Random Musings: The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island

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    Secret of Skeleton Island DVD

         A little over two years ago, I wrote about the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators Mystery Series, which was published by Random House from 1964-1987, and which I consider one of the best— if not the best— juvenile mystery series ever written.

         Today, I’m going to talk about one of the two recent movies based on that series. But first, a quick review of the T3I:

         Created by Robert Arthur, whose credits include co-creation of the radio program The Mysterious Traveler; and editing or ghost-editing various Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators focused on Rocky Beach, California-based teen detectives Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews. Their ages are never given, but from context clues, I’d peg them at 14 or 15. Jupe, the leader, is sharp of mind and stocky of build, leading many people to underestimate him because of his appearance. He also often outvotes Pete and Bob 1 to 2.

         Pete is athletic, but prefers taking on more run-of-the-mill cases. No whispering mummies for him, thank you. He’d rather look for a lost cat.

         Bob, slight of build, handles records and research through his part-time job at the library. He’s also a bit more courageous than Pete.

         To my mind, the series stood above the competition for several reasons. First, Arthur, who wrote 10 of the 43 books in the series before his death, didn’t talk down to his readers. He respected their intelligence. His 10 books also followed a definite chronology.

         Second, the Three Investigators were independent detectives. None of their family members were police officers or private detectives. Unlike Frank and Joe Hardy, who often just happened to end up investigating something related to a case their private investigator father had undertaken, Jupe, Pete and Bob were either specifically hired or became involved in cases through their own observations or discoveries.

         Third, by incorporating a real person— Alfred Hitchcock— the series had the illusion of verisimilitude. When I read the books as a kid, I knew, deep down, that Jupe, Pete and Bob were fictional characters, but having Hitchcock interact with them made it easier to pretend otherwise. From what I’ve heard from other Three Investigators fans, I’m not the only one.

         Of course Hitchcock was not involved with the books; he just allowed his name to be used.

         It’s not clear why Random House stopped publishing the series. New books continue to be published in Germany, and they’re still “introduced” by Hitchcock (who died in 1980). Apparently, neither the German publisher nor the readers over there care about that minor detail (In the U.S., books 31-43 in the series were “introduced” by the fictional character of Hector Sebastian).

         Now to the first of the two movies.

         In 2007, the German company Studio Hamburg released The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island, followed in 2009 by The Three Investigators and the Secret of Terror Castle. Both movies, loosely based on the books of the same name, were filmed (in both English and German language versions) in Cape Town, South Africa, and starred American actors Chancellor Miller, Nick Price and Cameron Monaghan as Jupe, Pete and Bob, respectively.

         Last month, The Secret of Skeleton Island came to DVD in the U.S., and I got my copy yesterday. Both movies had been shown on the Disney XD channel in 2010, but to the best of my knowledge, this DVD release marks the first time the majority of people in the U.S. are able to see this film.

         So, how does the film version of The Secret of Skeleton Island compare with the book; and how does it hold up as a movie in its own right?

    Secret of Skeleton Island book

         Both the plot and setting are different. The book concerns an East Coast amusement park, a troubled movie set, and a ghost on a merry-go-round; and Jupe, Pete and Bob help a Greek boy named Chris. In the movie, Skeleton Island is off the coast of South Africa; the plot involves hidden treasure and a curse involving a Tokolosh; and a South African girl named Chris hires the boys to prove her father innocent of certain crimes.

         I enjoyed the actors’ characterizations, though the Jupe, Pete and Bob of the films aren’t quite the same as the boys as depicted in the books. The Jupe of the films is nowhere near as stocky as the Jupe in the books, for example. While I liked Chancellor Miller’s performance, it would have been nice if a heavier actor had been cast as the firm’s super smart leader. I’d liked to have seen people underestimate the Jupe of the movies the way they did the Jupe of the books.

         Still, the actors capture the essence of who the boys are, though Bob and Pete are a bit more comic relief than in the books. In The Secret of Skeleton Island, Bob has to put up with the clothes his mom packed for him, as well as an overloaded backpack of gear.

         I thought the mystery itself was fairly well done, and have to admit I was surprised at the revelation concerning a particular character. I can’t say any more without venturing into “spoiler” territory.

         I also liked the “puzzle” in the tomb.

         On the other hand, where Pete’s plane ticket ends up after he loses it while the boys are paragliding is something that could only happen in a movie.

         While some Three Investigators fans may have preferred that the movies hewed closer to the plot of the books (save that it concerns a California haunted house, the film version of The Secret of Terror Castle is very different from the source material) and/or that they’d been set in the 1960s, I think both films capture the spirit of the series. That’s the key thing. Maybe young viewers (and/or their parents) will try to seek out the books.

         Plus, while the books are superior, the films are enjoyable in and of themselves.

         When or if The Secret of Terror Castle is released commercially on DVD, I’ll get that one, too.

         Neither film is
    perfect (I originally saw them thanks to a fan in England), but they do mark the first time (in the U.S. at least) The Three Investigators have been depicted on either the big or small screen.

         Something that should have happened a long time ago.

         On a related note, I recommend Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries, which was ghost-written by Robert Arthur, and which centers around young protagonists. Seth Smolinske, owner of one of the most comprehensive Three Investigators websites around, www.threeinvestigatorsbooks.com/, argues that this anthology, which he calls “Arthur’s masterpiece”, is the true genesis of The Three Investigators.

    Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating


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