Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: The Bumblebee Flies Anyway

by Robert Cormier

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988

The Book

Author: Robert Cormier (1925–2000)

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First published: 1983

The Film

Year released: 1999

Director: Martin Duffy (b. 1952)

Screenplay by: Jennifer Sarja

Starring: Elijah Wood, Rachael Leigh Cook, Janeane Garofalo, George Gore II, Joe Perrino

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Context

Friendship has long been a major theme in fiction and films for young adults. Works featuring this theme have often depicted young people in conflict with each other and also with older adults, to show how the growing bonds of friendships among teenagers can help them cope with various challenges they face despite tensions and disagreements. Sometimes these challenges are relatively minor; sometimes, as in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, they can involve very serious issues of life and death. Classic works such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have illustrated the importance of young people having at least one good friend. A similar emphasis on the importance of youthful friendship can also be seen in such later works as John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967), and many others. Films featuring this theme have included cinematic adaptations of these novels, as well as films such as The Breakfast Club (1985), Stand by Me (1986), and Dead Poets Society (1989). The enormously successful Harry Potter novels (1997–2007) and films (2001–11) are also very much concerned with friendships and tensions among schoolmates and their complicated interactions with adults.

Works such as A Separate Peace, The Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, and the Harry Potter novels and films are all especially relevant to The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, as they all feature young people interacting in institutional settings. In Bumblebee, however, the institution is not a school, but a medical facility. In this respect, Bumblebee, both as a book and a movie, resembles Ken Kesey's influential 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was adapted into a successful film in 1975. Although both the book and movie versions of One Flew deal with the growth of friendships among adults in a mental hospital, it seems highly likely that Robert Cormier had Kesey's work, and especially its film adaptation, in mind when he wrote his own novel. Kesey deals with the development of friendships among adults in a psychiatric hospital; Cormier deals with the development of friendships among teenagers in a medical hospital. This theme was not a new one for Cormier. His 1977 novel I Am the Cheese also deals with a teenaged boy who is placed in a government-run mental asylum. In his 1979 novel After the First Death, Cormier writes about a group of young people who attend the same school and who are kidnapped and threatened with death by terrorists. Cormier's 1974 novel The Chocolate War also dealt with interactions among teenagers who attend the same school.

The interest of friendship as a theme to young-adult readers and viewers is obvious. Friendships, while important throughout life, are especially significant and influential during the teen years, when young people are beginning to establish various degrees of independence from their immediate families. This is also a time when people are perhaps most likely to worry about relations with their peers, especially their acceptance or nonacceptance by other people who are roughly their own age. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is variously concerned with relations among male friends, with relations between young men and young women, and with relations between young people in general and the adults who try to control them. All these themes are clearly relevant to young adult readers and filmgoers.

Film Analysis

Both the book and the film versions of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway focus on a teenager named Barney Snow (played in the film by Elijah Wood). He is one of various young male residents at a private research institute. Snow calls this place "The Complex" and invents various other terms to describe his life there. (For example, he calls the drugs he takes "merchandise," and he refers to the chief doctor as "The Handyman.") Other residents include a dying high school athlete from a wealthy family nicknamed Mazzo (his real name is Alberto Mazzofono), who is played by Joe Perrino; a youth afflicted with terminal kidney disease whose nickname is Billy the Kidney (George Gore II); and a much younger resident named Allie Roon (Jeffrey Force), who has trouble communicating. The other major character is Mazzo's twin sister, Cassie (Rachael Leigh Cook), who asks Barney to help her hostile brother and who, it turns out, has long suffered any pains her brother suffers. If Mazzo dies, the same fate may await Cassie.

Little in the filmed version of Bumblebee is cinematically distinctive or impressive. The work is competent but not especially memorable as a film. Repeated flashbacks to a car accident are the film's most impressive cinematic effect. Otherwise, the setting, the music, the cinematography, and the direction do not seem particularly distinguished, nor are the performances especially outstanding. Instead, the main features of the film that distinguish it from the book involve characters and characterization. By far the chief difference between the novel and the film involves the choice of Janeane Garofalo to play the doctor with whom Barney most frequently interacts. In the novel, this character is a rather forbidding, distant older male named Dr. Lakendorp; in the film, this character is transformed into a much more sympathetic and empathetic figure named Dr. Harriman. The decision to change this key character from a man to a woman and from a distant figure to an almost motherly persona helps give the film a softer tone than the book. Barney and his friends do not seem nearly as isolated and open to exploitation in the film as they do in the novel. Garofalo plays Dr. Harriman as a person who takes a real interest in Barney's welfare and who is there with him, and for him, in the film's dramatic conclusion.

Another key difference between the book and the film involves the much more prominent role played by Cassie, Mazzo's beautiful sister, in the movie. In the novel, Cassie can seem cold, distant, and uninterested in anyone but her brother and herself. Barney develops a crush on her in the novel, but she barely notices Barney and certainly shows no romantic interest in him. In the film, Cassie and Barney very quickly become good friends and then rapidly become romantically involved. Cassie's role was probably expanded in the film to help give the movie more appeal to young female viewers, who might have been less interested in a movie focused, as the book is, on relations among young men. Of course, the enhancement of Cassie's role in the film may have been designed to appeal to young male viewers as well. Rachael Leigh Cook plays Cassie as a very attractive young woman, both physically and in personality. Cassie in the book is physically appealing but emotionally distant; Cassie in the film is as appealing in her disposition as in her looks. The film also makes Barney a credible leading man; Elijah Wood is much better-looking than the Barney described in the novel. The novel's Barney presents himself as somewhat awkward in behavior and somewhat undistinguished in appearance. In the movie, it is easy to see why Cassie might fall for Barney, who (at least in his dealings with her) seems sensitive, mature, and thoughtful and who is also good-looking.

Another major difference between the book and the film involves the film's multiracial cast. At least two prominent roles in the movie were given to African American actors: the friendly, appealing Nurse Bascam is played by Oni Faida Lampley, while George Gore II's performance as Billy the Kidney is key to the movie's more upbeat and more humorous tone. Gore constantly does wheelies in his wheelchair (which he uses for convenience rather than out of need, unlike the Billy of the novel). The Billy of the film is also constantly cracking jokes, making wry observations, and in general acting as Barney's reliable, funny sidekick. He seems more self-confident, more assertive, and more likely to use profanity than his counterpart in the novel. Billy in the film looks very young (even though Gore was around sixteen when the film was shot); in fact, he looks so young that it is hard to imagine a figure so youthful in appearance being so cocksure and worldly wise. In any case, the filmmakers' decision to include two African Americans in prominent roles shows the United States' movement toward a consciously multicultural society between 1983 (when the novel first appeared) and 1997 (when the film was released). The decision to make the film's most prominent doctor a woman rather than a man was probably also made, at least in part, for reasons of inclusion and diversity. At one point, Mazzo even accusingly suggests that Barney might be gay—a suggestion Barney casually dismisses rather than finding highly offensive (as might have happened twenty years earlier).

As a film, Bumblebee can sometimes look more like a made-for-television movie than a sophisticated, big-budget production. The soft-rock music, the attractive landscapes, the somewhat stereotypical characters, the often less-than-stellar performances (especially by the actor playing Mazzo), and particularly the romance between Barney and Cassie can make the film seem more like an after-school TV production than a film intended for a major theatrical release. The depiction of the relationship between Barney and Cassie can be overly sentimental (at one point, romantic music rises as the camera lifts into the sky to show two birds flying side by side directly overhead). Dr. Harriman in the film is also a more sentimental figure than Dr. Lakendorp in the novel, and the film ends with a scene that can also be interpreted sentimentally: Barney and Cassie check into a big white antebellum mansion that may symbolize heaven. The filmmakers seem to have decided that the film's plot needed to be made more reassuring and upbeat than that of the book to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Barney's loving young mother (another appealing female character) appears in numerous flashbacks throughout the film. In many ways, then, the film has greater diversity of characters and characterization than the book, and the film is generally also softer in tone than the novel (although its language is sometimes raunchier).

Significance

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway was not distributed in wide theatrical release. It therefore received few reviews in the popular press and has received very little attention from scholars. Lisa Nesselson, writing for Variety, called the movie a "meticulously made film that raises haunting questions about personal identity and the role of mind over matter in treating serious illness." She praised the actors' performances, the characters' "precocious wisdom," the film's "eerie" atmosphere, and its effective use of suspense. She called the movie a "sober, deliberately paced mystery about the life-and-death decisions of doomed teens." An entry in Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide praised Duffy's "very distinctive" cinematography, which creates "a sense of echoing, empty spaces."

Further Reading

  • Denham, Alice. "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway." Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Fiction Series, Mar. 1991. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331JYF10489270000049&site=ehost-live. Accessed 27 Feb 2017.
  • Peck, David. "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway." Magill's Survey of American Literature, rev. ed., Sept. 2006. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331MSA15929830000591&site=ehost-live. Accessed 27 Feb 2017.
  • Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, by Robert Cormier. School Library Journal, Sept. 1983, p. 132.

Bibliography

  • Barton, Ruth. "Martin Duffy." Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide. Edited by Yoram Allon, Del Cullen, and Hannah Patterson. Wallflower, 2001, p. 83.
  • Davis, Anita Price. "Robert Cormier." Critical Survey of Long Fiction. 4th ed., 2010. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331CSLF11470141000022&site=ehost-live. Accessed 27 Feb 2017.
  • Nesselson, Lisa. Review of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, directed by Martin Duffy. Variety, 27 Sept. 1999, p. 46.

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