Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGreen Mansions by W. H. Hudson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGreen Mansions by W.H. Hudson

In my recent review of Frank Aubrey’s lost-race novel The King of the Dead (1903), which transpires in the jungle depths of Brazil, I mentioned that the author, in an attempt to add realism to his descriptions of the terrain, had quoted liberally from works by the famed Argentinian writer William Henry Hudson. And well he might! Hudson at that point was 62 years old, and well known for being both a naturalist and ornithologist, his specialty being the birds of his native South America; he’d already written any number of books on the subject, as well as his first piece of fiction, a dystopian novel entitled A Crystal Age (1887). One could hardly do better than quoting from a W. H. Hudson book, when describing both the flora and fauna of Brazil! But today, of course, Hudson is best known for his second novel, which was released one year after The King of the Dead. The book was Green Mansions, which, since its first incarnation as a Gerald Duckworth & Co. hardcover in 1904, has seen dozens of various editions around the world; a perennial favorite that has rarely, if ever, been out of print. This reader had had the 1959 Bantam paperback (cover price: 50 cents) sitting on his shelf, unread, for ages; at this point, I cannot even recall when or where I acquired it. But it is a very nice edition, indeed, the movie tie-in edition, and featuring charming illustrations by Sheilah Beckett throughout. A beautifully written piece of magical realism, as it turns out, Hudson’s most famous work has been captivating the hearts and minds of readers for well over a century now … and for very good reason!

The book is narrated by an old man named Abel Guevez de Argensola, in an attempt to explain to an English friend of his how he became the person he is today. It seems that back in the mid-1870s, Abel, a young Venezuelan, had been a member of a faction that was involved in a failed takeover of the government in Caracas. Fleeing for his life, Abel had decided to indulge an urge of his that he’d had for the longest time: an exploration of the largely unmapped region south of the Orinoco. After many wanderings and hardships, he’d tried to locate the gold deposits supposedly residing near the Parahuari tribe, in the largely unexplored area where Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil meet. Failing in this attempt, he’d resided with the Parahuari themselves and made rough friends with their chief, Runi, as well as one of the young warriors, Kua-ko. Abel was given the liberty to come and go as he pleased, only being warned against venturing into the nearby forest on the other side of a desolate savannah.

Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBut Abel had gone exploring in that forest anyway, drawn back repeatedly after hearing the call of a bird such as he’d never heard before. He was warned by the Parahuari that the forest was haunted by the “daughter of the Didi,” a monstrous spirit of sorts, and ultimately, Abel did indeed encounter the dreaded woman herself, after he’d attempted to kill a poisonous coral snake. The woman turned out to be named Rima, in actuality, a 17-year-old child of nature who talked to the birds and other animals, wore a gown made of spun spider silk, and was wholly averse to the destruction of any living creature. Rima had been living in the forbidden wood with an old man named Nuflo, who claimed to be her grandfather. And soon enough, Abel had fallen in love with the beautiful forest girl, and had helped her and her grandfather search for the land, Riolama, where her mother had come from, thus angering the nearby natives and resulting in tragedy for all concerned…

I mentioned a little earlier that Green Mansions is a very fine example of magical realism, and indeed, there is very little in Hudson’s book that could not actually transpire in real life. Rima, of course, is the book’s foremost element of fascination and wonder, but even this charming creature, who runs along the uppermost branches of the trees, subsists on berries and various gums, and befriends even the lowest and most dangerous forms of wildlife (spiders and snakes, for example), is not necessarily outside the bounds of credibility. To add realism to his conceit, Hudson regales us with his hard-won knowledge of South American wildlife (we get to hear of the camoodi, troupial, accouri, campanero bird, sakawinki, cotinga), the exotic flora (the mora tree, the cecropia, the greenheart), and the native beliefs, dress, weapons and drink (the Curupita monster, the queyou loincloth, the zabatana blowgun, the casserie liquor made of masticated cassava). His book is remarkably well written — the sophomore novel shows every sign of being penned by a master — and much of the book’s appeal rests in the lyrically written, poetic passages that Hudson showers upon the reader. When describing the sounds emitted by a passing flock of birds, we’re told “…there was something ethereal too in those drops of melodious sound, which fell into my heart like raindrops falling into a pool to mix their fresh heavenly water with the water of earth…” When describing the bell-like notes of the campanero bird, Hudson writes:Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

…so bell-like, so like the great wide-travelling sounds associated in our minds with Christian worship. And yet so unlike. A bell, yet not made of gross metal dug out of earth, but of an ethereal, sublimer material that floats impalpable and invisible in space — a vital bell suspended on nothing, giving out sounds in harmony with the vastness of blue heaven, the unsullied purity of nature, the glory of the sun, and conveying a mystic, a higher message to the soul than the sounds that surge from tower and belfry…

Whew! In one of the book’s more rapturous moments, the smitten Abel tells his lovely nature woman “…this is love, Rima, the flower and the melody of life, the sweetest thing, the sweet miracle that makes our two souls one…” And I just love when Abel, during his initial four-page description of Rima, who enters the story roughly at the novel’s one-quarter point, asks us “…why has Nature, maker of so many types and of innumerable individuals of each, given to the world but one being like this?”

Although boasting any number of tremendous set pieces — Abel’s first glimpse of Rima, the trio’s journey to Riolama, the multiple tragic incidents that occur back to back to back near the book’s end, Abel’s descent into madness and hallucinatory wandering as the story draws to its close — it is Hudson’s beautiful verbiage, his engendering of a magical, poetical atmosphere, his quintet of sharply etched characters, his evocative descriptions and, of course, the one-of-a-kind Rima that combine to make Green Mansions the classic that it remains today. Hudson makes only one misstep in the course of his tale: when he tells us that Runi’s archenemy, Managa, dwells to the southwest; 234 pages later, Managa is said to live to the northwest. But other than this one gaffe, Hudson’s novel is sheer perfection; a book that I devoured with relish. Not for nothing does my 1959 Bantam movie tie-in edition call it “pure enchantment … one of the most romantic and enthralling in all literature.” I could not agree more.

And, oh … as long as I have broached the subject of that film, which was released in May 1959, a quick word on that topic. It is a perfectly decent little film — one that I watched the day after I finished the Hudson book — that simply pales into insignificance when compared to its classic source. Screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley — who had previously been responsible for the scripts for Kiss Me Kate, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Pal Joey, and who would go on to create the screenplays for Can-Can and, uh, Valley of the Dolls — adds much incident not present in the Hudson book and, sadly, deletes still more; even the novel’s tragic ending has been changed to shoehorn in a patently phony happy ending. The film strips away all the magic and poetry from Hudson’s book and leaves us with a typical Hollywood jungle adventure, replete with dancing natives and a chase over a swaying rope bridge. Thus, the movie feels closer in spirit and DNA to something like the great 1954 thriller The Naked Jungle than its source novel. Still, neither the film’s director, Mel Ferrer, nor its small cast of excellent actors can be blamed; it’s just that Kingsley’s script, ticking off the bare plot points of Hudson’s story as it does, lets them all down.

As for the actors, they are probably all miscast, although I cannot say who I would have replaced them with, in a story that may well be unfilmable. Thus, playing the Venezuelans, we have Belgian Audrey Hepburn as Rima (she’d been married to Ferrer for five years at this point and would remain married to him for nine more); L. A.-born Anthony Perkins as Abel (how odd it is to hear Rima tell him that her dead mother feels “so near that I talk to her,” as the very next year, Perkins would gain eternal fame playing a character who does the exact same thing, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho); the great, N.Y.C.-born, Jewish character actor Lee J. Cobb, practically unrecognizable here behind a thick white beard, as Nuflo; the terrific, N.Y.C.-born, Sicilian/Portuguese character actor Henry Silva as Kua-ko; and the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as Runi. All give it their professional best, but again, can only do so much with that Kingsley script. Perhaps only Jerusalem-born Nehemiah Persoff seems apt here, in his role as a shopkeeper … a character not even present in Hudson’s book!

Despite Hepburn’s participation — an actress who was riding high after 1957’s Funny Face and who, two months later, would appear in July 1959’s smash hit The Nun’s StoryGreen Mansions was a box-office flop and a critical failure. Still, the news is not all bad. The film looks fairly impressive, and many of the picture’s outdoor shots were indeed filmed in British Guiana, Venezuela and Colombia, although it is patently obvious that none of the principal actors traveled there. And OMG, that Audrey Hepburn! I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look more beautiful than she does here, and that one shot of her cuddling a baby fawn is one that you’ll want to freeze and marvel at. Still, the film and the book are vastly different entities. My friend Debbie tells me that when she had to read the book in high school, she cheated and watched the film instead, and then wrote an essay based on that. Her teacher busted her for it immediately, so different are the two creations! As mentioned, the film is a perfectly decent, romantic action film, but the book is where the magic, poetry and true beauty reside. Three stars for the film, and a perfect five for Hudson’s most enduring work…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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