Treasure Island

Them that die’ll be the lucky ones

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) is the novel that propagated virtually every popular misconception about Caribbean pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy: parrots on shoulders, “arr matey” dialect, the Black Spot, one-legged seamen, schooners, buried treasure, deserted tropical islands, and maps marked with an “X” – that’s right, none of it is real.  The main themes of the novel, namely friendship, a boy’s coming-of-age, and the ambiguity of morality (and thus masculinity) were rare for the time (and to an extent still are), but are reflected incredibly well through each of the novel’s chapters; this, along with the story’s atmosphere, action, and sense of adventure, have resulted in Treasure Island being one of the most adapted (and ripped-off) pieces of long literature in the history of the English canon.

You’d think, then, a fairly accurate adaptation would be pretty easy to do in 2012.  After all, the novel was written with young boys as a target audience, so the narrative never becomes twisted, confusing, or laced with literary devices that might pass over an unseasoned reader’s head.  With the technology available to big-budget filmmakers, new adaptations of books could be masterful pieces of art, despite being a medium far inferior to the written work, and generate some new interest in canonized diamonds of literature.  But there is an obsessive need in the film world (and not just Hollywood) to make a piece one’s own, and while you can do that with stylistic direction, editing, and set design, you are not allowed to change the fundamentals of the original in order to make it your own story; at that point, you’re just plagiarizing.  When I did my adaptation of two stories from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (Wings Over Arda: The First Age), I kept in mind that I was doing this in part as a writing/film project, but also out of love for the original material.  The only gaps I had to fill in were dialogue gaps, as Tolkien’s piece was written as mythology (i.e. heavy summary is involved).  As a result, folks thrice my age who were reading Tolkien before my parents even met have expressed joy at my “accurate” adaptation, and this was accomplished with one camera and one local bank account.  Canadian author Douglas Glover called the project “an amazing adventure” and said, “What’s most exciting is that this isn’t some big budget extravaganza, no Hollywood packaging deal; this is real people who haven’t waited for the money gods to touch them or for their degrees from USC film school, people just following their passion and making art.”  Perhaps the key is that I don’t want to be a filmmaker; I just wanted to do a film project that focused on writing, or, more likely, that I realized that this piece of writing is someone else’s – I love the original story; why would I want to change it?  What gives me the RIGHT to?  I consider the screenplay and final film my own work, but the story certainly doesn’t belong to me.  During production, I kept a film diary, which was published and can be seen in Numero Cinq Magazine if you’re interested in how this came about.

So how does director Steve Barron deal with his film’s source material?  Let’s take a look.  For those who may not be familiar with Stevenson’s work, Treasure Island is narrated by Jim Hawkins (played here by young British actor Toby Regbo), the son of the owners of the Admiral Benbow Inn, Black Hill Cove, in the mid-18th century.  In the novel, a mysterious wayward seaman who asks to be identified only as “The Captain” pays a generous sum for an extended stay at the inn, and he becomes something of a local treasure because the locals love his tales of seafaring and buccaneering.  One day, however, his former shipmates – ne’er-do-well pirates – violently attack the Benbow in search of a treasure map the Captain holds (his name is also revealed as Billy Bones, now one of the most famous pirate characters in literature).  Jim escapes with the map, having rifled through Bones’ sea chest in search of the money he owed the inn, and meets with Dr. Livesy (Daniel Mays), and along with Squire Trelawney (Rupert Penry-Jones), determines that the “X” on the map marks the location of a fabulous treasure (worth roughly 700,000 British pounds) long-ago buried by the infamous Captain Flint, for whom Bones worked as first mate.  The trio plan a voyage to the island where the treasure lies, hiring a crew that includes sea cook Long John Silver (played in this adaptation by the adept Eddie Izzard), who brings several of his mates onboard.  Barron’s film handles these early scenes relatively well as far as pacing goes, aside from the inexplicable (yet inspired) choice to portray Bones (David Harewood) as Jamaican, but the atmosphere and classic seagoing intrigue of the novels is subverted by a somewhat indulgent decision to place a prologue at the front of the film, depicting Captain Flint (Donald Sutherland) burying the treasure and mistreating/murdering some of his crew.  This not only eliminates any mystery surrounding the original voyage, but also spoils the fact that Silver and the crewmates he brought along were, along with Bones, members of Flint’s original crew, who believe the treasure is rightfully theirs.  This prologue reeks of studio intervention – a direct order to immediately and obligatorily establish the fact that Donald Sutherland, Eddie Izzard, and Elijah Wood are in this film – as well as falling into an action-movie trap.  Additionally, a short scene before the final raid on the Benbow gives away the fact that Silver is the one sending pirates to retrieve the map from Bones, spoiling Bones’ wonderfully cryptic warnings in the novel about a one-legged man:

He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weathereye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” 

Even Muppet Treasure Island got that right.  Why the shameless exposition?  Why eliminate any and all mystery surrounding the voyage?  No matter, the plot structure remains generally the same, with Jim and the crew meeting Silver at the docks of Bristol.  Once the ship reaches the island, Silver leads a mutiny, planning to murder those who don’t acknowledge him as captain and help him obtain the treasure.  Up to this point, Jim and Silver develop something of a father-son relationship, and even after the iconic (and endlessly copied) scene in which Jim overhears the pirates’ dastardly scheme while hiding in an apple barrel, we still want to like Long John.  Why?  Because of his gift of language and his kind disposition throughout the entire voyage:

All the crew respected and even obeyed [Long John Silver]. He had a way of talking to each and doing everybody some particular service. To me he was unweariedly kind, and always glad to see me in the galley, which he kept as clean as a new pin, the dishes hanging up burnished and his parrot in a cage in one corner.   

Considering Silver’s plan, it’s in his best interest to get everyone to like him, but this hardly changes the fact that he’s making the ship a better place by being so kind and cheerful.  Despite his true feelings for the ship’s officers, this makes him a more likeable character (and thus one we continually want to trust) than pirates like Israel Hands (played by Geoff Bell and named after the real-life Blackbeard’s first mate), who is so hateful he can’t even pretend to be a decent human being.  Much of this is preserved in the film, but is delivered mostly through exposition in the interest of furthering the action.  As the voyage begins, Izzard’s Long John tells Jim flat-out that the two of them will become close on this voyage.  The problem in the film is that we already know Silver is a bad guy and are simply awaiting his betrayal, whereas in the novel there blooms a declamatory heartbreak when Jim hears Silver recruiting other crewmates to his cause by using the same flattery he used on Jim.

I get the sense that the filmmakers wanted to preserve Silver’s nebulous morality, but were unable to translate Stevenson’s narrative ingenuity to the screen, so they decided that the only solution was to introduce someone even worse.  This duty falls on Trelawney, who in the novel is one of the four major heroes, somewhat of a pompous buffoon at the outset, but described as the “most liberal of men.”  In the film, however, he is viciously transformed into a secondary antagonist, appearing from the get-go as a self-absorbed fop who cares nothing for human life and is interested in the voyage only to obtain the treasure.  At the film’s end, Jim decides to toss the treasure overboard, to the chagrin of Trelawney, who attacks Jim and is stopped by Silver.  He later drowns trying to retrieve the sunken gold.  This is not only a gross and somewhat irresponsible transmogrification of a character and a stretch to prove Silver’s fondness for Jim, but it also jumbles the themes of the novel: the story now becomes less about ambiguous morality and more about the dangers of greed vs. basic human righteousness.  This would be fine if Barron’s film were an original pirate story, but the tropes involving a villain killed by his own greed and a former villain redeeming himself in a moment of epiphany, while as archetypical as some of Stevenson’s material seems now, have been done countless times before, and not by Stevenson, which not only render them cliche’, but serve more to remind a viewer of other movies they’ve seen.  This is wrong to me on many levels, namely the fact that new viewers may take these events as the events of the novel, dismissing the story as stock adventure fluff and not the mystifying piece of work it is (never underestimate stupidity – I’ve heard from more than one person who thought The Lord of the Rings novels were based upon Peter Jackson’s films).

The theme of morality is further stripped down in another near-ending scene, in which the remaining mutineers (people so bad they’ve even mutinied against Silver after being unable to find the treasure) are disposed of by Livesy and Captain Smollet (Philip Glenister).  In the novel, the evillest of pirates are not killed, but marooned on the island:

The three fellows must have been watching us closer than we thought for, as we soon had proved. For coming through the narrows, we had to lie very near the southern point, and there we saw all three of them kneeling together on a spit of sand, with their arms raised in supplication. It went to all our hearts, I think, to leave them in that wretched state; but we could not risk another mutiny; and to take them home for the gibbet would have been a cruel sort of kindness. The doctor hailed them and told them of the stores we had left, and where they were to find them. But they continued to call us by name and appeal to us, for God’s sake, to be merciful and not leave them to die in such a place.

Stevenson very deliberately includes the lines about calling the crew by name and appealing to them “for God’s sake, to be merciful.” This is a clear commentary about our responsibility to our fellow human beings: no matter how bad these pirates were, do they deserve this fate?  This theme is finalized by the fact that Stevenson leaves the reader to form her/his own conclusions about the crew’s decision, as well as the fact that Long John is allowed to escape with some of the treasure and probably, as Jim muses, “met his [wife], and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot].  It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.”  Stevenson’s adroitness is swept away by the filmmakers in favor of an action-movie climax and a happy/morally sound ending.  Instead of being released by the fearful Ben Gunn (Elijah Wood in this adaptation) and stealing some gold for himself, Silver is set free by Jim, who willingly hands the former a bag of treasure and promises to seek him out should he ever want more adventure.  The moral implications here are dubious at best, and provide way too clean an ending to a story built upon a foundation of ambiguity.

There are also needless sideplots involving Silver’s wife (Nina Sosanya) and Jim’s mother (Shirley Henderson), which would be great if they got us anywhere, as well as Ben Gunn, a maroon who served as a primary ally in the novel but provides little more than a distraction here.  Here’s an idea: you have three hours to tell this story.  Why not concentrate on getting the major characters and plot events nailed down instead of throwing stuff in?  You know I’m gung-ho about the female presence in stories and film, but when we’re reminded every two seconds that these women may be forced into prostitution should the voyage not succeed (reminders which include onscreen abuse by men), any pretense of allowing female characters to subvert their surroundings is obliterated.  The new Moby-Dick film, which also breached three hours, hit some good notes, but had the same thematic issues, as well as anachronistic dialogue and distracting side-stories invented by the filmmakers.

It all seems a waste because Izzard’s performance is so good.  This would have been much better as a derivative-but-new pirate story; the filmmakers even shy away from some of the story’s highlights that have become tradition, including the “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” song (a made-up sea chanty written by Stevenson for the novel) and the cleverness of Silver naming his parrot Captain Flint in mockery of his former leader – both of these were ripped off by the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but these filmmakers, while briefly alluding to these things, seem afraid to make them prime surface material lest viewers think they ripped off the Disney movies.  This is a dangerous example of our techno-phile society in which film and TV and pop nonsense are suddenly the apparent roots of all culture.  And we wonder why adaptations of classic novels have been reduced to TV miniseries?

I am thankful, however, that this adaptation slipped under the radar, and a film like Jane Eyre received a theatrical release.  There’s still hope (only if you pick up a book, though).

Treasure Island (2012); written Stewart Harcourt; adapted from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; directed by Steve Barron; starring Toby Regbo, Eddie Izzard, and Shirley Henderson.