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BOOKS 'Harold and Maude,' revisited
by Liz Baudler
2015-06-10

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Harold and Maude, with its marriage of cynicism and hope, transcends its 1971 release date to find fans of all generation. Initially a box-office disaster, over the years its star has risen, and newfound admirers might be surprised to learn that screenwriter Colin Higgins adapted the script into a novel shortly after the film's debut.

Recently, Chicago Review Press acquired the novel's rights from the Colin Higgins Foundation, and re-released it this May. Chicago Review Press editor Jerry Pohlen waffled when asked the age-old question of "book or movie."

"That's a tough question. Do I have to decide?" he laughed. "The movie has a lot to offer as far as the performances. I just love Ruth Gordon. I love the book too, I think it adds so much to it."

Pohlen remembered reading the book in the 70s, and jumped at the chance to acquire it. "What [the book] does add about the film is information that had sort of been lost, things that occur in the film that you don't really recognize until after you read the book," he added.

While the book closely mirrors its source, it reads not as the film's inspiration or replacement, but as its valuable companion. Of course, Harold is still 19 and morbid, faking his death at every possible opportunity; vivacious Maude is still a week shy of her 80th birthday, swiping cars and looking for trees in trouble. As Pohlen mentioned, the book occasionally provides a humorous back story for the movie, such as Maude's friendship with the sculptor Glaucus, or her penchant for drawing smiles on statues of saints.

Much like the movie, the book has had a resurgence. Out of print in the United States until Chicago Review's new edition, Harold and Maude's novelization found new life overseas. "Ironically in foreign countries, because it is so cleanly and sparely written, it is used as an English primer, so many many foreign versions in English have been published," said Jim Rogers, board member of the Colin Higgins Foundation. He and the foundation have been working tirelessly to preserve Higgins' legacy since the writer's death from AIDS in 1988. Also known for his work on 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Higgins was openly gay and was just 47 when he died.

"He was very modest, self-effacing on the surface, funny shy boyish, extremely witty," said Rogers, who met Higgins at Stanford University while they were both students. "He was a positive energy. He struggled a lot with his sexuality because he was raised Catholic. He explored an awful lot of metaphysics. He was quite contended when he passed on. He felt he had accomplished some things that he wanted and he hoped he had set in motion an ongoing entity that would fulfill some of his vision for humanity. He had a very compassionate human soul. That's what the foundation tries to honor."

After Higgins invited him to write music for a hit campus revue, Rogers abandoned plans for an architecture career and dove into entertainment. Meanwhile, Higgins fell in love with film and after a short stint in the army, earned an MFA in screenwriting at UCLA. By sheer luck, Rogers said, Higgins got a job as a pool boy and chauffeur for film producer Edward Lewis. While he drove Lewis's daughters to school, he regaled them with tales of his third-year project—a script that later became Harold and Maude.

"Mildred Lewis kept hearing from her daughters what a funny story Colin was writing," Rogers said with a chuckle. When she read the screenplay, she loved it, as did her husband, and Edward Lewis used his connections to get the film produced at Paramount Pictures. Rogers blamed its initial poor reception on being rushed into theatres as a replacement for another iconic movie—The Godfather, slated to be that year's Christmas blockbuster, was late.

Ironically, Higgins' beloved film nearly ruined him at the time, said Rogers. After Harold and Maude's poor showing, "Colin could not get a job," he remembered. Luckily Rogers' connections at ABC got Higgins a rebound gig for a TV movie script, and the young screenwriter continued to prove himself thereafter.

According to Rogers, the timing was right for the novel's U.S reprint. Besides the novel's re-release, Rogers said a musical adaptation of Harold and Maude is being developed in England. Higgins himself will be the subject of an upcoming documentary, Celebrating Laughter, and Rogers hopes to hear soon about a star for Higgins on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. All proceeds from the novel's sale go back to the Foundation, which has given more than 3 million dollars to more than 340 groups, including initial funds for the Trevor Project and GLSEN.

Both Pohlen and Rogers agree that Harold and Maude's message, whether in book or movie form, will never go out of style. "Harold and Maude speaks to both youth and life in general," said Rogers. "It's choosing life, celebrating life, celebrating your own life, being who you are."

"The movie is as popular as ever," added Pohlen, who also noted the film's inclusion in the Criterion Collection. "I think it's sort of a timeless story, but it was timeless when it came out."


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