This weeks journey into prehistory is the movie adaptation of Jean M. Auel’s popular novel, Clan of the Cave Bear. The novel started a whole series of books (which got their final installment in 2011..nearly a decade after the previous entry…so you’re not alone, Game of Thrones fans!) which are quite popular. The movie, however, was a dud, making back only 2 million in sales despite costing 15 million to make. Despite that, I remember the film as being quite enjoyable, and as Ron Howard is set to bring the story to the small screen in a television series this year, I think this ugly duckling’s time may have come.
Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)
During the last great push of the Ice Age, a small community of pre-modern humans are struck by an earthquake that kills all of the tribe except a young girl. Wandering alone and in grief, the girl is set upon by a cave lion, and almost dies. A passing troupe of Neanderthals find the girl, and the soft-hearted medicine woman named Iza takes pity on her (as she is childless) and adopts her despite the child’s strange appearance. She names her Ayla, and sets about teaching her the ways of the clan, especially medicine.
Life with the Flintstones aint great for Ayla. She is inquisitive and adaptable, whereas the Clan is conservative and cautious. The Neanderthals learn their social roles by innate instinct, and therefore cannot understand a child that needs to learn by repetition. Her physical differences and learning troubles are a constant burden to her…though they end up being her salvation.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, as the group identifies itself, is seeking a new shelter, since the earthquake destroyed their old cave. They squabble over the ugly, small outsider, with Iza and the group’s shaman, Creb seeing the child as special, and the men distrusting her as a potential evil omen. The conversation is changed by Ayla discovering a new cave, and she subsequently becomes the tribes good luck charm…though the leader’s son, Broud, begins to harbor a deep hatred for the girl.
Grown to womanhood, Ayla’s slow growth explodes: she is soon is able to perform nearly any task, whereas each member of the Clan is really only good for his one role. She constantly makes social taboos by crossing the rigid gender lines, including the use of weapons, reserved for only men. Her prowess goads Broud, who eventually beats and rapes Ayla, leaving her pregnant. For her resistance to Broud and her use of masculine weaponry, she is exiled, and must survive her pregnancy alone if she is to be re-admitted to the Clan.
Re-Inventing the Wheel
Ayla is given a crash course in survivalist living, though unlike Bear Grylls, she sticks to just plain old water. Alone, she masters how to hunt with a slingshot, make and conserve fire, create superior clothing, and improvise shelter outside of naturally occurring caves.
The film (like the books) excels at being speculative history, showing a plausible vision of how early man, both pre-modern and Neanderthal, survived. In short order, we’re given two unique and engaging peoples. The Clan is silent, communicates with gestures, functions on an almost instinctual level, and is more animalistic, yet possesses tools, culture, a social structure, and a rich spiritual life. Ayla is weak, slow to develop, incautious and impulsive, yet clearly possesses the nascent potential that will eventually give her people the edge in the prehistoric arms race. Both are fascinating, and both are shown with great attention and care by the film. Unlike Ringo Starr’s life of happy coincidence, when Ayla makes a discovery, you can really believe that it may have actually happened that way.
Survival of the Fittest
Clan of the Cave Bear did not fare well with viewers, which is a shame since I can’t find any major faults with the drama. It’s well paced, has gorgeous visuals of the natural scenery, doesn’t suffer from any bad acting (though since there is so much pantomime, it’s not exactly Shakespeare either,) and tells an engaging coming-of-(Ice) age story. Perhaps the mature story arc involving rape and abandonment put viewers off, or perhaps the glut of Cavemen movies that came out of the early 1980’s just had reached saturation. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Clan of the Cave Bear (both the movie and books…well, book, since the sequels all became essentially Caveman porn.) If you’re interested in the new series coming out, or the last book of the series made you hungry to spend more time with Ayla, check this flick out.