Lolita: It’s no mystery at all why Nabokov’s book about pedophilia has been banned from its very first publication. You can swim around in the seaminess of Humbert Humbert and his nymphets with either the 1962 Kubrick film or the 1997 TV version with Jeremy Irons. My preference is for the Kubrick not just because of James Mason’s worn yet eager performance, but because of Peter Sellers’ unforgettable turn as Humbert shadow, Quilty. This exploration of dark psychic pain is exactly the kind of material Kubrick thrived on and its no wonder he shows up again on this list.
Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller was initially banned for “racy” language that would seem positively tame by today’s standards. This particular ban is extra fun because of the delightful names of the groups so dedicated to its eradication. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice disdained Scarlett’s multiple marriages and The Watch and Ward Society expressed shock over Belle Watling’s madam character. Accusations of racial insensitivity are still landing Mitchell’s Civil War saga on banned and challenged lists.
Catch-22: One reason Joseph Heller’s searing war novel was challenged was the frequent use of the word “whore.” Mike Nichols’ darkly comic adaptation didn’t enjoy much success upon release (as opposed to the runaway hit M*A*S*H*). But it holds up over time mostly because of Alan Arkin’s standout performance.
The Lord of the Rings: It’s hard to believe that such a benign book was ever on a banned list, but some fundamentalists consider Tolkien’s work to be “irreligious.” Which is odd given Tolkien’s devout Catholicism and his friendship with renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis. Point of fact, Tolkein once told Lewis that The Lord of the Rings was a “fundamentally religious and Christian work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” It may not surprise anyone to know that the Powers That Be in New Mexico actually burned a heap of Tolkien’s work outside the Christ Community Church as recently as 2001. Weirdly, that burning coincided with the release of Peter Jackson’s first film in the trilogy (sextology?), The Fellowship of the Rings.
James and the Giant Peach: Beloved yarn-spinner, Roald Dahl, appears several times on the banned books list and you may, if you like, substitute the Anjelica Huston version of his fabulously creepy The Witches for this stop-motion delight. My favorite (read “most idiotic”) reason for banning a Dahl book has to do with a certain scene involving the Spider in James And The Giant Peach. A town in Wisconsin claimed the spider licking her lips could be “taken in two ways, including sexual.” Balderdash.
From Here to Eternity: James Jones’ book was censored by the publisher when it was first released to eliminate all references to homosexuality and most of the profanity. The censored version went on to win the National Book Award and inspired the much lauded film starring Burt Lancaster, Donna Reed, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra. However, despite the fact that the film also shies away from any homosexual content, the now famous beach kiss scene was edited down in many theatrical releases for being too erotic. You can watch it yourself and see how it stacks up in this post-50 Shades Of Grey world. In the words of James Jones about his own experience with censorship: “The things we change in this book for propriety’s sake will in five years, or ten years, come in someone else’s book anyway.”
The Grapes of Wrath: In his classic novel of a depression-era family, Steinbeck took the powers that be in California firmly to task for their treatment of the poverty stricken and homeless. As a result, those in charge (e.g. the Board of Supervisors) banned and burned Steinbeck’s novel. Henry Fonda is worth a watch, though, in John Ford’s classic version.
Beloved: Ten years after its publication, Kentucky high schools banned Morrison’s modern classic citing “bestiality, racism and sex.” Oprah Winfrey’s film version falls fairly short of the masterful magical spell Morrison cast in her strange, gripping ghost story, but it’s stocked with some fine performances, particularly that of the luminous and frightening Thandie Newton.
Harry Potter: Everyone knows that J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut series was challenged on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. You can take your pick of any of the right film adaptations but my personal favorite is Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner Of Azkaban. By letting go of any desire to adhere slavishly to the original text, Cuaron is the only director in the series to really capture the spirit of the books.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: Oftentimes I’m convinced the people calling for a ban have not actually read the book they want eliminated. In this case, detractors of Ken Kesey’s novel claim it glorifies criminal activity and has a tendency to corrupt juveniles. Au contraire. Just because you condemn the asylum, doesn’t mean you glorify the inmates. Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation with Jack Nicholson in the firebrand lead role is, however, as anti-establishment as they come.
The Great Gatsby: You’ll have to wait until next Spring to enjoy Baz Luhrman’s new version of Fitzgerald’s classic (which was banned for language, sexual references, and the over reliance on the color Green as metaphor). In the meantime, you can catch Robert Redford at his golden haired best in the solidly brilliant adaptation from 1974.
Of Mice and Men: Another Steinbeck enters the fray. “Of Mice and Men” is challenged to this day by those who believe it is “derogatory towards African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled.” But nothing will quite satisfy your Malkovich Malkovich fix like this Sinise-directed version from 1992.
The Color Purple: Everything I know about lesbianism I learned from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” If you’re into that sort of thing (and stirring tales of feminism and racial identity), then I seriously suggest you check out the book. You won’t find more than a hint of that relationship in Speilberg’s adaptation. You will, however, find some incendiary performances.
A Clockwork Orange: Burgess’s book did not get banned until after the release of Kubrick’s film in 1971. But the reactions against both the film and the novel were so strong that in 1973 a bookseller was arrested for selling the novel. Kubrick’s film was banned in the UK for 27 years following its release and wasn’t aired there in full until 2001.
To Kill A Mockingbird: When Harper Lee found out her book had been put on the banned book list in Hanover, Virginia in 1966, she sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of “the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.” That’s a proper book burn. More recently, the book has been called into question for its “too tame” condemnation of racism. Most still consider the book and film to be classics in both mediums and if you haven’t worshipped at the alter of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, you’ve got some catching up to do.