Who Displaced Roger Rabbit?

WARNING: This article and the YouTube video linked within it contains some spoilers for the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf, as well as the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit that was loosely based on it. (This article doesn't have so many, but the Youtube video will spoil the entire plot of both book and film.)

A while back I stumbled across this YouTube video by Channel Awesome producer The Dom comparing Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the novel it was based on. Much like a number of the people he polled before releasing that review, I had no idea there even was a book. But it sounded pretty interesting based on his description, so I dug it up on Amazon and ordered it, and it actually turned out to be a really good book.

The thing is, I suspect that my opinion of Who Censored Roger Rabbit? might not be so high if I was a more frequent reader of mysteries or crime fiction. In his video, the Dom accurately pegs narrator Eddie Valiant as "every PI you've ever seen in a film noir" with the internal conflict between him and Toon society being the only thing that really sets him apart. None of the characters could really be called "good guys" or "heroes" most of the time. I couldn't much tell you how the mystery itself holds up, partly because I'd had it spoiled for me before reading and partly because I don't have much else to compare it to. And yet I devoured the book in short order and enjoyed it to boot. So let's talk about why.

For those who have seen the film, the only things it (barely) shares with the book are basic outlines of the main characters and the broad concept of Toons. It's less an adaptation and more of someone taking the original plot bunny and running away with it, if you see what I mean. This definitely wasn't a bad thing, as the film ended up being not only a runaway success but an important influence on modern animation. It's also interesting to examine the results of two different people developing the same idea, kind of like two Livejournal users snagging the same fanfiction prompt. But the particular kind of success that the film enjoyed ended up completely eclipsing the book that inspired it―not a surprising result since the film had strong casting, groundbreaking animation, and widespread audience appeal to give it the edge. Again, this isn't inherently a bad thing―but having now read that book, it is a bit of a shame that it never got to completely share in the spotlight.

One area the novel excels in is its fantastic worldbuilding. The setting is much like our own world (well, as it was in 1981, at least), only with Toons and humans co-existing. There are constant references to segregation and racism that no one in-universe really questions, and most of humanity is heavily biased against Toons. Protagonist Eddie Valiant himself stands out by his mere acknowledgement that Toons are also beings with thoughts and feelings, but this doesn't stretch far enough for him to tolerate them or to even want to tolerate them; he only gets involved with Roger for the paycheck initially, and then out of a sense of obligation when he believes that his failure to take the case seriously has resulted in Roger's murder. The only person who ever voices any objections to the way Toons are treated is Carol, a photographer and unapologetically outspoken Toon rights activist, and her role in the plot ends with her going on the run to avoid prosecution, which probably throws at least a temporary wrench in any future plans she might have had to speak on the Toons' behalf. It's all handled with a frighteningly casual air that in some ways speaks more volumes than multiple characters constantly protesting the status quo. Compare this to Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, in which robots are treated as little more than tools by the humans who created them; that belief is deeply ingrained in humanity and never really changes, and the realism of encountering it all around you constantly is what makes it so terrifying.

The characters themselves aren't always the most complex, but their interactions are, because you can't always quite tell which character is telling the truth or has the "right" perspective. Eddie questions a number of potential suspects and witnesses repeatedly, and while you know that most of them have to be lying through their teeth, they come across as genuine regardless. (The exception to this is, of course, stone-cold bitch Jessica Rabbit, who has all the sex appeal of her film counterpart and none of the kindness.) The running question of how talented or untalented Roger Rabbit actually is gets asked repeatedly and isn't ever really answered definitively, but there's enough evidence for both sides that it remains an interesting mystery in its own right, and Roger himself wants to believe in his own worth badly enough that you really want to throw him a carrot after a while. (The world will never know the truth.)

Heaping amounts of praise aside, however, I can see why this book didn't end up lending much to its film adaptation. The mystery, while engaging, is convoluted enough that it probably wouldn't have transferred to the big screen well, and it also contains a number of elements that would make it hard to apply any level of child-friendliness to. The film is dark enough in its own right (like oh my God that poor little shoe), but there's nothing I'd call too inappropriate in it either; it has an unquestionably happy ending and it's bright and colorful enough to appeal to kids as well as adults. At times it does exist in a sort of grey area between its respective audiences, but overall it balances the clash in tones quite well. There's also the issue of Eddie himself, whose original character also would not have translated over well; as I've mentioned, he's pretty blatantly racist against Toons even if it isn't to the same degree as his peers, and his opinions of women aren't anything spectacular either. Speaking of terrible people, did I mention that Jessica Rabbit in the book is awful? Jessica Rabbit in the book is awful. Even sweet little Roger Rabbit has more to him than he seems, and not in a way that makes him very sympathetic.

Interesting to note is that even the author of the book himself seems to have preferred the film version. He eventually wrote more Roger Rabbit books, one of which retconned the events of the original novel as a dream Jessica Rabbit had and all of which changed multiple aspects of the world to better fit with the universe established by the film. The original novel itself was a bit tricky to track down until its rerelease a few years ago, and the new edition has multiple images of the film's characters in it, including a relatively adorable one of Roger thanking you for your purchase.

I can completely understand the desire to bury one's own work; I've written plenty of bad fanfiction in my day. Honestly, I wouldn't even say that Wolf has buried the original novel, though. It's more that he's thoroughly embraced the movie's cast of characters, the ones that only came to be because of his idea. I can't imagine how it would feel to put a lot of time and effort into something, only to have a more successful version of it come out and overshadow the other one so thoroughly that lots of people don't even know the original product exists. I mean, Wolf spent two years shopping his manuscript around and weathered over 100 rejections because the story was considered too "weird" for the readers of the time. But to come out of that willing to adopt and run with what is almost a completely different cast of characters is pretty admirable in my book.

While I can definitely see why a faithful adaptation of the book wouldn't have been as successful as what did come out, there are some things in the book I would have loved to see in film. For the most part, Toons don't actually talk; speech bubbles with what they're saying appear next to their head, unless the Toons consciously suppress it. Toons also have the ability to create clones of themselves called "doppels" that are mostly used for dangerous stunts and can last anywhere from an hour to a few days depending on how much energy the Toon puts into creating them. It's details like these that help make the novel's worldbuilding as strong as it is, and I think seeing them in action would have been fun. But alas, it simply was not meant to be.

So Roger Rabbit's original incarnation may have been displaced by a film with more widespread appeal and a good sport author with his original creation's sense of humor. But thankfully, the novel has not completely disappeared. The aforementioned rerelease is available on Amazon, and if anything I've said here has interested you, then I would highly encourage picking it up and giving it a read. I was able to find a lot of enjoyment in it despite having everything spoiled for me, and I feel like that says something good about the book. I've also done my best not to spoil too much of it here so that you might have a different experience should you choose to read it. It's not the same kind of fun you'll have with the film, but it has a certain fun and charm all its own, and I think Wolf should be proud of creating it.

All Who Framed Roger Rabbit screencaps come from Animation Screencaps. Novel cover image comes from Gary Wolf's website.

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