Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Whose horse is it, anyway? 20 stories that follow property from owner to owner

Illustration for article titled Whose horse is it, anyway? 20 stories that follow property from owner to owner

1. Black Beauty (1877)
Usually, “everything is connected” stories center on a single uniting event, a chain of meetings between people, or both. But once in a while, an author or screenwriter will base a story around an object traveling from hand to hand, or living property being transferred between owners, usually to make a point about how mundane things connect people, how different people relate to the same thing, or how physical objects can outlast ephemeral things like relationships, lives, and even civilizations. Anna Sewell wasn’t nearly that ambitious with her novel/educational tract Black Beauty, but she did have blatant arguments to make: By following a horse (named Black Beauty, naturally) through a series of owners—kind ones, brutal ones, punctilious ones, neglectful ones—she shows the wide variety of mistakes horse owners can make. And by making that horse capable of reporting on its own abuse and misuse, she layers in a sentimental sympathy for the character, making issues like owners’ use of the wrong reins or the wrong feeds into personal failures with heavy emotional weight. To an adult, the book reads like a checklist of how not to treat a valuable horse; to children, though, it’s a drama, in which a suffering animal passes through many hands, always hoping to wind up with someone who truly cares.


2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
In a similar vein, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was designed as a revolutionary tract about the abuse of Southern slaves and the complicity of Northern legislators. Much of Stowe’s point—underlined with repeated, direct, aggrieved appeals to her readers’ Christian morality and humanity—was that the theoretical baseline of responsible, moral slave-owners who would never abuse their valuable human property didn’t matter, so long as United States law provided equal protection for even one cruel, immoral owner. To that end, the eponymous slave—a staunchly Christian, intelligent, responsible, brave husband and father—passes to several owners over the course of the book. First, his mostly enlightened Kentucky master is forced to sell him to a trader to pay a debt. The dealer subsequently passes him off to an irresponsible, indulgent, but harmless Southern aristocrat. Uncle Tom only ends up with the sadistic, debased Simon Legree toward the end of the book, but by that time, he’s witnessed dozens of cases of families casually ripped apart for profit, beautiful young girls openly sold as sex toys, and slaves of varying ages killed by their owners, dead by their own hands, or driven into the savagery of people living in torment without hope. By illustrating how little control Tom has over his own fate, even when in the hands of people who respect him and mean well, Stowe decries the entire system of slavery, and by sending him on a multi-owner cross-country journey, she gives him plenty of opportunity to see the worst excesses slavery permits across the nation.

3. War Horse (2011)
Author Michael Morpurgo might have had Black Beauty in the back of his mind when he penned his 1982 novel War Horse, later adapted into a successful play and a film by Steven Spielberg. Here, the horse serves less as a study in how to treat domestic beasts than as a mirror for the souls of those he encounters, and the nations making them do battle with each other. Though a Devon farm boy raises the animal with care and affection, he’s forced to sell it into military service when World War I breaks out and his family hits hard times. From there, the horse passes from one side of the fight to the other. Some treat it with care, others as a tool to be used until it breaks. Ultimately, it’s a test of both sides’ ability to find a shared bit of humanity. Over the course of its journey, the horse bears mute witness to the best and the worst of how humans treat each other and the creatures in their care, amid a conflict in which advances in technology reveal new ways to obliterate man and beast alike.

4. The People Of The Book (2008)
Geraldine Brooks’ novel The People Of The Book isn’t about moral lessons so much as it is about the continuity and importance of history. In the frame story, a book conservator is called upon to help restore a politically sensitive, centuries-old religious manuscript. Every tiny step she takes in its restoration brings up fragments of objects that form its history—a hair, a wine stain, an insect wing—which let Brooks step aside for short-story-like explorations of where the book was in many different eras, who owned it, and what situations they found themselves in, politically and personally. In spite of its real-world historical importance, the book—the Sarajevo Haggadah—is just a McGuffin to Brooks, who’s exploring how societies and situations change, and how an inanimate object can act as a through-line to history, connecting people who are unaware of each other in spite of their commonalities.

5. Winchester ’73 (1950)
The title of this Anthony Mann Western comes from a “perfect” rifle that inspires awestruck reverence and great, sometimes violent desire in practically every man who looks at it, including the hero (James Stewart), his arch-nemesis (Stephen McNally), and even Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), who referees a shooting contest to decide who will be awarded the deadly beauty as a prize. Stewart wins the gun, McNally steals it and takes off with Stewart in pursuit, and the movie proceeds to have fun using the rifle to play connect-the-dots with as many genre signposts as can be crammed into an hour and a half. McNally immediately loses it to a gambling Indian trader and gun dealer, who in turns is killed for it by the leader of a band of renegades, played (in bare chest and body paint) by a young, embarrassed-looking Rock Hudson. The rifle goes on to a survivor of an Indian attack, a notorious bank robber and smirking killer (Dan Duryea), and back into McNally’s greasy mitts, before finally doing its part in the final shootout between Stewart and McNally.

6. The Earrings Of Madame De… (1953)
In this Max Ophüls film, Countess Louise De… (Danielle Darrieux) pawns the earrings her general husband (Charles Boyer) gave her; he gets them back and gives them to his mistress, who pawns them for gambling money. They’re bought by a charming baron (Vittorio De Sica), who soon begins an affair with Madame De… that turns from a casual fling into deep love. The baron returns the earrings to her, but that isn’t the last time they’ll be sold. With every sale and return, the jewelry’s meaning changes: At first, the earrings are just ornaments, a glittering surface trophy given by an adulterous husband to his equally unfaithful wife for public display. When they return to Madame De…, they become a symbol of her affection for the baron, a gift given out of true love rather than by a husband merely playing the part society expects of him; while their material value stays fixed, their emotional value slowly increases.

7. The Red Violin (1998)
Something about the idea of a string of stories and characters linked by a shared possession seems to appeal to art filmmakers looking to dress the screen in culture, and The Red Violin, which spans 300 years and is set in five different cities on three continents, is about as culturally elevated as a movie can get. Samuel L. Jackson plays an appraiser who, in present-day Montreal, is hired to confirm that a red violin is the legendary red violin that was the final masterpiece crafted by an Italian violinmaker, who painted it using his wife’s blood after she died in childbirth. The movie charts the violin’s adventures over the centuries, with episodes set in Vienna, Oxford, and Shanghai; meanwhile, the stories of the violin’s owners are reflected in a tarot reading done for the violinmaker’s wife. The movie features an Oscar-winning score by the composer John Corigliano, who, not satisfied with beating John Williams to the prize, later recycled parts of it for his 2003 Violin Concerto.


8. The Gun (1974)
The TV movie The Gun opens with the titular .38-caliber handgun coming off the assembly line, and writers Richard Levinson and William Link—the team who created Columbo—show from there how it affects the lives, personalities, and fates of the people who take turns possessing it. The owners include a frightened crime victim, an ex-con who needs it for “one last job,” a young newlywed who likes the macho charge it gives him, etc.—before it’s consigned to the scrap heap. The Gun, which helped launch director John Badham into theatrical features, mines suspense by prolonging the inevitable wait for the payoff to Anton Chekhov’s famous dictum about the gun on the wall in the first act. Meanwhile, it makes the point that having handguns floating around in society doesn’t do anybody any good. Gun was one of the most critically acclaimed TV movies of its day, and inspired imitations (such as an episode of Hawaii Five-O that aired four months after the film’s première, and even included Ramon Bieri, who played The Gun’s ex-con, as part of its guest cast), but it isn’t available on video, and it’s scarcely talked about now. Maybe that’s because, of all the “burning issues” that were fodder for socially conscious TV in the mid-’70s, it’s hard to think of one that’s fallen so completely off the nation’s radar as gun control.

9. Gun (1997)
Featuring a central idea similar to that of the earlier TV movie, but with no connection to that project, Robert Altman’s 1997 anthology drama Gun followed a semi-automatic handgun through six episodes and various sprawling all-star casts. It was as though Altman was creating one of his films in miniature with each new episode, even though he only helmed one of the episodes, about a country-club president having trouble dealing with the many women in his life. Gun revived a format that hadn’t been popular on television for decades—the anthology series—and the stars, while big for TV at the time, simply weren’t big enough. The storytelling, which skewed toward weird character dramas with a noir tinge, made up for the show’s other failings, though the efforts to use the same gun in each episode were already getting strained by the de facto series finale.


10. The Gun (1933)
So is it weapons’ lethal effect or their long-term durability that makes them such a tempting prospect for the passing-of-control story? The African Queen author C.S. Forester exploits both factors and tops all these various guns-changing-hands stories in scale and scope with The Gun. The novel similarly follows a three-ton brass cannon as it’s abandoned by Spanish forces during the Napoleonic Wars, retrieved by guerillas, and moved from place to place in an attempt to evade the French. Similar to its more modern counterparts, The Gun explores the social issues and power imbalances involved with lethal weapons, particularly those that provide overwhelming force. That said, The Gun is hardly a social-issue story about cannon control; it’s a historical adventure, later translated to the screen as the grim 1957 war feature The Pride And The Passion, directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Cary Grant.

11. Great House (2010)
Nicole Krauss’ National Book Award-nominated novel features four stories that take place on different continents and in different eras, linked by the same behemoth of a writing desk. Krauss’ central theme is the idea of Jewish diaspora, particularly in the wake of the Holocaust, and as she examines the many ways the giant desk takes on a central role in the lives of various writers and would-be artists, the desk, with its many secrets, takes on a weird poignancy. Krauss’ structure means that readers will have to puzzle out the full story of how the desk affected the lives of the book’s four main characters, but in the closing passages, as everything snaps into place, she manages to earn the idea of having the central figure of a book be a hunk of wood.


12. The Twilight Zone: “Dead Man’s Shoes” (1962)
The classic Twilight Zone episode “Dead Man’s Shoes,” written by the dependable Charles Beaumont, boils the subgenre down to its gimmicky essence. A bum finds a corpse that’s been dumped in an alley, and steals its shoes. As soon as he puts them on, he’s transformed into another person, presumably because the dead man’s spirit has possessed him. After he’s gotten past the kick of being alive again, he seeks out the mobster who had him whacked, planning to get revenge. Things go poorly, and the bum winds up having his corpse dumped in the alley, where it’s discovered by another bum, who steals his shoes. And as soon as he puts them on… Presumably, practice makes perfect, and in the long run, so long as the supply of shoe-thieves doesn’t run out, the odds aren’t in the mob boss’ favor. The premise was apparently addictive, because this episode has been remade twice. In the 1985 Twilight Zone revival, “Dead Woman’s Shoes” stars Helen Mirren as a mousy little thing who discovers a pair of stylish shoes in a donation bin, tries them on, and turns into, well, Helen Mirren. Then there’s a really screwed-up version called “Dead Man’s Eyes” (starring Portia de Rossi and her late husband’s eyeglasses) for a 2002 reboot by the now-defunct UPN network.

13. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
Sauron, the chief villain and ostensible title character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, never actually appears in the story, at least not directly. When it came time to adapt the fantasy classic for the big screen, Peter Jackson worked Sauron into occasional flashbacks, but mostly focused on the perfectly good stand-in on hand: Sauron’s Ring Of Power, the one ring to rule them all, bind them in darkness, and generally make a mess of everyone’s life. By the time protagonist and pretty-boy hobbit Frodo Baggins inherits it, the ring has passed through a number of owners, each time with devastating, occasionally fatal effects. Most ownership stories use the object at their center as a mirror, passively reflecting each successive owner’s behavior and failings, but the One Ring is far more proactive, with a definite will aimed at tempting people to possess it. In Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, viewers see how the ring went from the tyrant Sauron to the king Isildur, who was then corrupted by power-lust into seizing it for himself rather than destroying it. From there, the ring betrayed Isildur and passed to Gollum, a hobbit-like creature who lived with the Ring under a mountain for years, and was transformed into a twisted, wheezing shadow of his former self. From there, it goes to Bilbo Baggins, and then to his nephew Frodo, though even kindly Bilbo turns possessive and vicious when his ownership of the Ring is questioned. Obvious power-and-corruption morals aside, it’s curious how few filmmakers and writers have recognized the real strength of Tolkien’s central metaphor: By turning his story’s most terrifying villain into an inanimate piece of jewelry, Tolkien moves the emphasis of the story’s conflict away from battles of force between wizards and warriors, instead focusing on the strength of virtue, commitment, and staunch friendship.


14. Underworld (1997)
The three-run homer that New York Giants slugger Bobby Thomson nailed into the grandstands on October 3, 1951, sealing the Giants 5-4 victory over the Dodgers and the National League pennant, went down as a key event in baseball history. And while the fate of the game-winning ball is unknown in real life, its journey off Thomson’s bat forms a central thematic undercurrent in Don DeLillo’s big, fat masterpiece, Underworld. Here the ball is picked off a lucky fan by the wily Cotter Martin, and sold by Cotter’s deadbeat dad for $32.45. Throughout the novel, former Dodgers fan Nick Shay quests for the ball, which comes to represent the end of his carefree childhood, and which he ends up buying for $35,000. As DeLillo’s narrative slips back and forth through time, the voyage of Thomson’s baseball from game-day souvenir to historical artifact—albeit one imbued with personal meaning for Shay (and presumably DeLillo) gives the novel’s sprawling, half-century-spanning narrative a bit of grounding.

15. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
In arguably the least anthropomorphized animal performance in film history, Balthazar the donkey bears witness to and experiences incredible amounts of human cruelty in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Shown from birth to death, the animal looks on mutely—when he isn’t braying in fear or pain—as he’s traded from owner to owner. Some are kind, like the farmer’s daughter who loves him from adolescence to turbulent teenage years; others aren’t, like her thuggish boyfriend, who sets Balthazar’s tail on fire. Like an earlier, longsuffering Robert Bresson protagonist—the earnest young priest of Diary Of A Country Priest—Balthazar grounds a story about life in the French countryside and transcendence through pain. As the years pass, the donkey remains a symbol of the natural world and life as it should be, standing in helpless contrast to the corrupt modernity transforming his village; his suffering turns him from animal to saint. No wonder the farmer’s girl gives him a crown of thorns; Balthazar dies for humanity’s sins.


16. L’Argent (1983)
Robert Bresson’s final film opens on a young man pleading with his father for an increase in his allowance. Denied, he swaps his watch for a forged 500-franc note, and changes it in at a photo-developing shop. Realizing the bill is fake, the shop’s unscrupulous manager passes it off on a contractor, who is arrested while innocently trying to use the bill at a restaurant. Based on Tolstoy’s short story “The Forged Coupon,” L’Argent’s first act traces the path of the bogus note from the upper classes to the patsy stooge who is eventually arrested, and—anguished by the wrong-doing and the bourgeois conspiracy to cover it up—turns to theft and serial murder. Bresson’s work is often defined by its spiritual concerns, but here, his explicit focus on the transfer of mere vulgar money connects L’Argent to the social world in a manner rarely seen in his films.

17. Infinite Jest (1996)
The concerns of David Foster Wallace’s epic satire Infinite Jest are manifold, but it’s ostensibly about a video cartridge containing a short film called “Infinite Jest,” a.k.a. “The Entertainment.” Reputed to be so lethally entertaining that anyone who watches ends up re-watching it until they die, slack-jawed and swimming in their own excrement, the novel follows the various parties interested in procuring “The Entertainment,” either to destroy it, or to use it as a bludgeon against a tyrannical North American super-government. Created by experimental filmmaker James Orin Incandenza (who can view the film safely because he’s already insane), “The Entertainment” is used to murder a medical attaché early in the novel. Though the exact pattern of its transfer of ownership is unclear, the cross-dressing Office of Unspecified Services agent Hugh/Helen Steeply works diligently to unearth the master copy before it falls into the hands of the deadly Quebecois terrorist group Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants, who intend to use it as a sort of weapon of mass distraction. It’s suggested that the master copy was buried with its maker, but it’s later dug up by his son, Hal, and ex-Demerol addict Don Gately, under the strong-arming of John “No Relation” Wayne, an AFR sleeper agent and teenage tennis prodigy. The tape is Wallace’s central metaphor—embodying the novel’s concern with the addictiveness of contemporary media, and its ramifications for the intellectual life of a culture. Somewhat paradoxically, tracing its path throughout Infinite Jest’s 1,000-plus pages becomes its own kind of obsessive exercise.


18. Twenty Bucks (1993)
Think about the money in your wallet: Where did it come from? And where before that? And before that? Few objects travel as far and wide as currency, and the 1993 film Twenty Bucks strings a series of short narratives together via that notion, following a single $20 bill as it passes through the hands of, among others, a writer, a stripper, a policeman, a pair of bank robbers, and others. The slight-but-engaging film is notable both for featuring a lot of actors on the verge of breaking out in the early ’90s (William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, David Schwimmer, and Brenda Fraser among them) and for the story behind its script, which was dusted off and revamped by writer Leslie Bohem from an original version by his dad, Endre Bohem, that dated back to 1935. Sometimes it isn’t just objects that get passed around and meet unusual fates.

19. Tales Of Manhattan (1942)
In this big, glossy Hollywood movie, the focus on a traveling object is just an excuse to cram the maximum number of famous, big-money talents together in the same picture. The platoon of screenwriters, including Ben Hecht, Ferenc Molnár, Alan Campbell, and Donald Ogden Stewart, came up with a five-part anthology film about a black dress top-coat that brings about big changes in the lives of those who encounter it. The cast of stars includes Rita Hayworth, Charles Boyer, Ginger Rogers (who, thanks to the coat, decides to dump Cesar Romero for Henry Fonda), Charles Laughton (as a shy but brilliant musical conductor who enjoys a career breakthrough), Edward G. Robinson (as a destitute man who needs something nice to wear to his college reunion), and Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters as poor Southern sharecroppers who receive the coat along with a wad of cash that they, with their preacher (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson), shower on their community. There was originally a sixth story, featuring W.C. Fields and Phil Silvers, which was reportedly cut from the original release version of the movie because it was considered too good; the rest of the film looked even sorrier by comparison. (It’s since been restored for some home video and TV broadcast versions.) Tales Of Manhattan is probably most notable for having brought an end to Paul Robeson’s screen acting career. Robeson was already disillusioned by the racist depiction of blacks in some of the movies he’d worked on, and the cartoonish, smiley-po’-folks sharecroppers in this film were apparently the last straw. He never signed on to act in another Hollywood production, and publicly lambasted the segment as “very offensive to my people.”


20. The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants (2005), The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2 (2008)

In most stories that follow property from owner to owner, the property plays a fairly passive role. That’s mostly true of the pants in The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants and its sequel, both adapted from a series of novels by Ann Brashares and starring Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively, and America Ferrera. The jeans purchased from a thrift store by four high school friends mostly just sit there when not being worn, but retain some weird voodoo. For starters, the jeans fit all four of their owners perfectly even though the girls range in size from pixie-ish to curvy. Then there’s the luck they seem to bestow as the jeans pass to each woman over the course of two eventful summers they spend apart, the pants conveniently traveling to the owner who needs them most just as the narrative requires them to show up. Maybe that’s their most magical property of all: knowledge of where they need to be to keep all four stories moving along as they should.