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James Norman Hall (1887-1951)


American writer, best-known for the Bounty trilogy, co-authored with Charles Nordhoff. Hall lived in California and Tahiti, where he died. He also published poetry, essays, juvenile fiction, short stories, and travel books. Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), an archetype of a sea adventure, was filmed first time in 1935, starring Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as the mutineer.

"No men are more conservative than those who design and build ships save those who sail them; and since storms are less frequent at sea than some landsmen suppose, the life of a sailor is principally made up of the daily performances of certain tasks, in certain manners and at certain times." (in Mutiny on the Bounty)

James Norman Hall was born at Colfax, Iowa. His father was Arthur Wright Hall, owner of a mineral water business, and mother Ella Annette (Young) Hall. He attended public schools in Colfax, and entered Grinnell College, Iowa, graduating in 1910. From 1910 to 1914 he was a social worker in Boston, working for Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. While on a bicycle tour in Great Britain, he stopped at the house of Joseph Conrad, but did not meet his great idol.  

For a period, Hall toyed with the idea of becoming a sheepherder in Montana, but at the outbreak of World War I, affected by the patriotic fervor of the time, he joined the British Army. Hall served in the 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers as a machine-gunner, taking part in the Battle of Loos. His war memoirs Hall published under the title Kitchener's Mob (1916), with hopes that the United States would join the Allied nations against Germany. The war still continuing, Hall re-enlisted in 1916 as a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps, which was later incorporated into the United States Air Service. "Writing was a habit for his, evenn during the war," recalled one pilot of Hall. "Every time he got hurt and was forced out of active service, he used his convalescent period to write a book. When he was well enough, he'd push his way back to the front and gather material for another one." (Swifter Than Eagles, Stronger Than Lions: Mythology, Propaganda and the Lafayette Escadrille by Rebecca Bryant Lamb, 2010, p. 34) Hall was shot down behind the German lines in the spring of 1918. The last six months of the war he spent in various prison camps.

Hall and the Harvard graduate Charles Nordhoff both had served in the Lafayette Escadrille, but they did not know each other until after the Armstice of 1918. Nieuport, the type of of plane the squadron flew, was the smallest and fastest-moving biplane in the French service. The machine gun mounted on its roof was fired by the pilot with one hand. Nordhoff and Hall were brought together by Edmund L. Gros, who hired them to edit a stack of personal and official records into a history of the Lafayette Flying Corps. Gros was an American doctor, who had lived in Paris for many years. He helped to found the squadron and suggested calling it the Escadrille Lafayette.

After the armistice Hall and Nordhoff decided to continue wandering, instead of pursuing promising careers. When they received an advance from Harper's to write travel articles, they moved to Tahiti. Hall was 33 at that time. "For we meant to have further adventure of one kind or another - adventure in the sense of unexpected incident rather than of hazardous activity," said Hall in Faery Lands of the South Seas (1921). He did not see the islands real in the ordinary sense, but they belonged, rather, "to the realm of imagination." Hall continued with travel books and Nordhoff published novels. In 1925 Hall married the sixteen-year-old Sarah Winchester, his friend had married a Polynesian woman a few years before. Sarah was part-Polynesian daughter of a British sea captain. Hall's own house was situated a few miles east of Papetee.

"Of course, everyone who visited Tahiti heard the rumour that Hall's collaborator, Charles Nordhoff, had supplied the poetic passages in their books and had created the characters, while Hall merely worked out the plot devices and the long narrative portions, but having met Hall and seen the poetry in his eyes when I mentioned specific scenes, I gave no credence to that rumour." (in The World Is My Home by James Michener, 1992)

In 1929 Nordhoff and Hall published a jointly written book about flying, Falcons of France. The idea for Mutiny on the Bounty came from Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic, who had read of the history of Pitcairn's island in his childhood. After Hall's suggestion the team started to write the story about charismatic Fletcher Christian and Captain William Bligh. It was based upon factual events, which were almost forgotten, although John Barrow had published in 1831 an account of the mutiny, entitled The Mutiny & Piratical Seizure of H.M.S.Bounty, which included the journal of James Morrison, the Boatswain's Mate of the Bounty. Morrison wrote his journal in England, to defend the mutineers, and partly as a revenge for Bligh. Noteworthy, Lord Byron gives Fletcher a heroic death in his poem 'The Island, Or Christian and His Comrades' from 1823. Hall found Barrow's book in 1916 in a Paris bookshop. He had first read about the mutiny during the war, presumably from Edward Tagart's A Memoir of the Late Captain Peter Heywood, R.N. (1832).

The authors decided to put a fictional Captain Roger Byam in the role of the narrator; in part the character was based on Peter Heywood. He had been a midshipman on the Bounty when the ship proceeded upon orders to collect a cargo of breadfruit trees from Tahiti for an experimental transplantion in the West Indies. During the voyage, Bligh lost his control over the crew. According to a popular belief, his inhumanity turned out to be more than the usual tyranny of the captain, but Bligh's official log book shows, that  he did not use the whip often on his men. "I'll take my chances against the law," says Clark Gable (Christian) to Charles Laughton (Bligh) in the 1935 film, "you'll take yours against the sea." The second part, Men against the Sea (1933), focused on Bligh, his loyal companions, and their 3500-mile safe return on an twenty-three-foot open longboat. Pitcairn's Island (1934) recounted Christian's journey to an uncharted Pacific island and the later history of the crew members. The last of them were finally discovered in 1808, living peacefully on the island inhabited by their descendants. Hall visited the island in 1933 near the hurricane season and told of his long voyage  in The Tale of a Shipwreck (1934).

Films: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). An entertaining adventure film, starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. "Casting me adrift 3,500 miles from a port of call! You're sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you're wrong, Christian. I'll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I'll live to see you - all of you - hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet..." (Charles Laughton as Bligh). Oscar winner for Best Picture; it is also considered one of Gable's best film. However, the actor had much problems - he had to shave off his mustache and wear wigs and knickers. Laughton obtained exact copies of naval uniforms from Bligh's own surviving London tailor shop. Most of the filming was made off Santa Catalina Island, but much background footage was shot in Tahitian villages. Herbert Stothart, the composer, earned his first Oscar nomination for the score. Among the musicians was Louis Kaufman, who played the violin solos. The ships were copies of the original pair, the HMS Bounty and HMS Pandora. Movita Castaneda, who played the chief's daughter and has a romance with Gable, was later married to Marlon Brando, starring as Christian in the 1962 remake. - Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). A troubled project, in which Lewis Milestone replaced Carol Reed - scenes also reputedly shot by Andrew Marton, George Seaton, Richard Thorpe, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. However, also this adptation has its good moments. To create good relationships between the Navy and Pacific natives, Trevor Howard tells Brando to make love to Chief Hitihiti's daughter. Brando asks, "Is that an order, sir? Might I have it ended in a log?" and continues tongue-in-cheek: "You see, it is a rather different thing than being asked to fight for one's country." The movie ends in Brando's overlong death scene. - The Bounty (1984), directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. William Bligh is summoned before a court martial to explain the events leading up to the mutiny. Spectacular score by Bronislau Kaper. This production did not have much to do with the Nordhoff-Hall books. "A historical accuracy was the strong suit of this third remake of the famed mutiny story... A steel-hulled boat cost $4 million to convert into an exact replica of the ninety-foot HMS Bounty. Among thousands of Tahitian extras employed, many of the otherwise beautiful women had had bad teeth or none, so new dentures numbered among the many location expenses; after a day's work, the teeth were collected to insure the women's return to the next day (they finally got to keep them)." (Retakes by John Eastman, 1989, p. 43) All these Hollywood productions portrayed Bligh in a negative light. Actually, he was not a sadistic tyrant.

Despite the success of the book, Hall complained that "this perpetual worry about how to eat from day to day makes it very hard for me to write. . . . I think I've been long enough at Tahiti." ('HMAV Bounty and the Great Depression,' in The South Seas: A Reception History from Daniel Defoe to Dorothy Lamour by Sean Brawley and Chris Dixon, 2015, p. 215) Mutiny on the Bounty was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in October 1932. It has been estimated that the novel was read by twenty-five million people in the three years following its publication (Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty by Greg Dening, 1992, p. 355)

Nordhoff and Hall published six more coauthored novels, although the last three were largely written by Hall. "Nordhoff gave energy and passion, Hall meditation and understanding. Nordhoff gave action, Hall beauty. Nordhoff’s humor was in a higher key. Hall gave a quieter satisfaction." ('James Norman Hall 1887-1951'  by Ellery Sedgwick, in The Atlantic, September 1951 Issue)

These works did not repeat the popularity of the Bounty trilogy. Several of these works  were adapted for screen. Hurricane (1936) inspired John Ford's film from 1937, starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. The story was set on the isle of Manikoora, where the evil French colonial governor brutally rules an island paradise but cannot rule forces of nature. The climatic hurricane sequence was staged by second-unit director James Basevi with the help of associate director Stuart Heisler. Its special effects were unequaled for decades. Otherwise the film was hampered by phony studio settings. After seeing the footage, the screenwriter Ben Hecht summarized his feelings: "I think it stinks." ('Nothing Sacred About My Stipend Either,' Ben Hecht interviewed for Variety by Radie Harris, 1938) Hecht wrote new dialogue scenes that Ford passively shot. The story was remade in 1979. Dino de Laurentiis's production, starring Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow, and Trevor Howard, was considered by critics a failure. No More Gas (1940 ), a family story, was filmed in 1942 under the title The Tuttles of Tahiti, and Botany Bay (1941), a historical melodrama about the infamous Australian penal colony, in 1952. Hall and Nordhoff repeated the confrontation between a sadistic captain and his young opponent. This time the action was set on a convict ship. Michael Curtiz's Passage to Marseille, starring Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains and Michele Morgan, was based on the novelette Men Without Country (1942), about convicts who escape from the prison colony of French Guinea to join the Free French forces. The studio delayed the release of the movie until February of 1944, waiting for the expected Allied invasion. Peter Lorre played "the worst rogue of the lot," who, nevertheless, dies for the cause.

In his later years, Hall wrote juvenile fiction about Dr. F. Dogbody, a peg-legged Royal Navy surgeon, travel essays, narrative poems, and an collection of short stories. Oh Millersville! (1940), a poem, appeared under the name of Fern Gravel, a young girl who laments the narrowness of her small-town life in Iowa. The tall-tales of Dogbody were originally published in the Redbook Magazine and collected in Doctor Dogbody's Leg (1940).

Hall's posthumously published memoirs, My Island Home, came out  in 1952. He died of coronary failure on  July 6, 1951 in Arue, Tahiti. Above his grave, which overlooks Matavai Bay, is inscribed: "Look to the Northward stranger, / Just over the hillside there / Have you ever in your travels seen / A land more passing fair?"  Hall's papers are located in the Burlington Library of Grinnell College. His wife Sarah, called "Mama Lala", died in 1985 and was buried beside him. Hall was awarded in 1950 an honorary doctorate degree in  literature from Grinell College.

For further reading: 'HMAV Bounty and the Great Depression,' in The South Seas: A Reception History from Daniel Defoe to Dorothy Lamour by Sean Brawley and Chris Dixon (2015); Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume 1, The Authors, ed  Philip A. Greasley (2001); 'Hall, James Norman,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 3, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Hall, James Norman,' in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, edited by Kay Mussell, Alison Light, Aruna Vasudevan (1994); Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty by Greg Dening (1992); 'Manuscript Collections: James Norman Hall Papers, 1906-1951' by Anne G. Kintner, Anne G, in The Annals of Iowa44 (1979); James Norman Hall by R. Roulston (1978); The American Heritage of James Norman Hall by R.L. Johnson (1969); In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story by P.L. Briand (1966); 'James Norman Hall 1887-1951'  by Ellery Sedgwick, in The Atlantic, September 1951 Issue - See also: James Norman Hall by Robert Roulston

Selected works:

  • Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in Kitchnere's Army, 1916
  • High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France, 1918
  • The Lafayette Flying Corps, 1920 (2 vols., with C. Nordhoff)
  • Faery Lands of the South Seas, 1921 (with C. Nordhoff)
  • On the Stream of Travel, 1926
  • Mid-Pacific, 1928
  • Under the South, 1928
  • A Word for His Sponsors, 1928
  • Falcon's of France: A Tale of Youth and the Air, 1929 (with C. Nordhoff)
  • Flying with Chaucer, 1930
  • Mother Goose Land, 1930
  • Mutiny on the Bounty, 1932 (with C. Nordhoff;  also titled: Mutiny!) - Kapina laivassa (suom. Anna Talaskivi, 1936) - Film adaptations: MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), screenplay Talbot Jennings and Jules Furthman, dir.  Frank Loyd, starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable. "Laughton's Bligh is one of the screen's most memorable tyrants, one who believes in the divine right of captains in His Majesty's service - he never realizes, much less admits, that he does anything wrong. Only when the entire crew watches a man die because of Bligh's absurd orders does Laughton's face reflect a chink in the armor - Bligh suddenly looks like a teenager who has just made a fool of himself in gym class." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986); MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY  (1962), screenplay Charles Lederer, dir.  Lewis Milestone, screenplay by Charles Lederer, starring Trevor Howard, Marlon Brando.
  • Men Against Sea, 1933 (with C. Nordhoff) - Meren voittajat (suom. Toivo J. Kivilahti, 1966)
  • The Tale of a Shipwreck, 1934
  • Pitcairn's Island, 1934 (with C. Nordhoff)
  • The Hurricane, 1936 (with C. Nordhoff) - Myrskyn kourissa (suom. Werner Anttila, 1938) - Film adaptations: 1937, prod. Samuel Goldwyn Company, screenplay Dudley Nichols, adaptation Oliver H.P. Garrett, dir.  John Ford, starring Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor, C. Aubrey Smith, and Raymond Massey; 1979 (TV version retitled Forbidden Paradise), prod. Dino De Laurentiis Company, Famous Films, dir.  Jan Troell, starring Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow.
  • The Dark River, 1938, (with C. Nordhoff)
  • The Friends, 1939
  • Dr Dogbody's Leg, 1940
  • Oh Millersville!, 1940 (as Fern Gravel)
  • No More Gas, 1940 (with C. Nordhoff) - Film adaptation: The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942), prod. Sol Lesser Productions, dir.  Charles Vidor, starring Charles Laughton, Jon Hall, Peggy Drake, Victor Francen. 
  • Botany Bay, 1941 (with C. Nordhoff) - Film adaptation in 1952, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir.  John Farrow, screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, starring James Mason, Alan Ladd, Patricia Medina, Cedric Hardwicke.
  • Men Without Country, 1942 (with C. Nordhoff) - Film adaptation: Passage to Marseille (1944), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, screenplay Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt, dir.  Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Michèle Morgan, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Philip Dorn.
  • Under a Thatched Roof, 1942
  • Lost Island, 1944
  • High Barbaree, 1945 (with C. Nordhoff) - Film adaptation in 1947, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir.  Jack Conway, starring Van Johnson, June Allyson, Thomas Mitchell, Marilyn Maxwell.
  • A Word for His Sponsor, a Narrative Poem, 1949
  • The Far Lands, 1950
  • Her Daddy's Best Ice Cream, 1952
  • The Forgotten One and Other True Tales of the South Seas, 1952
  • My Island Home, 1952
  • Doctor Dogbody's Leg, 1998 (introduction by Dean King)
  • Mother Goose Land, 2001 (color illustrations by Pat Hall; original 1930's black and white illustrations by H.I. Bacharach)
  • Faery Lands of the South Seas, 2001 (with C. Nordhoff;  introduction by Mike and Carol Resnick, series editors)
  • Her Daddy's Best Ice Cream, 2003 (original black and white illustrations by Gluyas Williams, 1952)
  • Kitchener's Mob: A Firsthand Account of the Adventures of an American Volunteer in the British Army during the First World War, 2009 (Red and Black Publishers)

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