I aspire to call myself a novelist. I've written a ton - ten books that share subject and characters - but I'm not quite there yet. "There" is a relative place and it was the serendipitous intersection of my "professional writing experience" and the 251st anniversary of Admiral Horatio Nelson's birth (today!) that led me to this post... That and an unabashed insatiable appetite for Russell Crowe playing Jack Aubrey. If they had added Jean Laffite all my fantasies would be tied up with a bow.
I heard an editor throw out a remark about the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World recently. It was kind of a bad thing to say to a rabid O'Brian junky, in all fairness. The editor informed me that the movie was a condensation of not one but three (some say four) of Patrick O'Brian's novels. Given that the man has never read O'Brian, I didn't know what to say. Other than to inform him that, by his logic, the movie is a condensation of twenty novels.
So indulge me in a little compare and contrast Brethren, rather than a blow by blow of the film. While I love the movie - the look, the cast, the details of ships and shipping in Nelson's navy are hard to argue with - it is no more O'Brian than I am. Here's why.
Master and Commander, the first book in what is affectionately referred to as O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, was originally published in 1969. Opening in April of 1800, the book introduces us to John Aubrey, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy stuck on Gibraltar without a ship and Stephen Maturin, a half Irish, half Catalan Doctor who is impoverished and out of work. The two become friends over a common love of music and, when Jack is made Master and Commander and given the sloop Sophie, he asks Stephen to join the crew as ship's surgeon. Here's a handsome still of our intrepid heroes - now older and wiser - from the film:
If you've only seen the movie and none of that sounds familiar to you than I hope my point is clear. Peter Weir used no part of M & C in the creation of his script other than the characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. As a matter of fact, the story goes that Master and Commander was tacked on to the name of the film because the studio thought The Far Side of the World didn't sound manly and actiony enough.
Speaking of which, let us poke around at The Far Side of the World for comparison. This is the 10th book in O'Brian's delightful series. Published in 1984, the book is set in 1813. The movie, curiously, is set in 1805. O'Brian claimed to have taken his inspiration from the epic conflagration between USS Essex and HMS Phoebe that culminated in David Porter's Essex being sunk in Valparaiso harbor in 1814. Essex was decimating the English whaling fleet in the South Pacific and Phoebe was sent to stop her. Now this sounds like the movie, right? Kinda.
Of course, you couldn't have the US - during her second war for independence no less - as the villain, so Weir put a French privateer in the place of the American ship. From there, both O'Brian and Weir deviate vastly from the events of the Essex/Phoebe engagement. And Weir's film, which focuses only on Surprise chasing the French privateer Acheron, really has very little to do with O'Brian's book.
Frankly, the book is far more interesting. There is the crazy gunner Horner, who brings his pretty wife aboard ship. Of course this was not uncommon. The problem is Mrs. Horner is much younger than her husband and it is inferred that he may be impotent. She starts an affair with an older midshipman, Hollom, who gets her pregnant. Maturin's assistant performs a sloppy abortion. When Horner finds out he casts the assistant surgeon overboard, throws his wife and Hollom off a cliff on Juan Fernandez Island and ends by hanging himself below decks. Not manly and actiony enough for ya? Or what, too many women?
The book ends with Surprise having to leave men behind (including Jack and Stephen) on an island full of Royal Navy mutineers. The tension is so thick in the last thirty pages of the book that it is nail biting and the blood and guts that ensue make the movie look relatively tame in that department.
The most memorable line - the one that still echoes in my head - comes during the battle between the Surprises and the Hermione mutineers. Jack is fending them off heroically and O'Brian notes - almost off-handedly - that "...Jack's sword arm was red to the elbow." No unnecessary exposition but such a powerful picture that you just know an epic struggle is taking place. That is the freaking genius of O'Brian.
Really, I could go on and on but that's tacky. Weir took handsome dialogue from all 20 books and spliced it into a story, largely of his own making. That doesn't make the movie bad at all. Its a wonderful introduction to Nelson's Navy and the ideas of O'Brian and if you haven't seen it, I encourage you to do so. The acting is impeccable and the action is fun. Plus Russell Crowe is truly large and in charge here while Paul Bettany as Maturin is equal to the challenge of standing up against him (no small task).
Most of all, though, don't think that the movie is the book(s). O'Brian's work is the perfect combination of Conrad and Austen and his impeccable research brings that time of wooden ships and iron men to life. Read Master and Commander or The Far Side of the World and see for yourself. I promise you, it will be time well spent.
And to Admiral Nelson - Huzzah!