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Book Vs. Film: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

Book: Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Gary K. Wolf, 1981

Book: Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? A Hare-Raising Mystery, Gary K. Wolf, 1991

Film: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, adapted by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, directed by Robert Zemeckis, 1989


Long ago and far away, when I was a naïve, enthusiastic young sprat and not the bitter crank of a critic I am today, my parents took me to see the cutting-edge new Robert Zemeckis movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And I loved it. Cartoons interacting with real people? What's not to love? (Four years later, Cool World would answer that question definitively.) Shortly thereafter, I ran across Gary Wolf's novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? in a bookstore. I was thrilled–I hadn't realized the film was based on a book. I grabbed it, flipped to a random page, and read these two sentences about Jessica Rabbit: "She lit her colored coffin nail, set it into an ashtray, and promptly forgot about it. It smouldered into eternity silently begging for one more touch from her gorgeous lips."


Yeaaaaaah. I put the book back down and walked away. I wasn't that naïve and enthusiastic, and I knew terrible overwriting when I saw it. Too bad I didn't know about Dashiell Hammett, pastiche, or noir detective-story conventions. I didn't realize that Wolf was doing it on purpose.

Going back and reading Who Censored Roger Rabbit? decades later, I have a better idea of what Wolf was getting at. His book is deeply weird–he's trying to bring across a world as alien and idiosyncratic as anything in science fiction, but he wanted to do it offhandedly, as if describing a perfectly normal real-life scenario. At the same time, he was satirizing noir mysteries, and he was trying to put together an actual mystery, one with a forbidding number of threads, suspects, plots, and patsies. He didn't succeed on all counts, but he made a more interesting try of it than my childhood self gave him credit for.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit director Robert Zemeckis has long been obsessed with special effects and creating cartoony worlds where anything can happen. In the early days, that obsession gave us flying Deloreans and Michael J. Fox playing all the members of his own future family in the Back To The Future films; in recent years, it's given us the creepy but rapidly evolving motion-capture animated films The Polar Express and Beowulf. So Wolf's strange little 1981 noir novel must have been a conceptual treasure trove for Zemeckis. Here was a world where animated beings and humans hung out together, where cartoons were live-action films shot with animated stars as actors, where Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny were just successful Hollywood players. What fun would that be to create visually?

The plot, on the other hand, Zemeckis had no use for, so he chucked it out the window. Virtually no scene in the book has a mirror in the movie. Zemeckis imported some of the characters intact–the hapless, babbling cartoon bunny Roger Rabbit; his sexy humanoid 'toon wife Jessica Rabbit; Baby Herman, who has an infant's looks and a rich, jaded fortysomething's taste in women, booze, and cigars; and above all, cranky private eye Eddie Valiant, a man more interested in his next slug of bourbon than his next clue. Pretty much the rest of the film–including characters like Eddie's dead brother Teddy, the weasel gangsters, Judge Doom, Valiant's longsuffering love interest Dolores, Marvin Acme, and Benny the Cab–are original creations of the film. So is the plot. So are all the specific uses of familiar cartoon characters, like Daffy and Donald Duck's crazed piano duet, or Betty Boop's sad stint as a barroom cigarette girl:

Decades later, that barroom scene still looks great. The sets are seedy, artificial, and unreal compared to the look of today's movies, but the way Jessica manipulates that handkerchief and Eddie's clothes, and the way shadows fall on her and shift as she moves, are still seamless. This scene still looks more like reality than the characters in Zemeckis' cutting-edge Beowulf. But it highlights the difference between the film–part technological experiment, part wacky, over-the-top cartoon goof (particularly in the opening segment), part cheesy Chinatown riff–and the almost-serious book.


The book and the film aren't even all that similar conceptually. Zemeckis opens the film with a fully animated cartoon, then shows the movie set used to produce it. Wolf instead focuses on the use of 'toons to create comic strips–cartoons are films of 'toon acting, while comic strips are made with a series of photos with 'toons in various poses, repeating scripted dialogue. (At one point, Valiant visits a comic-strip gallery and sees Hagar the Horrible hanging out with "his photographer, Dik Browne.") It isn't necessary for comic-strip creators to draw in the word balloons, because 'toons in Wolf's world generate their own–which is a huge, huge focus of the book. Roughly every other page has a line or two explaining how some 'toon's latest word balloon–usually Roger's–mirrors his emotion of the moment. For instance:

• "His balloon came out so heavily laden with disappointment he could have sapped Godzilla with it."


• " 'Great. That takes care of your murder. What about mine?' Cleaver's world balloon came out so frosty you almost needed a squeegee to read it."

• "'What?' A series of tiny balloons, each containing an itsy-bitsy question mark, bubbled out of his head. The balloons popped, letting the question marks parachute to the floor. I was tempted to scoop them up and pocket them, since I knew a book publisher who bought them to cut type-setting costs in his line of whodunits."


• "He flipped his word balloon end over end the way a punk would do with a silver dollar."

• "The rabbit sent up a pair of speechless balloons, as flat, empty, and stark white as two pieces of bread popping out of a broken toaster. On his next try he did better. His words came out a mystified, translucent gray, but readable."


• "'What a hectic day I had,' he said. His worlds collapsed instead their balloon like so many beanbags."

• "'Don't you want to hear what I found out about the teakettle?' His worlds circled my head and looped around my shoulders the way a cowboy's lariat ropes a calf."


• "'Eddie," pleaded Roger in a balloon that clung to the doorframe as Hudson shoved him through. 'Eddie, I'm your partner. Help me. Please.'"

• "Roger turned to me. 'Sorry for the interruption, partner. You want to take it back?' His balloon came out the size of a blackjack and as hard as last week's biscuits. It hit the floor and sent up a balloon of its own with 'THUNK' in bold letters inside."


Word balloons even play a significant role in the novel's murder-mystery plot. The book begins with Roger Rabbit hiring Eddie Valiant to investigate Roger's contract with a Hollywood studio: A pair of shady but successful characters named the DeGreasy brothers have exclusive rights to Roger, but they only use him as a bit player, and they won't release him to work for someone else. Roger wants to know why. Shortly thereafter, Roger is shot dead in his apartment, and the only clue is his final world balloon. The police use its text contents–"No fair! You got me everything? Jessica. My contract…"–to determine his last words, but they also check the brittleness of the balloon to determine how long Roger has been dead. Eddie even finds a word balloon for the gun that killed Roger–it says "Bang," naturally–and measures it to determine the caliber of the murder weapon. As Wolf establishes in a number of cases, word balloons tend to endure and become obnoxious detritus in the streets. In fact, one of the reasons Jessica Rabbit is considered sexy by humans is that she "suppresses" her word balloons, and only talks with her husky voice.

'Toons do other weird, cartoony things in Wolf's world: When they drink alcohol ("toonshine" being the beverage of choice), little puffs of smoke come out of their ears and have to be shooed away. A cartoon cat amuses itself by "conjuring up some mental mice, which it stalked around the room." And most importantly, 'toons can summon up "dopples," short-lived, independent, sentient copies of themselves that can be used for dangerous stunt work, like getting squashed with pianos and safes. So before long, a Roger dopple shows up and wants Eddie to solve his murder. Roger created the dopple to run an errand shortly before Roger was shot, and the dopple will disintegrate before long, but he'd like the mystery solved first. He'd also like to help. Like the Roger Rabbit of the movie, he's an overeager, goofy schmuck who tends to get in his own way and everyone else's. Unlike the movie Roger, though, he doesn't really have the saving graces of being funny and sweet. He's just annoying.


He isn't the only one who comes off better in the film. The movie version of his wife Jessica famously proclaims "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." And it's true. In the book, on the other hand, she's just plain bad. She did Tijuana-Bible porn when she was younger, she's a social climber and a gold-digger, she uses her body as currency with a shrug and a smirk, and she plainly expects Eddie Valiant to do whatever she wants in exchange for sex. The movie Jessica is ultimately loyal to Roger, and loves him because he makes her laugh; the book Jessica married him on what seems like a whim, but holds him in utter contempt, and has already discarded him and moved on. In the film, his utter devotion to her is cute and a little unsettling; in the book, it's outright pathetic.

Incidentally, Eddie never sleeps with Jessica. He lusts after her, and she makes it entirely clear that she isn't engaging in some coy femme fatale teasing game, she really will casually fuck him to get what she wants. But in the end, he's too moral. The Eddie of the book and the one in the film are very similar men–the one in the movie has his brother's murder to thank for turning him into a bitter, alcoholic bastard, while the book version just comes that way, and is a little more cynical nonetheless. He's maybe a little more given to his vices, particularly gambling and booze. He might even give in to Jessica, if he weren't so aware that she's a leech, and she's just trying to use him.


Which is par for the course for a noir mystery. Who Censored Roger Rabbit? proceeds like a classic one: Eddie drinks heavily, with a lot of jokey lines like "I sank a well into my bottom drawer, and struck more bourbon." He does legwork, hunting down clues and grilling suspects. He talks to the DeGreasys, who stonewall him about Roger's contract. Then one of them, Rocco, is murdered, and the other, Dominick, starts asking Eddie to track down a teakettle that's missing from Roger's place. Eddie talks to Jessica, who contradicts everything Roger said about their relationship… and asks him to track down the teakettle and bring it to her instead of Dominick. Someone takes Roger's place apart, looking for something, which Eddie suspects was the teakettle.

There are a number of other threads stretching through the book: The DeGreasys seem to be dealing in stolen comic strips. There's the matter of Roger's strange contract with the DeGreasys, and his mysterious marriage to Jessica–which changed her personality entirely for a year–and her relationship with Rocco DeGreasy, whom she left for Roger, then left Roger for. Roger's comic-strip photographer, Carol, appears to be in love with Roger, and contradicts everything anyone else says about him. Rocco has a son who owns an art gallery, and who was forced to censor Carol, at Rocco's orders. Everyone seems to be connected to everyone else, in complicated ways, and no one's take on any given situation matches up. Much of the book is about Eddie digging up all these threads, and trying to figure out how they cross and connect. While the film has a similar mystery going on, it's a lot simpler and more direct, with a bigger and more obvious bad guy, and a lot more energetic setpieces. Where the movie has car chases and conflict, the book has conversation.


One thing the two do have in common is the sense that 'toons are second-class citizens, with a lot of free-floating prejudice aimed at them. They don't live together in a crazy ghetto where humans don't go, much less one that's threatened in an important plotline; Eddie Valiant himself lives in a mixed neighborhood, though he's irritated by all the discarded word balloons littering the streets, and his friends are anti-'toon, and balk when Roger shows up during their regular poker game.

Mostly, though, the book and film are just very different worlds with very different styles: Wolf's book is a grim private-eye yarn with a heavily satirical tone, a bunch of 'toon weirdness, and a fairly good murder mystery, though it loses points in my book for being one of those mysteries that no one could have put together before the big reveal. The rest of this paragraph is a big SPOILER , if you really want to know how the book comes out: That teakettle everyone wants is a "magic lantern" containing a cranky genie, who granted the unwitting Roger his first two wishes–marriage to Jessica and a comic-strip contract–but made sure both wishes fell apart within a year, out of sheer nastiness. When Roger accidentally activated the lantern a third time, the genie killed him. Hence the word balloon, as Roger found out for the first time that everything good in his life was due to the genie he didn't even know was there. The book ends with the revelation that Roger killed Rocco DeGreasy; he created the doppleganger who stands in for him through most of the book in order to send it out to create an alibi while he was murdering the man who stymied his career and stole his wife. In the book's final paragraphs, the dopple finally disintegrates, and Wolf ends with these sad lines: "I looked up at the sky. It was one of those rare days when the Earth revolves a little faster and shoos away the smog. You could see a long way, but not half as far as Roger had gone."


Weirdly, Wolf returned to his 'toon world a decade later with his book Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?, but it's a sequel to the film, not to the book. Roger Rabbit is alive. Jessica is his wife again, and is once again in trouble with the tabloids, which have romantically linked her to Clark Gable. The murdered Teddy Valiant gets an early mention. Benny the Cab is on the back cover. And so forth. I started the sequel, and dutifully made it about 50 pages in before I put it down, due to writing like this:

I tried a nearby parking lot, but the attendant had a medical problem. He refused to touch eyesores, so I docked my heap on the street.


I entered the publisher's office.

His plain-Jane receptionist with her shiny nose, dull lipstick, bun-coiled hair, pince-nez, and ruffled, high-collared frock had "Agnes Smoot" engraved on her nameplate and permanent spinster stamped across her forehead.


I flashed dear, sweet Agnes my badge. After reading the front, she checked the back for a dime store price tag. She take me for a fool? I washed it off last month, same time I laundered my underwear and socks. Agnes relayed my essentials to her boss. He told her to show me in.

I entered an office twice the size of my biggest aspiration.

The Telltale's publisher, Delancey Duck, waddled out from behind his desk atop a webbed pair of orange size-fourteens. In a Mr. Universe contest, he'd lose to the fat soprano who sang the national anthem. His skinny white arms were just the right size for fishing quarters out of sidewalk grates. A basketball could roll between his legs and not touch either knee. An orange bill the wobbly shape of a sledgehammered pumpkin underlined a bulging pair of hardboiled-egg-and-black-olive eyes. He measured three feet even but that included the good four inches of ruffled head fuzz you'd call a ducklick.


He sported a tan cutaway with expanding shoulders for freer wing movement, a matching vest also tailored loose in the flappers, a buttoned-down duck cloth shirt in goosey gander white, canvas-back pants with extra give in the drumsticks, and a set of spats borrowed from his tropical cousin, the blue-footed booby. His feathery handshake removed the lint from my shirt cuff.

He motioned me to a seat in an antique side chair. The duck shinnied up the leg of a ditto and plunked himself atop a plush eiderdown cushion.


He coaxed a great impersonation of the Chattanooga Choo Choo out of an expensive Havana corona-corona. My mouth watered, but the implication rolled right off his back. He tipped the end of his butt into a gold-crested ashtray, a souvenir from the Stork Club. "You're wasting your time, Mr. Valiant. Our reputation for spurious journalistic ethics far belies situational reality." His balloon was as crisp as an English muffin.

This is Eddie Valiant, once more on Roger's payroll, going to check in with the publisher of the rag that's writing about Jessica and Gable. Except it's all jokes, no content. Censored is a lean, short book with a bunch of sight gags; P-P-P-P-Plugged is a wandering, self-indulgent one with little but sight gags. Eddie doesn't learn much from this encounter, but Wolf spends four pages on bird puns: Delancey got his degree at Drake. He drinks Cold Duck. When he gets up, he "duck-walks" around the room. When he drinks, he takes "a sip, sip here, and a sip, sip there." There's that business above about "the implication rolled right off his back." Eddie accuses Delancey's protégé of "following in the foot webs of the master," and asked why Delancey "took her under your wing." Delancey spreads his tail feathers, becoming "a dead ringer for the centerpiece at the signing of the Declaration Of Independence."


There are so many tortured jokes in that scene that it feels like a Kip Addotta spoken-word piece. It's tiresome, it's juvenile, it's hard to read, and it goes nowhere. After chapter upon chapter of similar gags and very little plot movement–even once Eddie is summoned to speak with studio mogul David O. Selznik–I called it quits. It felt to me like Wolf was simultaneously trying to capitalize on the movie's popularity by pointedly referencing it (rather than his own original world) as much as possible, and trying to channel its wacky, over-the-top wildness. It doesn't work in print. (Neither does Roger's stutter. Think it was annoying in the film? It's worse on the page, where it isn't goofy and cartoony, it's just a stilted affectation.) There may be a perfectly tight mystery under all the layers of gags, but I wasn't in the mood to dig for them. Maybe, as with the first book, I'll come around 20 years from now and find it's a great satire of something I'm not currently aware of. 'Til then, life is short, and I have other movies to read.

So. Book, or Film? The film is far more stylish and fun, though everything but the animation looks a little dated and garish these days. Still, it's a solid piece of entertainment, made by smart cartoon fans for reasonably smart cartoon fans. The original book is more stilted and more of a niche entertainment, but it's still fun in its own specific way. It's worth a read, if you can find it–both Roger Rabbit books are out of print. No offense to them, though, but forced to make a choice, I'd go with the movie every time.


All previous Book Vs. Film entries are archived here.