Often, the book is better than the film.
But in the case of WHERE THE BOYS ARE (1960), skip Glendon Swarthout’s book and just enjoy the movie.
The film and book both follow Midwest college girls traveling to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for their spring vacation in search of love and suntans. But while the movie is fun and charming, the book is frankly vile.
Bear with me because I have a lot to unpack.
I first watched WHERE THE BOYS ARE when I was 14 and loved it. I was eager to read the book and didn’t until this summer at age 32, and I’m thankful I read this as an adult and not a young teen.
The book was written by Glendon Swarthout and published in 1960, with the movie releasing in Dec. 1960. Swarthout also wrote “They Came from Cordura” and “The Shootist,” which were adapted into films.
To follow the review easily, here is a breakdown of the characters in both the film and movie. Several characters in the book and movie are similar, though they interact differently in the book:
|Merrit||Main character, narrator||Played by Dolores Hart|
|Tuggle||Merrit’s friend and travel companion||Played by Paula Prentiss|
|Ryder||A love interest of Merrit’s||Played by George Hamilton and love interest of Merrit|
|TV Thompson||A love interest of Merrit’s||Played by Jim Hutton and the love interest of Tuggle|
|Basil||Jazz musician, love interest of Merrit’s||Played by Frank Gorshin and the love interest of Angie (Connie Francis)|
|Quentin||Jazz musician, love interest of Tuggle||Not in the movie|
|Swimming nightclub performer||Ramona||Named Lola Fandango, played by Barbara Nichols|
|Angie||Character not in book||Played by Connie Francis|
|Melanie||Character not in book, but similar to the minor character, Susy||Played by Yvette Mimieux|
The book is written in the point of view of 18-year-old college freshman, Merrit. So … 41-year-old Swarthout is writing in the POV of a college girl. Now, this has been done successfully in cases like “Gidget” by Frederick Kohner, but his novel came from stories directly from his daughter. I can’t say Swarthout was successful in effectively doing this (in my opinion), though I guess in a way he was since it spurred a hit movie that made Fort Lauderdale a travel destination.
Both the movie and the book focus on sex, but in different ways. The movie mainly asks the question of should you “play house” before marriage and if you can get a man without falling into bed. The book is more about Merrit’s sexual experiences. While in the movie, the three male characters each date different characters, in the book they all want Merrit.
And exactly 33 pages in was when I decided I hated the book.
Rape is very casually mentioned in Swarthout’s book.
Merrit goes on a date with Herbert “TV” Thompson and he tells how he got the nickname “TV”:
TV went on a date with a sorority queen and when she refused to sleep with him, he raped her. He panicked, worried she would report it to the police, so he bought her an $800 color TV. The story got around, so he was called TV and couldn’t get any dates or make friends. “To clap the climax he later learned that the queen had round heels for everyone else.”
“There were tears in my eyes. It was the most heart-rendering story I had ever heard.”
That’s right. TV Thompson tells a story about raping a girl … and Merrit feels sorry for him. And it was okay because she had “round heels,” I guess?
Later, a character named Susy tries to commit suicide after three “Yalies” get her drunk and try to rape her. I would compare this to the character of Melanie in the film, which is treated with more drama and gravity. In the book, the suicide and rape of Susy are treated almost flippantly, calling her a “Suicidal Mermaid,” because she tried to drown herself in the pool.
Before the book got offensive, its crime was that it was boring and confusing.
The book is written in a meandering, scattered stream of consciousness where stories overlap in confusing manners. I guess this is meant to give the impression of how a college girl thinks … in Swarthout’s opinion. The book gets convoluted as Swarthout cuts into the main narrative so Merrit can tell a story to explain something unrelated for several pages. While reading, I would forget why we were discussing this second story and what we were doing prior.
• Merrit first meets Basil while he and his jazz band are playing. Basil comes over to ask her for a date. After agreeing, Merrit describes something she learned in a Core Living class for three pages all in one long paragraph.
• While Merrit and Ryder are kissing, the story halts as she turns to “Incidentally, this is why I had decided in high school to become a teacher.” And for five and a half pages, Merrit describes her teaching experiences before we get back to current time.
Swarthout also uses some storytelling methods that I guess you could call clever, but were frankly annoying.
For example, the girls are having an argument with older tourists. To illustrate the yelling and talking over each other, Swarthout wrote a full page of text with no punctuation. I thought “I’m not reading that” and just skimmed.
Other times, he tried to write words phonetically so the reader would get the idea of an accent. However, he did this with a southern police officer, and as a southerner, I had no idea what words I was supposed to be reading.
Film similarities and differences
While the book and movie are fairly different, several tidbits from the book are in the film. But they are simply told in a more charming manner.
The film begins with Merrit in a courtship class taught by elderly Dr. Raunch. Merrit gets in trouble for her discussion on dating and sex. In the book, this is one of the previously mentioned flashbacks that cuts into the story.
In both, TV tells a story about angrily writing a rich lady who complains about her life who sends him money in response. In the book, however, the woman is Barbara Hutton.
Frankly, George Hamilton and Jim Hutton were perfectly cast in the film as Ryder and TV. Paula Prentiss is more how Merrit is described in the book.
In the movie, Merrit is more reserved while she isn’t in the book.
The book is also frankly wild. There is a whole thing about trying to get college kids to go fight in the Cuban revolution — which isn’t in the film.
What was the goal?
The inspiration of the book came when Glendon Swarthout, PhD, then a Michigan State University (MSU) associate English teacher, accepted an invitation to go to Fort Lauderdale with his students. TV Thompson was based on the student who invited him.
“It occurred to me as the week progressed that this would make a very fine novel,” Swarthout told Larry King in a 1985 interview. “I could at the same time write a kind of profile of that particular generation-their aspirations, their hopes, their fears and so on.”
In a 2011 Michigan State article, several MSU professors praise the book for being witty and forward thinking.
For 1960, I will admit that it is forward thinking, especially the depiction of Merrit being sexually active. But at the same time, the female characters face certain consequences for being sexually active, while the boys don’t.
So what was the goal? Was it to slut shame? That sex comes with consequences? Or was it an attempt of saying sex outside of marriage was okay? I’m really not sure.
While the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film was criticized as commercial, I’ll soak in those artificial Cinemascope, Joe Pasternak-produced rays any day over reading this book again.
This article is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past.
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oh wow! The book sounds hella problematic. Thank you for doing the hard work by reading and reviewing this book so we don’t have to!
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I thought it was just me. You made it farther than I managed to. I got to where Basil appeared and threw in the towel. I did read the final two chapters and was completely dismayed. Like the reviewer, I loved the film as a teen but never tried the book until my retirement years. It was incredibly hard to follow and an utter disappointment.