April 21st, 2013


"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"

Lut and I saw this movie in the theater when it first came out in 2003. At the time, our take was "It was okay." I recall having some trouble tracking what was happening during the movie. By the time I started reading the Aubrey-Maturin books last year, I had forgotten almost everything about the film -- I think there were a total of three scenes I still remembered, and I'd forgotten the central conflict entirely.

I've read fourteen of the Aubey-Maturin novels now. A month or two ago, I was talking to one of my co-workers about them and mentioned that I'd been thinking of watching the movie again. "Oh," she said, "I own that movie. I got it in a clearance sale two years ago but I've never actually seen it."

This week, I came to work and found it lying on my desk. "I haven't watched it in the two years since I got it, so don't worry about rushing to get it back to me," she told me.

Last night, Lut suggested watching a movie, and I asked, "Are you willing to watch "Master and Commander" with me again?" He good-naturedly agreed.

And omigosh, I had so much fun watching it.

It's a pastiche of Aubrey-Maturin novels, with a number of events that never took place in the books or were significantly altered from them. Probably the scenes that struck me most were the ones that were not merely invented for the film, but which would never have taken place in the books -- were, in fact, completely out of character. Some examples behind the spoiler tag:

[Click here for spoilery examples. You know you want to. If you haven't seen the movie by now you're probably not going to anyway.]
  1. In a couple of scenes in the film, Maturin is shown telling Aubrey to reconsider his actions as captain -- for instance, saying that it is foolhardy for them to be chasing the Acheron, and later questioning his decision to flog a seaman for insubordination. This is absolutely out of character for Maturin. First, Maturin has tremendous respect for Aubrey's judgment in naval affairs and rarely even considers the possibility that (a) Aubrey might be making a mistake much less (b) that Maturin might notice if he was. Questioning the wisdom of pursuing a larger and more dangerous vessel? Never happens. Second, even when Maturin does disagree with an action Aubrey takes as captain, Maturin will not say anything about it. This is not a matter of deference to his captain, or fear of disagreeing; it's mostly a strong sense of not my place to say. Just as Aubrey is not going to second-guess Maturin in a surgical operation, Maturin is not going to second-guess Aubrey in command. They don't do the armchair-quarterback thing.

  2. On a related note, Aubrey asks Maturin at one point his opinion on the crew's reaction to recent events. They have a little back-and-forth about naval vs personal roles and informers ("Now you're sounding like an Irishman" "That's because I am Irish") and then Maturin answers the question. Again, this is something that would never happen: not only will Maturin not say anything that smacks of informing but there's almost no occasions where Aubrey even asks him to (because Aubrey knows he can't answer and wouldn't want him to.) There is a tremendous social stigma against informing -- particularly for Maturin, a former agitator for Irish independence, but even Aubrey, who as captain gets a lot of secrets withheld from him that it would be extremely useful for him to know, has an extreme distaste for the idea. Basically, Aubrey feels that informers are terrible for a crew's morale and trust in one another, and so it's ultimately better to be left in the dark than it would be to encourage a culture of informing.

  3. In the film, Aubrey gets the idea to disguise the Surprise from an insect camouflaged as a stick that Maturin and Blakely found in the Galapagos. Disguising a vessel -- as something more dangerous, or less dangerous, or as belonging to a different nation* -- was an established part of naval warfare in this period and Aubrey does it all the time in the books. It's clever, but it's not innovative.
* One of my very favorite tricks along these lines: Merchant vessels would paint sailcloth with fake ports for cannons on them and hang them along the sides of the ship, to make it look like they were military vessels carrying cannons. In a double ruse, you get military vessels hanging the same kinds of panels over their actual gun ports, so that they look like merchants trying to look like warships. XD

I found these choices of particular interest because I can see why the filmmakers made them. In the first, they want to show that Aubrey is taking a sizable risk based on his personal judgment, and while in a book O'Brian can do this by showing Aubrey's internal narrative, in a film it's far more powerful to have two characters arguing instead. And of all the available characters to have argue with Aubrey, Maturin -- who is outside the chain of command and Aubrey's particular friend -- is the only one remotely plausible. In the second, they're trying to show the way that the captain is out of the loop, and the distinction between Maturin's relationship with his friend as opposed to his captain. So these two cases are sacrificing allegiance to the books in favor of making the situation more understandable to the viewers, which is a not-unreasonable choice. In the third, they're making the story fit traditional narrative structure better, by tying together the 'naturalist' and 'naval warfare' sections of the story and by giving a source for inspiration within the confines of the story. I don't really like the ahistorical nature of the last (because it misleads the audience about the nature of naval combat in the period), but I can still see why they did it.

One small discrepancy that nonetheless amuses me: Tom Pullings is described in the books as, at one point, receiving a disfiguring facial scar that makes him 'hideous'. In the movie, Pullings has a facial scar but is portrayed by the very handsome James D'Arcy who is not in the slightest less handsome for it. I don't know why that entertains me so, but it does.

I loved seeing all the characters from the books: "Omigosh Killick!" (who is just exactly like Killick from the books) "And there's Pullings! Mowett! Bonden!" ♥ And seeing the Surprise and hearing the drum as they beat to quarters and watching them clear the ship for action. Even watching a film doesn't quite make me feel like I have the whole picture, like I really understand what's actually happening, but it does give a very different perspective. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany did very well as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Crowe quite looks the part (he makes a fine blond!). Bettany looks nothing at all like Maturin but nonetheless manages to evoke the feel of the character. (The scene where he asks Aubrey to let him walk across the island and meet them on the other side! ♥)

I find this a rather interesting situation to be in: having read the books, I know all the ways in which the narrative and the characters have been altered and in some cases mangled. But even so, my familiarity with the source material made me enjoy the film so much more than I did when I saw it with no background. It kind of reminds me of the way I loved even bad Star Trek movies, because it was so much fun just seeing all those familiar faces again. Apparently sometimes it's better to have read the book first even if the film isn't as good as it.