Tuesday, January 13, 2009

SUMMER CAMP by Richard Woodley

Richard Woodley is the go-to writer for paperback adaptations of sports-related movies -- he’s novelized the BAD NEWS BEARS series, SLAP SHOT, BLUE CHIPS, and THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH, among others -- so I shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that his young adult novel Summer Camp is also a novelization. Unlike all the others he’s written over the years, however, this one was adapted from a script that never got filmed. With the Bill Murray star vehicle MEATBALLS cleaning up at the box-office and LITTLE DARLINGS, GORP, STUCKEY’S LAST STAND and the R-rated Chuck Vincent effort SUMMER CAMP picking clean whatever was left, the last thing anyone needed during the 1979-‘80 movie season was another comedy set in a summer camp. Based on a screenplay by former actor Michael Norell (Captain Stanley on Emergency!) and published by Dell in April of 1979 -- two months before MEATBALLS hit theaters -- Summer Camp is aimed more at younger kids, relying on swirlies, snuggies and bad breath jokes for its laughs instead of sex, drugs and bathroom humor. Why it never got made is anyone’s guess, although I suspect the producer(s) took one look at the overcrowded playing field and decided to forfeit (Golan & Globus of Cannon Films killed their proposed camp comedy SUMMER SCORE around the same time). Summer camps would soon become the preferred mise-en-scène for massacres rather than mirth thanks to FRIDAY THE 13TH.

Camp Smilin’ Through, celebrating its thirty-third -- and possibly last -- summer of operation, has been losing more and more of its clientele each year to the larger, more modern and affluent camps in the area. In order to show the late owner’s greedy son that Smilin’ Through can still turn a profit (and prevent him from selling the land to condo developers), camp director Jack "Steamboat" Scarborough and his wife Annie "Tugboat" invite twenty tough, rowdy, mostly minority orphans to stay at the camp on the state’s dime. “My name is Luscious Moncrief, and I can whup any honky in this camp,” snarls the first orphan off the bus. White flight reduces the number of original kids to twenty by the next morning, creating two equal factions of children who are at each other’s throats until they settle their differences during the expected “Field Day” sports competitions (the camp equivalent of the “senior prom” climax in high school movies) and ultimately learn to respect one another. Myriad subplots include the search for a missing youngster, Steamboat’s awkward relationship with his teenage son Chet, a budding romance between two kids chosen to edit the camp’s newspaper, and “Crazy Wilson and his Hound of Death,” ghosts that supposedly haunt the surrounding woods but are actually a wise old Native American and his friendly dog, who live in a nearby cave. Two snuggies and a prolonged swirlie go to anyone who hasn’t already guessed whose land deed saves the camp at the end.

The target audience in 1979 would’ve enjoyed Summer Camp as a movie, but Woodley’s adaptation is hampered by the same flaw that plagues most comedy novelizations: it takes too many words to set up and execute what is visually a two-second cutaway or sight gag, so by the time the readers get to the end of the paragraph, they’ve already guessed the punchline. On top of that, Woodley’s saddled with wayyyyy too many characters from the first page on. It’s hard to take Steamboat seriously when he complains about having only thirty-three kids staying at the camp; at least he doesn’t have to slog through three chapters of backstory for all thirty-three of them, plus every single camp counselor! In a book that’s barely 175 pages long, it takes the first thirty to get everyone to the camp, and when the orphans arrive at the halfway point we get introduced to twenty more kids. And like summer camps themselves, the book is a breeding ground for nicknames, so the reader has a dozen or more of those to contend with as well. In a film this wouldn't even be an issue, but for what’s supposed to be a quick-read YA novel it’s a pain in the ass. To Norell’s credit, he handles the racial aspects of the story honestly, openly and fairly by giving the orphans as much humor, depth and intelligence as the other kids. I also like the fact that Steamboat is a likable, three-dimensional character when too often the camp directors in these movies are either tyrants or buffoons. Summer Camp had the potential to be a pretty good movie -- certainly no worse than MEATBALLS, and a good deal better than the others. File this one under “m” for missed opportunity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Strange...I read this when it came out, and parts STILL stay with me even though it was a total throwaway: Chet's nickname being "Piano Legs" for one thing.. and a counselor couple who often arm wrestled and considered it "aggressive hand holding".

Thanks for the review and the memory. :-)