presented in the movie and in Twain’s novel, noting especially ideas that the film does not address as well as shifts in characterization, complication, and resolution. Watching and talking about the movie can bring into sharp focus the lessons and ideas in the story.
The Huck Finn Film Study Worksheet
The Huck Finn Film Study Worksheet can be used by students who have read the book and by those who are experiencing Twain’s story through the movie. It will help focus viewers/readers on the ideas in the story.
Show the movie with two breaks. When Huck has escaped alone after having faked his own death, stop the movie and distribute the Huck Finn Film Study Worksheet. Give students a few minutes to make quick notes to themselves about the answers to questions 1 – 6. The second break should be when Huck has escaped to the river after the death of Billy Grangerford. Ask the class to quickly make notes on the responses to questions 7 – 11. When the film has been completed give the class a few minutes to take notes on the responses to the remaining questions. The full answers can be written out as classwork or for homework. Another alternative is to ask students to provide answers in a class discussion.
The prompts in the Huck Finn Film Study Worksheet and suggested responses are set out below:
1. In the voiceover at the beginning of the film, Huck says that he had never known anyone who wouldn’t lie a little when the situation suited him. What specific situation was he talking about?
Huck lies so that he can spend his days as he desires instead of going to school.
2. Huck is in a fistfight, which ends when he sees a boot print in the mud. He knows that the boot belongs to his father, who has apparently been away and has now returned. What is the feeling engendered in Huck at this moment?
Huck fears his father more than anything; the anxiety he feels when he realizes that his father has returned causes him to drop everything and run even though he’s winning the fight.
3. At the séance, Huck is told that his father has two spirits, one good and one bad. His father listens to both voices and pays attention to the one that is more convincing. Later in the film Huck listens to two voices in his head as he must make important decisions. When do you hear Huck arguing with himself about what he should do?
The evening after he realizes that his father is back in town, one voice tells Huck to pack and run from his father while the other tells him to go on an adventure with his friends.
4. Huck makes a mistake that he says changed his life forever the evening after he sees his father’s boot print in the sand. What is the mistake and what does Huck learn from it?
Huck learns that he must take care of himself and forgo pleasure when important interests are at stake.
5. On the island, it appears that Huck may have to shoot his father in order to survive. Is it chance or a reasoned decision that keeps him from killing his father?
Huck seemed prepared to pull the trigger, however, luck was with him and his father passed out. It appears that Huck would have killed his father in order to survive, revealing the boy’s resilience and strength.
6. Huck says, “Now that I was dead I could go where I wanted and do what I wanted.” In what ways is this true and in what ways is this incorrect?
Huck can run away where his father can’t find him and beat him. He will also escape from the people who want to civilize him. Thus, he is free to be whom he pleases and to develop his own individuality. At the same time, he is not free to simply be Huckleberry Finn; he must disguise himself and he cannot go back home, except in disguise.
7. Jim and Huck have a conversation about the fact that Jim has run away from slavery. Huck, too, has run away. In what ways are their escapes alike and in what ways are they different? How do their motives for escape differ?
Huck could be seen as oppressed by his drunken father who beats him, imprisons him, and makes him work like a slave. Huck also feels oppressed by the many forces in his town that try to raise him up as a civilized boy. Huck escapes through the ruse that he was murdered. Jim escapes from slavery and wants the freedom to work on his own behalf, bring his family together, and learn to read. The difference is due to their age and circumstances. Huck is a child. Jim is a grown man with a family. Huck is white and free. Jim is black and a slave.
8. Huck and Jim steal and call it borrowing. When Jim said he felt guilty about stealing, Huck told him he would get over it. Later, Jim says he would steal his wife and children if he couldn’t work to buy them. This is a problem for Huck. What causes Huck to begin to change his mind about the morality of stealing things and saving a family from slavery?
Huck begins to see the impact on people of these two situations. He realizes that Jim’s family should be free and that stealing things from people causes pain and suffering and is therefore wrong. At the end of the story, he will no longer steal and he disrupts the plans of the King and the Duke to steal the inheritance from the Wilkinson girls.
9. On the river, when Huck worries about the fact that he is helping Jim escape from slavery he says he feels wicked and that he could feel the hand of God about to take a swing at him. This scares Huck into deciding to turn Jim into the authorities. The people Huck had known in his young life had used religion to justify slavery. There is an irony here. What is it?
One way to put it is that Huck was not a church-going religious person. He is not an avid church-goer and he would be fidgety and uncomfortable if he had to sit through a sermon. Yet when it comes to putting a man back into slavery, he fears the hand of God and gets all religious. This is a comment by Twain on religious people who do not act ethically. Another way to describe the irony of this scene was that in the name of religion Huck was about to do a terrible thing, put a man back into slavery where he would be separated from his family and whipped.
10. The feud seen in the episode between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons shows Huck something important about himself and others. What does he learn during this time?
There are two good responses. First, Huck learns that the deadly feud has been going on for 30 years and his young friend does not know how it started. He sees that Sophie has no freedom to marry the boy she loves. He begins to learn the value of throwing off the constraints that society places on people. Second, this episode shows Huck how being a runaway slave seems to be a worse crime than murder. People Huck cares about are being hurt and this is intolerable to him.
11. Once Huck is back on the river he begins to feel better. What does he say about how the river makes him feel? What is it about the river that makes Huck feel this way?
Huck says that other places feel cramped and smothered while the river feels warm and safe and free. The river is wide and beautiful and always moving forward. It can move both Huck and Jim away from their troubles at least for a while. He sits and smokes his pipe and relaxes when he is on the river. The river is the strongest force of nature in Huck’s life and his love of the river shows his affinity for nature and the healing powers of nature.
12. The Widow Douglas tells Huck that just because an idea is popular, like slavery, it is not necessarily right. Huck seems to have learned this lesson earlier. What does Jim learn at the end of the story?
Jim learns that some white people can be righteous. He watched Huck change from someone who objected to a slave running away to someone who would risk his own life to help a friend, whether slave or free. He has been granted his freedom and given enough money to purchase his family out of slavery. Thus, Jim learns that not all white people are bad.
13. Huck hears the steamship at the film’s end. What does he do? What is he leaving behind that he had grown to appreciate during his adventure?
He throws his jacket off while he runs toward the river. He is running to his freedom; he does not want to be civilized. However, Huck had developed a deep friendship with Jim. He also learned to respect the very people who tried to civilize him and he has enjoyed the comfort and care they offered. By returning to the river, Huck leaves all of this behind.
14. Describe Huck’s parents. What bearing does this have on the universality story and on its description of a change in American attitudes?
Huck’s mother is dead and his father is the antithesis of everything that a father should be. The two sisters who are trying to raise Huck are a pale substitute for a mother. It’s a lot easier for Huck to run away from this situation. If he had a mother who loved him and cared for him, he would have responsibilities to her and his desire to run away would be much reduced. This argues against the universality of the story. However, to the extent that Huck stands for the American people and the development of his attitudes toward slavery mirror the journey of the nation’s attitude toward slavery, then Huck’s family situation works. The American people have no mother or father.
Huck Finn on a Hero’s Journey
Huck’s development follows the stages of the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell as the “Monomyth”. Huck’s Journey is one of internal growth and discovery. He goes from the view that slavery was ordained by God, a bedrock belief in his small Missouri town, to a realization that enslaving another is wrong and unjust. He grows from a child to a maturing individual who thinks for himself. To get there Twain takes Huck through many of the stages that Campbell later identified as the Hero’s Journey. Teachers can expand a classes’ experience of the movie beyond a basic “watch and compare” lesson by introducing this interpretation of the story.
Before showing the movie, have students read TWM’s handout The Hero’s Journey – Stages and Archetypes. This article describes a version of the stages and archetypes of the hero’s journey often used in film and will prepare students to identify those aspects of the story. Then have students review TWM’s Hero’s Journey Film Study Worksheet which summarizes the stages and archetypes of the Monomyth in a format that allows students to take notes. Show the film with several three to five-minute breaks to allow students to make their notations.
Once the film is completed the worksheets will support a number of activities or assignments. Students can write out responses to the worksheet prompts in sentences or paragraphs. They can work in class, alone or in teams, or they can formalize the responses as homework. The prompts can also serve as the basis for class discussion or the worksheet can serve as a test. Teachers can also beef up the assignment and turn it into a longer project requiring independent research and formal essays on topics suggested by the worksheet. See Hero’s Journey Projects below.
Suggested Responses to the prompts on the Worksheet are set out below:
I. Write a short single-paragraph description of the Hero’s Journey described in this story.
There are several possible ways to put it. One is that the journey is from being a child living in a community that tries to restrict Huck to having freedom and being his own person. Another is that the journey is to from blindly following the beliefs and customs of his community about slavery to thinking for himself and rejecting slavery.
II. For each stage of the Hero’s Journey describe the action of the film, if any, which manifests the stage. Specify the attributes of the stage to which these actions relate.
SECTION ONE — Introduction to Setting, Characters & Conflict
1. The Ordinary World: “What is life like for Huck before his father comes home and he is forced to run away?”
Huck’s ordinary world involves a life of playing hooky, fighting boys at the river’s edge, resisting the civilizing efforts of Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas, avoiding his father, and gathering help from practitioners of voodoo.
2. The Call to Adventure: “At what moment does Huck decide to run away and what calls him to make this decision?”
The call to adventure could be the appearance of Huck’s father after an absence of over a year. A better possibility would be meeting Jim on Jackson’s Island and hearing how much Jim wants to buy his family’s freedom.
3. Refusing the call: “What does Huck do to refuse the call to adventure?”
If the call to adventure is the decision at the séance to run away, the refusal of the call is when Huck leaves the raft to turn Jim in. Huck’s journey is to break from the conventions of his community and reject slavery. Fortunately, before it is too late, Huck realizes his error and pulls back.
4. Meeting with the Mentor: “Who does Huck meet that becomes a friend and a guide on his adventure?”
Huck’s mentor is Jim. Not only does Jim save Huck and give him advice, it is just knowing Jim that helps Huck along on his journey.
5. Crossing the First Threshold: “When does Huck first decide to go along with Jim on the adventure?”
This occurs when they meet up on Jackson’s Island and just after the call to adventure (when it is clear how much Jim wants to buy his family out of slavery). Huck agrees to help Jim get to Cairo so that Jim can reach the free states.
SECTION TWO — Action, Climax, Triumph
6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: “Who helps Huck and who makes matters worse for him and Jim?”
Huck meets and bests enemies in the King and the Duke. He finds an ally in Billy Grangerford. The youngest Wilkinson girl is an enemy while the oldest is an ally.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: “When is the turning point, the moment in which Huck seems to decide completely what he must do and to accept all accompanied risks including the possibility of death?”
This occurs in the incident with the Wilkinson sisters. When he was with the Grangerford’s, Huck could accept seeing Jim enslaved again while Huck developed his friendship with Billy and enjoyed the hospitality of the family. However, with the Wilkinsons he can no longer steal or tolerate Jim being in prison. Another good response would be that the approach to the inmost cave occurs when Huck sees the wounds from the lashing on Tom’s back.
8. Ordeal: “What is the climax, or the peak experience in Huck’s adventure?”
This is the last adventure in the film (although not in the book), when Huck is trying to break Jim out of jail and help the Wilkinson sisters.
9. Reward: “What is Huck’s reward for supporting Jim in his search for freedom and making sure that the Wilkinson sisters are not robbed?”
Huck realizes the full value of both courage and friendship.”
SECTION THREE — Resolution and Denouement
10. The Road Back: “When Huck is shot as he and Jim are trying to escape, he is well on his way back to his own life. What new choices must he make now that he is being taken care of by the Widow Douglas and Jim has been set free?”
Huck now needs to decide whether to return to the river and keep his adventure going without Jim as a companion or to remain in the comfort of the care of Miss Watson.
11. Resurrection: “What happens to Huck when he gives the money he got from the Wilkes’ family to Jim so that Jim can buy his family out of bondage?”
The money will help Jim bring his family together as free people and Huck does not need the money to be free himself. This shows that Huck now completely understands the injustice in slavery and how friends must do whatever possible to help one another live free lives.
12. Return with the Elixir: “The scene that shows Huck listen to the boat whistle, run outside and throw off his jacket reveals an idea that Mark Twain thinks is the most important message in his story. This is the elixir that Huck Finn has brought back from his adventure for all of us. What does this scene mean to you?”
Answers will vary. Twain wants his readers to throw off the restraints, whatever they may be, that keep them from being the people they would choose to be. For Huck, the jacket is a symbol of the civilization that he wants to avoid and the river, towards which he runs, is a symbol for the freedom he longs to experience.
III. Identify the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey that appear in the movie and, for each, describe the function it performs in telling the film’s story. The following are the archetypes associated with the story of a quest.
1. The Hero:
Huck Finn is the hero of this story.
2. The Mentor:
Huck’s mentor is Jim. Not only does Jim save Huck and give him advice, it is just knowing Jim that helps Huck along on his journey.
3. Threshold Guardians:
Huck’s father, the widow Douglas and Miss Watson.
4. The Herald:
Jim serves this role, telling Huck to leave town to avoid his father.
The Duke and the Dauphin are shapeshifters, or at least, they try to be. However, they are not shapeshifters to Huck. He knew they were villains shortly after they shipped out on the raft. There are no real shapeshifters in this story.
6. The Shadow:
Huck’s shadow is the desire for conformity and the belief in the wrongheaded ideas of his community. This almost leads him to turn Jim in.
7. The Trickster:
Huck himself is the Trickster. He makes everyone think he’s been murdered.
IV. Describe any other archetypes that appear in the story and the functions they perform:
1. The Father:
In this story, the father archetype is turned on its head. Huck’s father is not nurturing or caring nor is he a stern disciplinarian trying to get Huck to walk the straight and narrow. He is, in fact, the exact opposite. In the story, there is no substitute father figure for Huck.
2. The Mother:
Not present in this story.
3. The Child:
Huck is the child of the story.
4. The Maiden:
The older girl in the Wilkinson family is the maiden.
Hero’s Journey Projects:
1. In order to become a hero, Huck must change. Write an essay in which you show the changes he undergoes.
Good responses will include his attitude toward slavery, his sense of loyalty in friendship and/or his willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve his freedom.
2. Select three stages of the Hero’s Journey you have addressed in the worksheet and write about how these specific stages are the most important in terms of Huck’s experience in moving toward increased awareness of what is important in life.
2. Write an opinion paragraph about whether Jim remains consistently a mentor to Huck throughout the journey. Consider whether Jim crosses a line and becomes an enemy when he holds back from Huck the news about his father’s death. Did Jim withhold this information for the sake of Huck or for himself? Be sure to justify your opinion.
3. Write a personal essay about how the elixir Huck shares with the audience at the film’s end is important in your own life. You may want to consider the symbolic value of the elixir’s meaning rather the literal value; in other words, you may not toss away your fine clothing and head for a river, but you nonetheless know the significance of the gesture itself.
5. You could argue that Huck has not completed a Hero’s Journey at all and that he has in fact simply done what his innate character required in order to achieve his personal freedom. Write an essay in which you support or refute this notion.
In the alternative, students can create a class presentation on any of the topics described above with posters, diagrams, PowerPoint presentations, or even clips from the film to back up their conclusions.