alan little’s weblog

master and commander

25th November 2003 permanent link

I’m a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels (start here). They are definitely the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last ten years, so I was interested and alarmed when I found out (last week – I’m not exactly closely in touch with what Hollywood is up to these days) that one of them has been filmed. This is worrying – I know I’m going to go and see it, and I know I’m probably going to come away feeling disappointed, irritated and personally betrayed by it.

Films of books generally don’t work. I don’t think Lord of the Rings is a great book, but it’s a gripping story and I enjoyed it when I read it in my teens. I’m not particularly impressed by the films – they’re wonderful to look at, but even three unusually long feature films can barely begin to sketch the depth and complexity of what can happen in a book. A book just has more time – time to get inside the minds of the characters, time for the reader to build a world in their mind. A film has to try to get all that visually, in a small fraction of the time – and, these days, do it in a way that appeals to adolescents who want to see things exploding or people being chopped up. Even if the film is good as a film, it will barely be a sketch of what’s in the book and they will dumb the story down and get things wrong.

(On the other hand, films of seafaring books actually have quite a good track record. The Gregory Peck Hornblower film is good, and I know the Hornblower TV series a few years ago also got a good press, although I can’t really comment on it because I only saw one episode. At least films about naval warfare in the Napoleonic era have no problem staying true to the story whilst having things exploding and people being chopped up)

Of course all O’Brian fans have thought about filming the books for years. I’ve talked about it on the phone with my friend Peter in London, most recently last week when I rang up to say “bugger me, somebody’s filmed one of the books” and he said “of course they have, didn’t you know?”. For me, Gerard Depardieu could be a Jack Aubrey - he’s obviously physically right (big, blond and wild-looking) and I think he’s ok as an actor too (e.g. Cyrano de Bergerac) - if it weren’t for the fact that he’s, er, French. (Klaus Kinski - too mad. Aubrey is not remotely Aguirre.) No English-speaking actor immediately springs to mind. Maturin, on the other hand, is easy and obvious - a young John Hurt. (Peter says Robert Carlyle) So there you have the dream team - Depardieu but not French, and John Hurt 30 years ago. Simple.

Apparently there was a rumour that Heath Ledger was going to be cast as Aubrey. OMFG. Heath Ledger starred in The Four Feathers, one of the worst films I have ever seen in my life. I find it, er, unpromising that he might even have been considered.

The director is Peter Weir. I’ve heard the name but don’t know much about him. A quick check on imdb reveals that he’s made he’s made a couple of films I’ve seen, and found entertaining but not especially memorable – Green Card (Depardieu in less Aubreyesque mode), Dead Poets Society, and I think I may have seen Picnic at Hanging Rock on TV years ago, but if so I hardly remember anything about it.

Movielens thinks I’ll rate Master & Commander four out of five, which is interesting. I’ve never actually been to see a film on the strength of a movielens prediction, but it usually guesses about right when I rate films I have seen.

After I wrote most of this, the “Master & Commander, the making of …” documentary was on German TV at the weekend. It was just after England won the rugby world cup final so I was in a good mood, but even so it left me sceptical. They’ve gone to impressive lengths to make it authentic – they actually bought and sailed an actual frigate, and they clearly tried to make the crew training as realistic as possible without actually killing anybody. But Russell Crowe just doesn’t seem right for the Jack Aubrey in my mind. (And English films dubbed into German sound ridiculous – German is more verbose than English, so the actors have to talk absurdly fast to stay in sync. Fortunately there are two English language cinemas in Munich and one of them is showing Master & Commander next week.)

Interesting article on Patrick O’Brian here.

NOTE: When I was in Boston a couple of years ago on business I went to look at the USS Constitution (obviously – what else is an Aubrey fan going to do in Boston?) I talked to one of the crew members who said not only is the Constitution still (sort of) seaworthy, but they actually took her out into Boston Bay for her bicentennial, and he personally went aloft and did things with the sails. Wow. There aren’t many people alive who have done that on an actual in-commission warship.

Disclaimer: my son is not named after Jack Aubrey, although I wouldn’t mind in the least if he were. His mother thought of the name - I just agreed, immediately and enthusiastically.

UPDATE: Brian Tiemann, who IS a huge Tolkien fan, describes the whole waiting for a film of a book you love phenomenon a lot better when he talks about his feelings waiting for The Fellowship Of The Ring: “We awaited opening day with the dread of a train-wreck of which we had foreknowledge, standing in the railway cutting with the camera rolling and a lump in our throats.”

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