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November 15, 2003

TT: One way or the other

I very much like what Our Girl wrote about not letting herself get freaked out in advance by the reviews of Master and Commander (though now that they're out, I'd say she doesn't have much to get freaked out about).

In my own case, I'm trying to prepare myself not to get freaked out by the differences between the movie and the books. So far, I've only read one unfavorable review, by Christopher Hitchens, a reflexive contrarian who likes nothing better than to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, even when it's right and he's wrong. Yet it's obvious that Hitchens knows Patrick O'Brian's books extremely well, for he unhesitatingly put his finger on a key aspect of the film about which the trailer left me extremely suspicious: the way it portrays Stephen Maturin.

The summa of O'Brian's genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth--and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte's betrayal of the principles of 1789--principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure.

On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project. As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history. At one point he is made to say in an English accent that he is Irish--but that's the only hint we get. In the books, for example, he quarrels badly with Aubrey about Lord Nelson's support for slavery. But here a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.

I regret to say that all this sounds dangerously plausible to me. I've read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series several times and admire it greatly (if not uncritically), but I also think its virtues, which I tried to describe when I reviewed The Yellow Admiral (one of the later volumes in the series) for the New York Times Book Review, are of a sort not easily transferred to the screen, in part because they are embodied as much in conversation as in action:

Mr. O'Brian's present popularity is to some extent a fad, but it is also justified. To say that his books are a cut above the average historical novel is to miss the point: Aubrey and Maturin are to Capt. Horatio Hornblower what Philip Marlowe is to Perry Mason....In the end, what makes the Aubrey-Maturin novels memorable is their moral gravity: rarely does one encounter in nominally popular fiction so Trollopian an understanding--and acceptance--of the divided nature of men's souls. Mr. O'Brian does not deal in cardboard heroes, which is why the acts of heroism he describes make so powerful an impression. We read him for his plots; we reread him for his philosophy.

I hasten to point out, however, that this is all the more reason to try and forget about the books when watching the film. A faithful film adaptation of a novel of any considerable literary complexity can never be more than a species of illustration--a commentary at best, a comic book at worst. To watch it inevitably becomes a kind of game in which the viewer scores the film according to how many surface details the director gets right. Do the actors look the way they "ought" to? Are the sets convincing? Does the dialogue sound familiar? It's a good game, but it has nothing to do with art.

The smarter approach, of course, is for the director to depart drastically from the source--to subject it to an imaginative transformation that gives the adaptation an independent life as a free-standing art object in its own right. (It's easier to turn a great novel into a great opera than a great film.) But if you do that, you're likely to lose a significant part of the pre-sold audience of loyal fans whose existence is the main reason why popular books get filmed in the first place. As far as they're concerned, the more literal the adaptation, the better--and I, hardened aesthete though I am, can't keep myself from feeling the same way. As Dr. Johnson might have put it, I rejoice to concur with the common reader, even though I know I shouldn't.

Hence I'm of two minds about Master and Commander. I'm well aware that it won't convey more than a fractional part of the subtleties of O'Brian's novels, but I'm going to see it anyway, checklist in hand, hoping against hope that the images on the screen will at least approximate the ones in my head. And that's why I envy OGIC her blissful ignorance. Unlike me, she'll see the film for what it is and nothing more--and if she likes it enough, she might even feel moved to buy a copy of Master and Commander, the first novel in the series, and find out what Patrick O'Brian is really about. (Nudge, nudge.)

Posted November 15, 2003 1:38 AM

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