Page to Screen: Bubba Ho-Tep by Joe R. Lansdale

Welcome to Page to Screen, where I will opine on the film (and TV) adaptations of horror and fantasy short stories, books and novellas. Today’s topic is….Bubba Ho-Tep.

“Wait,” you’re probably saying. Bubba Hotep—the memorable movie starring the one and only Bruce Campbell as a still-alive, elderly Elvis suffering through his dotage in a Texas nursing home that’s under attack by a soul-stealing Egyptian mummy—was a book first?

Oh, yes. Yes, it was.

Elvis dreamed he had his dick out, checking to see if the bump on the head of it had filled with pus again. If it had, he was going to name the bump Priscilla, after his ex-wife, and bust if by jacking off. Or he liked to think that’s what he’d do. Dreams let you think like that. The truth was, he hadn’t had a hard-on in years.”—Joe R. Lansdale, first paragraph of Bubba Ho-Tep.

Bubba Ho-Tep is a novella by Joe R. Lansdale. It was originally published in a 1994 Elvis-themed anthology called “The King Is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post Mortem.” Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Lou Reed, Roger Ebert and Clive Barker also have stories in this out-of-print book. Bubba Ho-Tep the novella is still available via the Best of Joe R. Lansdale short story collection and as a standalone 99-cent ebook.

Lansdale, in an interview, said he nearly recalled the story from the collection, because he thought it was ridiculous and not that good. Then he got a call from the editor saying the story was the best in the collection, and after a quick reread, Lansdale realized the story wasn’t half bad.

If you aren’t familiar with Bubba Ho-Tep, the best way to describe it is as a case of “what if” gone off the rails. What If Elvis was still alive? What if he was in a rest home in Texas? What if no one believed he was really Elvis? What if John F. Kennedy didn’t die in Dallas, but had been disguised as a black man, and was now living in the same rest home as Elvis? And, what if a bus carrying a cursed mummy crash-landed in the creek behind that rest home, allowing the mummy to stalk the halls at three a.m. every night stealing the souls of the elderly? And only Elvis and John F Kennedy could save everyone?

Totally ridiculous, right? Of course it is, but it works. That’s the beauty of well-crafted fantasy fiction: No matter how far-out the premise, if well-crafted, the story works. Bubba Ho-Tep is buoyed by the vibrant, meaningful existential undercurrent bubbling below the action. Yes, it’s about Elvis battling a mummy, but it’s also a story about aging and relevance. About how society no longer sees you as a vibrant, dynamic capable (or sexual) person if you’re elderly or infirm. It’s about looking back on your life and wondering what would have happened if you’d chosen a different path, and wondering if it’s too late to right wrongs or become the hero you wanted to be.

So here we are. Lansdale (thankfully) doesn’t pull the novella from the anthology. Bubba Ho-Tep makes it to print. Then, the anthology goes out of print and is largely forgotten. Then, director Don Coscarelli, of Beastmaster and Phantasm fame, decides he wants to turn Bubba Ho-Tep into a movie. The combination of out-there source material and a diminutive $1 million production budget could have easily resulted in a full-on low-quality camp movie. That isn’t what happened. The novella was faithfully and lovingly-crafted into a film.  So faithfully, in fact, that the story is in most parts a line-by-line exact retelling of Lansdale’s novella. Elvis’ internal dialogue matches the novella nearly word for word, as does a lot of the dialogue. Even the hieroglyphics are close copies.

anubis

bubbahotep3

So, we get dialogue gems such as

He was after my soul. You can get that out of any of the major orifices in a person’s body.  I’ve read about it.”

“Where?” Elvis asked. “Hustler?”

and

“He eats souls,” Jack said. “so I assume he craps soul residue. And what that means to me is, you die by his mouth, you don’t go to the other side, or wherever souls go. He digests the souls ’til they don’t exist anymore.”

“And you’re just so much toilet-water decoration,” Elvis said.

bubba2Granted, word-for-word dialogue and scene-for-scene transcription from the book to the film doesn’t equal a great film adaptation, but in this case, it works.

Of course, there is a lot of debate about what makes a good page to screen adaptation. My take? If the film inherently changes the meaning or essence of the written work, or adds sensational or over-the-top elements for the sole purpose of adding mass appeal or aligning it to mainstream commercial tastes? I’m out. Many films go awry because Hollywood thinks every story has to be dialed up to eleven like an Avengers movie. Yes, film is a separate art form and not everything that works in print works on screen. But for me, a good adaptation captures and keeps the essence of the source material, maybe even adds more depth to it, but most of all recognizes that audiences aren’t stupid. Compelling story trumps everything else.

Bubba Ho-Tep exceeds these criteria.

Now, here are some fun bits I’ve collected from the interwebs.

Here’s a video of Joe Lansdale talking about his work and about Bubba Ho-Tep (at the 12 minute mark). The film was “very much what I had in mind,” he said. “I never thought that could be filmed.”

And, here’s a Bubba Ho-Tep interview with Bruce Campbell, who stars as Elvis, and director Don Coscarelli.

One thought on “Page to Screen: Bubba Ho-Tep by Joe R. Lansdale

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