Saturday, 3 January 2004

Patrick O’Brian on page and screen

Listening to:

Sidney Bechet, Runnin’ wild. New Orleans, “Dixieland”-style jazz from 1949 and 1950. The true connoisseurs of the day apparently deprecated it as retro and archaic. Yes, this style of jazz had its heyday in the 1920s, but people less hung up on how things should be, simply appreciate it as stylish, exciting music-making. From the 21st century, it’s all equally old, and all the stars are equally dead.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The thirteen-gun salute.

This is an enjoyable addition to O’Brian’s series of novels. There’s not a lot of naval combat, but there’s lot of naval life, and drama. Some of the drama is life-threatening, but more is concerned with personal relationships and how these can play out when people are crammed together on a confined man-of-war. Stephen Maturin gets to play a useful rôle in diplomatic negotiations, but is also allowed a naturalist’s holiday, and enjoys the company of orangutans in and around a Buddhist temple. The perfidious French and their agents come to a sticky end, but our heroes also end the novel as ship-wrecked sailors on a remote island. Roll on the next book (The nutmeg of consolation).

A recent movie:

Master and commander: the far side of the world. Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey is actually pretty good. Occasionally, I felt he was starting to sound a bit too much like James T. Kirk, but then, Kirk was modelled on James Cook, so what better model could Crowe have? I was less happy with Maturin. The actor was fine, but the adaptation to film completely ignored the diplomatic and espionage facets of his activities and character. In the film, he is a surgeon and a naturalist only. I felt this as a loss, though I can well believe that the film-makers felt that trying to fit it all into the one film would be too difficult.

The naval battles were very impressive. The explosive crash and terror of cannons was very well conveyed, and I got a strong impression of the way in which a whole crew had to work together to pursue its goals. There were also a number of vivid images of the ship at rest (or at least, not at battle) that conveyed the nature of ship-board life. For example, the film opens with a shot of many hammocks strung up below decks, with sleeping sailors crammed together. Later, there is also an impressive aerial shot of the crew assembling on deck, emerging like a host of ants from below, and rapidly forming into an ordered mass. Ship-life is also well-conveyed by sub-plots involving various minor characters.

Plot-wise, the film has only a superficial resemblance to the novel The far side of the world. In both film and book, Aubrey pursues an enemy ship around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, and stops off at the Galapagos islands. In the book, it’s 1812, and the enemy ship is American. In the film, it’s 1805 and the ship is French. In the book, the enemy ship is destroyed by nature, and the climax takes place on a deserted island where the two enemy crews have had to take refuge. In the film, there is a big naval battle to finish things off. I wasn’t too bothered by any of this, though it’s very easy to be cynical about the motives for the change in nationality of the bad guys.

More significant to my mind was the admission that Aubrey is exceeding his orders in pursuing the ship ’round Cape Horn. This doesn’t ring true to Aubrey’s character in the books. There he’s adventurous, but he is also very concerned about his status in the naval list, and keen to make sure that his career progresses well. In awarding marks for fidelity to source material, I will happily let plot go by the board (particularly if, as with O’Brian, plot isn’t hugely important in the feel of the books), but I do want to see tone and character retained. In this way, M&C: tFSotW seemed not quite right, though close.

The films of The Lord of the Rings make an interesting contrast. They include some glaring “tonal errors”, but they have at least succeeded with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Their characters are not necessarily perfectly realised, but the dynamic between them, and its development is definitely well done. The Aubrey-Maturin relationship is much more static through the O’Brian novels. There’s very little development to portray, which means that I want the relationship from the books done as well as possible in the film. In terms of plot, the LotR is different again: getting the plot right is important there because the story is an epic, and the plot dominates.

But I’ll give you the low-down on the LotR films when I’ve seen The Return of the King.