Who’s Afraid of Steppenwolf?

Treatise on a Hesse Mess

As Steamboat Willie sailed into the public domain, media pundits fanned its fire with hot-takes about what it means for the Mouse House. The professional fretting was so distracting that another work silently slipped into the public domain sans ceremony.

Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

Technically, Hesse’s quasi-autobiographical love letter to Jungian analysis became public domain last year, but no one noticed until now. That is except Emily Temple, the managing editor at Lit Hub, who dutifully listed it among brighter lights whose copyright also expired, including Kafka’s Amerika and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

This means that in Amerika (that’s how we’re spelling it now, right?), we reserve the right to do whatever we want with the texts — like, say, make an unholy mashup called SteppenWoolf.

It couldn’t be any worse than the original Steppenwolf, a book I love to hate. Now, we can all hate it for free. More importantly, we can adapt, overcome, and improvise with the Jung-sprung work to our heart’s content. And by “content,” I mean “CONtent,” which is the coin of the realm for us micro-moguls, especially regarding name-brand intellectual property. 

That said, I’m not sure the cachet of brand Hesse has endured, as indicated by autocorrect insisting his name is “Jesse.”

Lost in Adaptation

Admittedly, I never finished Jesse’s book. The nested narrative (a “lost” manuscript with an “introduction” by the protagonist’s landlady’s nephew, with a “transcription” of a psych pamphlet stuffed in the middle of it), not to mention the dormy, bong-drawn “revelations” in prose denser than the blackhole found between a Freshman’s ears, was enough to turn me off.   

Likewise, I couldn’t finish the 1974 movie, which leveraged Hesse’s brief embrace by the then-waning counterculture. It starred Max Von Sydow as the author’s doppelganger, Harry Haller, perfectly cast in an imperfect if faithful-ish adaptation by writer-director Fred Haines, whose prior directing credit was the doc Muhammad Ali: The Baddest Daddy in the Whole World.

Had I discovered that Haines and I lived within blocks of each other in Venice, CA, in the early aughts, I would have graffitied “For Mad Men Only” on his door like the book and his film. Actually, no, but I might’ve asked what drew him to the work such that he endured seven years of pre-production madness, raising money and courting talent.

The producers offered Michelangelo Antonioni a cool million to direct, but he declared the book unfilmable. Eventually, the job went to the screenwriter Haines (for a rip-roaring account of this process, check out this Guardian piece by Jenny Fabian, circa 2000). Haines had written the Osar-nominated, adapted screenplay for James Joyce’s Ulysses, another notoriously unfilmable book, so why not?

And then, disaster: 

As Lawrence Van Gelder wrote for the New York Times, Haines approached the “…exploration of the spiritual and sensual elements of human personality with the all-too-familiar translational reverence that preserves literature while creating stillborn cinema.”

And later:

“…Harry emerges as an insufferable case of attenuated adolescence. He probably should have been left forever to the printed page… To trot him out in real theaters, with his 48-year-old’s face and his 14-year-old’s confusions, is a cruelty I suspect Mr. Haines never intended.”

New Domains

I should be more charitable regarding the whole Steppenwolf debacle. In 1961, Hesse penned a brief introductory note to a re-release of Steppenwolf, in which he remarked, ”…of all my books, Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other.” 

I wouldn’t know. After completing neither the book nor the film, I’ve gleefully added to the confusion with a feature film, Werewolf Serenade, that satirically nods to Hesse’s material whilst subverting Hesse’s metaphoric “wolf of the steppes” into a werewolf. Collaborator Kary Hess even created a new “edition” of the book for this purpose (see above photo) because she could, thanks to the lapsed copyright. Also, she’s a Hess (close enough), so she’s grandfathered in, right? Speaking of “grandfathered-in” — Hesse’s granddaughter appeared in a small role in Haine’s film. Nepo babies everywhere.

Instead of making our own prop edition of Steppenwolf, I suppose we could’ve used Kurt Beals’ new translation, which coincided with the book’s copyright expiration in 2023 (well played, Kurt). Beals’ book sidesteps Haines’ “translational reverence” in a “painstakingly reckless rendition” that reveals an “odd, ungainly imaginative power,” writes Steve Donoghue in the Open Letters Review). 

I hope Werewolf Serenade garners similar praise. At present writing, it’s the best Steppenwolf hat-tip coming to a screen near you anytime soon. Except the original, whose copyright is held by a firm in Mumbai but abandoned on YouTube.

I think ours is better. Sure, the references may be fast and loose, but they fit tightly — like a flea collar.

Points of Reference

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2 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Steppenwolf?”

  1. Daeds,

    Much as I love a clever review of unread (or at least partially-read) lit gems, I am left with a question already partially answered: have you read the complete body of Hesse’s work? Clearly not, ref. Steppenwolf, but have you read/completed any of his other works? I spent a lost summer in Adobe Canyon reading all his works (from Beneath the Wheel on), through Glass Bead Game, Godel, Escher, Bach, Ibsen (complete), and Chekov in a futile fifth run at Ulysses. I confess total failure with that book. Portrait has sustained me since freshman college (required reading for all incoming frothers.

    I would think that Wheel, Gertrud and Demian would have appealed to you immensely, but what do I know. Siddartha mumbles for itself.

    Glad you’re back in the saddle — Jay

    1. Demian! Read that in my late teens — perfect time for it and it definitely resonated. At the “age appropriate” age of 50, I attempted Steppenwolf once again and ended up with a movie — go figure, haha.

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