I was pleasantly surprised for the first two-thirds of the movie that they followed Kipling’s novel in spirit, if not always faithfully. Dean Stockwell as the young Kim turns in an admirable job—it’s not a role I thought would translate to the screen very well. Errol Flynn’s role of Mahbub Ali was exaggerated in importance to that of the novel, but Flynn tries to impart his former glory to the horse trader and nearly pulls it off. At some point I quit being critical of the differences or failings of the movie and just let it wash over me. For example, Flynn hams it up only pretending to be drunk with the courtesan while spies search for the message revealing the five turncoat rulers. The attempted assassination of Mahbub Ali is foiled in a very different manner, but enjoyably. It is a rollicking tale for about 80 minutes.
Instead of showing Kim three years later after completing school, the movie had the constraint of having to show Kim after only his first year plus Lurgan’s training. I could have lived with the last third of the movie diverging wildly from the book if it had worked, but alas it did not come close to succeeding. The lama’s insistence on traveling north is replaced solely with Kim’s playing The Great Game, hooking up with the Russians (or what should have been one man from Russia and one from France) on his own accord. The book’s comedic tone in the spies’ incompetence, bringing failure on their selves with Hurree Babu’s jester-ish role, is replaced with a more sinister turn. And while I can appreciate the difficulty of trying to show the lama reaching enlightenment, the movie utterly failed to convey the sheer joy and love that the last few pages of the book reveal.
Ultimately the depth of characters is never developed sufficiently to match the novel, emphasizing the action and intrigue instead. One of the major themes is almost completely avoided, that of Kim searching for his identity (“Who is Kim?”) as a Irish orphan in India. The only time it is alluded to is when Kim in sahib-dress astounds natives when he lets loose a stream of invectives and curses of their own country.
One area the movie did well, I thought, was portraying the complexity and danger of playing The Great Game. The man with the scar following Kim until he and Creighton foil his intrigue was a good example. My recommendation is to enjoy the movie on its own terms, especially Errol Flynn, but also read the book for the love and joy demonstrated.