Few books have created such a profound shock on the public as Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.” Sinclair’s provocative detailing of the abuses within the early 20th century meatpacking industry generated shock waves that generated considerable debate and resulted in swift government controls over an egregiously unregulated industry
Of course, any best-selling book would be a natural source for film adaptation, but “The Jungle” created distinctive degrees of commercial problems, most specifically in the violent sequences within Sinclair’s work and the author’s unapologetic socialist agenda that permeated his story. While unabashedly pro-labor films were commonplace in the early 1910s, the fiery nature of “The Jungle” seemed like a challenge to translate to the big screen.
And, indeed, “The Jungle” was a mighty effort to transport into the film medium. Three men – George Irving, Augustus Thomas and John H. Pratt – were credited as the directors. Why three directors were needed is not clear, but one can assume the scope of the project was greater than anticipated. Sinclair himself played no role in the screenplay, but he did appear in a small but pivotal role as the Socialist Party orator that converts the main character to his political bent.
What is known of the five-reel film version of “The Jungle” is that is maintained an unusual fidelity to the tone of its muckraking source. Two of the most inflammatory scenes in the book – the killing of the employer that raped the protagonist’s wife and death of a meatpacking plant worker in a rendering vat – were reportedly filmed with shocking intensity.
“All the salient points of Upton Sinclair’s story were dealt with in the film: the struggle of immigrant families, the careless methods of the food factories, the strike and riots following a 20 percent wage reduction, and above all the main themes of the distinction between employer and ‘employed’ and the ‘wide and bridgeless chasm’ between rich and poor,” wrote film historian Peter Snead in his 2013 book “Film and the Working Class: The Feature Film in British and American Society.”
However, M. Keith Booker, in his 1999 book “Film and the American Left,” stated that the film version had a significant difference from its source.
“The film, like the book, emphasizes the inhumanity and unhealthy conditions encountered by Jurgis as he works in Chicago’s meatpacking plants and lives in Chicago’s squalid working-class slums,” wrote Booker, referring to the central character of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus. “Relative to the book, however, the film pays less attention to the living and working conditions of Chicago’s workers and more to the attempts of those workers to improve those conditions and to obtain social justice.”
In order to help attract star-focused audiences, the film brought in several well-regarded actors of the era, including George Nash as the beleaguered Jurgis, Gail Kane as his doomed wife Ona and Julia Hurley as Elzbieta. Margaret Mayo, a prominent playwright and novelist, collaborated on the screenplay with Benjamin S. Kutler. (Sinclair and Mayo had previously collaborated on a four-act stage play based on “The Jungle” in 1906, with Mayo taking the role of Ona, but that endeavor was a critical and commercial failure.)
The film version of “The Jungle” was produced by the All-Star Feature Film Corporation, a company that began operations in 1913 before going out business two years later. The distribution of “The Jungle” was handled on a states right basis, which was not unusual for the era. Because of the incendiary nature of the film, media coverage from the era was highly subjective: newspapers that were sympathetic to Sinclair’s politics seemed to support the film with greater vigor than the newspapers that were diametrically opposed to his opinions. Censors in Chicago, where “The Jungle” takes place, refused to allow the film to be screened for local audiences.
When All-Star Feature Film Corporation went out of business, Sinclair scooped up the film rights from the defunct company. Although he was reportedly not truly enthusiastic about the film version, Sinclair nonetheless made it available for screenings at Socialist Party gatherings, and the film was placed back in release in 1922 under the auspices of a left-wing company called Labor Film Services. However, the physical quality of the well-worn six-year-old print used for the re-release proved to be problematic, resulting in exhibitors cancelling scheduled screenings.
The fate of the film version of “The Jungle” is a mystery. Some sources claim that Sinclair loaned out the last extant print and neglected to collect it. Others sources claim that the film disappeared when the writer was prevented from placing the film back into theatrical release after the 1934 Production Code established a new era of motion picture censorship. Aside from a couple of posters and publicity stills, nothing of the film survives.
The loss of “The Jungle” is particularly tragic because the film might offer a fascinating view in how early American filmmakers handled controversial sociopolitical subject matter. To date, there has been no other cinematic version of the Sinclair novel – an announcement in 2011 that David Schwimmer of TV’s “Friends” had commissioned a new screenplay based on the book has yet to produce a big screen production. Thus, we are left with the unhappy reality that the one and (to date) only attempt to film “The Jungle” is no longer with us.
This article is adapted from Phil Hall’s upcoming book “In Search of Lost Films,” to be released in 2016 by BearManor Media.