Talking Movies

April 15, 2016

Master & Commander: good solid research

Australian director Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World is noteworthy for being remarkably faithless to the letter of the novel on which it is based, The Far Side of the World, and yet admirably faithful to the spirit of the Aubrey/Maturin series of which that novel is the tenth instalment. Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on that adaptation.

It is hard not to watch Weir’s film and be struck by how he is picking lines of dialogue and character moments from disparate books all across the series: one deleted scene alludes to the future laudanum addiction of a supporting character. One of the subtlest joys of the movie is the depiction of Jack dining with his officers, only on repeat viewings do you note definitively that all concerned are never entirely sober in any of these scenes; a consequence of the endless series of ‘A glass with you, sir’ toasts O’Brian presents. And so is presented in the best context the infamous weevil joke, “Do you not know that in the service, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” This is word for word as O’Brian wrote it, and Weir has Stephen riposte it with a quote from a different book – “He would that make a pun would pick a pocket.” Stephen critiques Jack’s corny wit in The Far Side of the World, with a quote applicable to all the officers across all the books, “Shakespeare’s clowns make quips of that bludgeoning, knock-me-down nature. You have only to add marry, come up, or go to.” And yet the humour of the books is based on solid research. Some of the peevish admirals Jack encounters in the novels recall Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s outburst at a deputation of Nonconformists, recorded in TH White’s The Age of Scandal, “I’m against you, by God. I am for the Established Church, damme! Not that I have any more regard for the Established Church than for any other Church, but because it is established. And if you can get your damned religion established, I’ll be for that too!”

“He will continue to respect historical accuracy and speak of the Royal Navy as it was, making use of contemporary documents” promised author Patrick O’Brian in his introduction to The Far Side of the World. And indeed not many pages pass before a reference is made to the late 18th century concept of ‘bottom’; which TH White defines as not just a precursor of the modern concept of ‘guts’, but also a marker of financial resources and emotional stoicism. But it is in rendering dialogue accurately that O’Brian is a marvel, men of the Napoleonic Wars speak as they would have done, of the things they would have spoken of, and with the gradations of class that would have inflected their dialect; so that when O’Brian describes the intake of the Defenders to the Surprise, the narration becomes coloured by the slang and sentence structure of the able seamen, “A few were striped Guernsey-frocked tarpaulin-hatted kinky-faced red-throated long-swinging-pigtailed men-of-war’s men, and judging by their answers as they were entered in the ship’s books some of these were right sea-lawyers too.” By hewing so closely to O’Brian’s dialogue, Weir adds unusual authenticity to a Hollywood historical action adventure, from the cries of ‘Huzzay’ to Jack’s ‘Thankee, Killick’ to his servant.

Click here to read the full piece.

Advertisements

December 22, 2012

Long we’ve tossed on the open main…

Last year I wrote about the best way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander books, but I’m just about to conclude a macro version of that advice.

Author Patrick O'Brian

I said then that the best way to read the Aubrey/Maturin saga aka Master & Commander was a chapter or two at a time, but spaced out with days between chapters so that the entire (usually) ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger. I am now one chapter away from finishing Blue at the Mizzen, book 20 of the 20 books in the Master & Commander saga. Yes, O’Brian was working on book 21 when he died, but it’s unfinished and therefore un-canonical and I’ve still to reach a decision on whether I do want to gawk over the great man’s shoulder as he’s writing. For me, this represents home shore at last…

Book 18, The Yellow Admiral, gave a chill indication of how the series might end: the ships paid off, everyone thrown on half-leave, and no more war. And then Boney escaped exile and everyone was greatly relieved… But the shadowy existence of book 21 gives comfort, the characters continue to live on – Maturin will continue to ignore comfort to observe rare beasts, and Aubrey will continue lecturing on navigational mathematics. I first started reading O’Brian’s great epic in January 2004, in a tie-in film edition of books 1 and 10 with Russell Crowe emblazoned on the cover. I’d seen Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World in December 2003 after a disastrous cock-up involving tickets for the extended The Two Towers and been sufficiently intrigued to try my hand at the revered books which had been its source.

So starting in January 2004 and ending in December 2012 I have slowly worked through all 20 books in the series, including book 10 twice; having started with it as it was the alleged source of the plot of the film. Over that time I’ve revisited the film at least 5 times, and each time been struck anew by just how much of O’Brian Weir worked into the texture of the film. Dialogue appears from across the gamut of the series and character moments are equally widely sourced. Even deleted scenes on the DVD reveal a super-subtle allusion to the future addiction to laudanum of a character in the books. And of course the books have been equally coloured by the note-perfect renditions by Crowe and Bettany of Aubrey and Maturin, even if their physiques become increasingly unapt in print.

Saying goodbye to House after 8 years was emotional, but leaving behind O’Brian will be even more wrenching as more imaginative effort always goes into the act of reading than merely viewing. Three cheers for O’Brian – Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

June 22, 2011

One Day (like this a year will see me right)

Regular readers will know that I appeared on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club a couple of weeks ago, discussing David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day with Sorcha Nic Mhathuna, Eoghan Rice, and host Eve Rowan. Click here to listen to a podcast of that show.

Book Summary
Working-class Emma Morley and rich-kid Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time on the night of their graduation in 1988. They bungle becoming a couple, but an intense bond develops through Emma’s long letters to Dexter as he travels the globe. Dexter becomes a famous TV presenter given to patronising Emma, who is reduced to waitressing, but when she becomes a teacher her relationship with the increasingly arrogant Dexter falters. Dexter’s career implodes due to his alcoholism, while Emma becomes a successful children’s author, but Dexter’s shot-gun marriage foils their coming together. Will Dexter and Emma ever both be in the right place at the right time? And do they deserve a happy ending?

Structures & Pitfalls
BBC scriptwriter David Nicholls previously wrote Starter for Ten, and this starts off as another class conscious romantic comedy before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious; almost a history of social change in Britain between 1988 and 2007. The gimmick blazoned on the book cover, ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’; referring to Nicholls’ audacious decision to only cover in detail the lives of this odd couple for the 15th of July each year; serves two purposes. The first of these is to allow him to gallop over a vast span of time and draw out the pop culture of each year. The second is to allow him to surprise the reader with sudden shifts between chapters. The latter is a trick well-worn by Patrick O’Brian in the Master & Commander novels, where cliff-hangers chapter endings routinely lead into chapters set months later that make no reference to how the cliff-hanger was resolved till half-way thru. Here it allows Nicholls to present conversations where you’re unsure if Dexter is addressing Emma or yet another bimbo girlfriend, and where characters change jobs and locations radically in a page.

The first purpose becomes an increasing problem as the novel progresses as there are too many attempts to cram every possible event in recent British history into the narrative. Dexter presents a show that is basically The Word, and then Channel 4’s failed rival to Later with Jools Holland, before ending up in the impeccably trendy organic food business. Emma bounces around from waitressing to teaching to becoming sort of JK Rowling. Emma’s disastrous meeting with a publisher is the nadir of this technique as it sees her standing on the South Bank afterwards recalling how jubilant she was the last time she was there, celebrating Blair’s 1997 landslide; of course Emma was there celebrating Blair’s victory you groan, Nicholls just had to tick that box… The gimmick works well for the first sections of the novel, as this is a day that the characters would consciously mark, and it becomes that again in the closing section, but during the middle sections of the book (as Dexter becomes ever more obnoxious) it feels very contrived.

Em & Dex: Rom-Com or Hardy-Com?
The character of Dexter is a problem. Emma is loveable and believable from start to finish as she manages to slowly sort her life out, but the privileged Dexter who is initially charming becomes increasingly irritating as he diligently works his way thru every cliché of Britpop excess. By contrast Nicholls’ protean minor characters are brilliantly drawn, from Dexter’s co-presenter Suki Meadows, whose bubbly personality is imagined as liable to start a letter of condolence with the word ‘Wahey!’, to his elegant bohemian mother Alison, who likes Emma precisely for the moment which embarrassed both Emma and Dexter; when Emma called Dexter’s father a bourgeois fascist for his views on Nicaragua, Alison saw a girl with some spine who would stand up to Dexter as he would desperately need his partner to. Alison sees the chemistry between Emma and Dexter that sustains the novel, until its circular ending which reveals more of their magical first day together, despite the truth of Emma’s unfunny stand-up boyfriend Ian’s observation that Dexter takes Emma for granted.

The ending suggests that Nicholls is so in thrall to his beloved Thomas Hardy that he chooses this particular ending merely to cast a backward profundity over what has gone before. The tragedy is that Nicholls does not need do this. Sure, there are moments that are reminiscent of other works. Dexter’s meeting with his agent is straight out of Extras, Emma’s feeble attempts at writing strongly suggest Spaced, and a disastrous sequence involving Dexter is practically lifted from Meet the Parents. But Nicholls has an undeniable skill at summarising cultural shifts in gags; in the 1980s of The Clash and Billy Bragg all the boys wanted to be Che Guevara, thinks Emma, in the Loaded and FHM zeitgeist of Britpop all the boys now want to be Hugh Hefner; and his greatest ability is not this sort of cultural commentary, but what seems to embarrass him.

Dexter’s long letter asking Emma to join him in India features the most memorable romantic comedy gesture I’ve read recently. Dexter tells her to stand in the centre of the Taj Mahal at noon wearing a red rose and holding a copy of Nicholas Nickleby, and he will find her; he will be wearing a white rose and holding the copy she gave him of Howards End. But Dexter forgets to post this letter; which will have you screaming, ‘No! Dexter!!’, at your book. An author capable of conjuring that level of emotional involvement with his characters and such deliriously heightened moments shouldn’t apologise for being a cracking rom-com writer, not Hardy…

Read the book, don’t wait for the movie. Any production which casts Anne Hathaway as Emma rather than Spaced‘s Jessica Stevenson obviously hasn’t a clue.

Blog at WordPress.com.