(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 29.)
Let's start with a clip from the 1959 film adaptation of this week's selection, The Mouse That Roared:
That gag isn't in the book, and wouldn't work in book form. But I like it because it puts both in context. Leonard Wibberley's 1955 novel (and the film based on it) are the mildest of satires, but the climate that spawned them was anything but mild. Both versions took as their topic nothing less than Cold War politics, an arena with global stakes and potentially catastrophic consequences. In other words, the laughs could always be interrupted by the big ka-boom, though both versions are too generous in their visions of humanity to suggest that the big ka-boom could be anything but an accident.
Born in Ireland, educated in England, and drawn to America, Wibberley enjoyed an extremely prolific career writing children's fiction and non-fiction, in addition to novels for adults. But The Mouse That Roared remains his best-known work. Like Night Of The Living Dead or The Man Who Would Be King, its title has taken on a life of its own, even among those who don't know the source material. And these days, reading the book requires a trip to the library or a secondhand store, since it's out of print. I can't say that shocks me. It's a fun little book—possibly even, as the title claims, the screwiest book of its year—but not exactly the sort of satire that transcends its time.
The action opens in the Duchy Of Grand Fenwick, a few independent acres between Switzerland and France. (Though I imagine it as neighboring Fredonia, Latveria, and Genovia.) It's a country in crisis. Having depended for centuries on its chief export, the much-desired rare wine Pinot Grand Fenwick, it has its economy thrown into chaos by the introduction of Pinot Grand Enwick, a cheap American knock-off. This leads to the formation of two rival parties, the Dilutionists—those in favor of increasing profits by watering down the wine—and the Anti-Dilutionists. After first entertaining the idea of pretending to be flirting with communism, they choose another plan, courtesy of their beauteous young leader Duchess Gloriana XII—war. The logic here: After declaring war on America, they can enjoy the economic support traditionally extended to the country's defeated foes.
To that end, Gloriana inspires the already gung-ho Tully Bascomb to conquer America, backed up only by a handful of mail-clad men carrying longbows. To everyone's great surprise, he wins. Arriving in New York, he finds the city deserted, thanks to an air-raid drill that has sent the entire East Coast underground. Walking into the deserted city, he finds scientist and native Fenwickian Dr. Kokintz hard at work on the Quadium bomb, an ultra-destructive device whose creation inspired the air-raid drill in the first place. Returning to Grand Fenwick with scientist and bomb in tow, Bascomb ensures his nation's rapid ascent from backwater to superpower. (Although, in the book's best gag, it takes quite a while for America to realize that it has not only been invaded, but conquered.)
At this point, the book rapidly loses the head of comedic steam it's been building, but I appreciate its refusal to treat the Cold War as an either/or proposition. [Note: Spoilers follow.] Caught between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Grand Fenwick finds a middle path. Using the leverage of the Q Bomb, it forms a coalition of small countries that demand total nuclear disarmament. Given the choice of black or white, Wibberley opts for gray at a time when most wouldn't have considered the option. Under the circumstances, only absurdity made sense. [End spoilers.]
Wibberley's novel has been overshadowed by the film adaptation starring Peter Sellers in three roles. Though he'd played a frequently disguised character in The Naked Truth, this was Sellers' first cinematic attempt to show that his chameleonic abilities matched those of his idol/rival Alec Guinness. He's good, too, giving thoroughly considered performances in the parts of Tully (recast as a much milder fellow), the Prime Minister, and Gloriana (who's reworked as a parody of Queen Victoria), with love-interest duties shifted to Jean Seberg as Dr. Kokintz's daughter. Apart from those readjustments, however, it's a fairly faithful, though hardly forceful, adaptation directed by Jack Arnold, a filmmaker known less for his comedic touch than for his classic science-fiction and fantasy films, like The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Though Arnold's film still enjoys a following, it also has to live in the shadow of another work, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which makes even better use of Sellers' eagerness to play multiple parts while dealing with the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. Though Strangelove is a considerably better film, I'm not sure it could have existed without The Mouse That Roared. There weren't too many others at the time looking at the bottomless peril of the nuclear age and finding ways to laugh. Wibberley's book uncovers the early symptoms of a disease that had advanced considerably by the time of Kubrick's film.
A few final notes: Wibberley kept returning to Grand Fenwick for Mouse sequels: Beware Of The Mouse, The Mouse On The Moon (later adapted into a film by Richard Lester), The Mouse On Wall Street (also in the Box Of Paperbacks), and The Mouse That Saved The West. His son, Cormac Wibberley, working with wife Marianne, is a successful screenwriter, penning both National Treasure movies, though every time I try to find some common themes between the works of father and son, I come up empty.
Oh, and dig Mouse's back cover, which boils the book down to its basics better than I ever could:
Wolfshead by Robert E. Howard
The Outlaws Of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline