FILM FLASHBACK: The Adventures of Huck Finn

April 2, 1993 was a relatively uneventful day in world history at large.

But it has its place in the annals of Mississippi: Governor Kirk Fordice officially proclaimed it “Huckleberry Finn Day,” as it marked the release of Walt Disney Pictures’ The Adventures of Huck Finn, which was filmed primarily on location around Natchez. The proclamation “encourage(d) our citizens to join in the celebration and honor the enduring legacy of the great Mississippi River as well as the adventurous spirit of Huckleberry Finn within us all.”

The film was a modestly budgeted, family-friendly version of the Mark Twain tale that starred the future star of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings series, Elijah Wood, as the title rapscallion. He was 11 at the time of filming and an up-and-coming child actor who had previously appeared in Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990) and starred in Richard Donner’s Radio Flyer (1992).

Since Twain’s novel became public domain in the early part of the 20th century, the story has seen numerous film adaptations dating back to the 1918 silent film Huck and Tom. Three versions had already been made in Mississippi, even: Huckleberry Finn, a 1974 musical version; 1982’s Rascals and Robbers: The Secret Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, a TV movie “sequel” to Twain’s novel; and 1985’s The Adventures of Con Sawyer and Hucklemary Finn, a gender-swapped ABC Weekend Special.  

In the early ‘90s, Disney’s Huck Finn was one of three competing versions of the story that were in development. Tristar also had a version in the works, and Fox was reportedly developing a modernized version called Black Cat Bone from a script by none other than teen movie wizard John Hughes. Neither of those saw the light of day after Disney’s adaptation was fast-tracked into production.

Filming of Huck Finn was set to begin on Aug. 26, 1992. Things got off to a rocky start when Hurricane Andrew hit the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and continued northeast after landfall, drenching the Natchez area with heavy rains. The shooting schedule was quickly revised to indoors at the Twin Oaks mansion in Natchez, just one of many recognizable locations used in the film. The waterfall scenes on Jackson’s Island were shot at Owen’s Creek on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Grangerfords’ mansion in the film is Dunleith Historic Inn in Natchez. Other scenes were shot at Natchez locations like China Grove Plantation, Saragossa Plantation, Stanton Hall, Natchez Under the Hill and Rosalie Mansion. Historic Jefferson College in nearby Washington served as the town of Phelps Landing. And several scenes were shot on the Mississippi River itself, although its equally mighty tributary the Big Black River served as its double for several scenes, too.

Huck Finn features a talented, recognizable cast in addition to main star Wood. Courtney B. Vance stars as Jim, his breakout role before he became a fixture of TV’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Oscar winner Jason Robards (All the President’s Men) and Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter series) star as The King and The Duke, respectively. The late Ann Heche had an early role as Mary Jane Wilks. And character actor Ron Perlman (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) plays Pap Finn. He recently returned to Mississippi to star in the upcoming Joe Baby, shot on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2022.

There was a lot of talent behind the camera, too. It was directed by Stephen Sommers, who would go on to help define the special effects blockbusters of the new millennium with 1999’s The Mummy. The film’s cinematography was done by Janusz Kaminski, who would soon win his first Oscar for 1993’s Schindler’s List, which began his long-running collaboration with director Steven Spielberg that also earned him an Oscar for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. And the score was by Oscar winner Bill Conti (The Right Stuff).

Mississippi premieres for The Adventures of Huck Finn were held at Parkway Place Theater in Flowood on March 30, 1993 and at the Natchez Mall Cinema on April 1, 1993. The film debuted at no. 2 at the box office slightly behind the top earner, the Burt Reynolds comedy Cop and a Half, but ahead of the Alicia Silverstone-starring thriller The Crush. Huck Finn went on to gross $24 million.

The Adventures of Huck Finn is rated PG for some mild violence and language. It is available on DVD, streaming on Disney Plus and available to rent from services like Amazon Prime and Vudu.