Swish, swish, swish… 🙂
There have been adaptations a-plenty of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous work, Treasure Island. The entertainment world has produced over fifty for film and TV, over twenty-four major stage productions, six radio versions, five computer games, five musical scores, three audio books and two retellings. And a partridge in a pear tree (Just kidding).
Yeah, this is a story that’s been done, and done, and done again. My parents grew up on the 1950 Disney version with Bobby Driscoll, which is literally so squeaky-clean, the cast must have had a Maytag and boxes of Cheer on board the Hispaniola. The one time I watched it, I had to fight to keep a straight face when Long John Silver said “Arr-men,” during a prayer service.
My favorite iteration of Treasure Island, though, is the 1990 made-for-TV film starring Charlton Heston as Long John Silver and a sixteen-year old Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins. Any teenage girls reading this may want to go ahead and sigh. I know I did–I was fourteen when I first saw it. My nieces got all dreamy too when I let them borrow my DVD. The film was a family effort by Fraser Heston and his dad, as well as the many other souls who were involved, and is considered to be one of the most faithful adaptations of the novel ever done in any medium. In short, this is Treasure Island for purists.
The plot of Treasure Island is so familiar, I’ll only do a cursory summary: A grizzled old pirate, Billy Bones, drops in to stay at the Admiral Benbow Inn, right before he drops dead from too much rum and hard living. Mrs. Hawkins, the proprietor and a widow, along with her teenaged son, Jim, go through his things to collect what Bones owed them and end up finding a treasure map. They show the map to the local magistrate, Dr. Livesey, who shows it to Governor Trelawney, who hires a ship, the Hispaniola, plus a crew to sail her, to go in search of treasure. One guess as to whether or not they find it, but in the meantime, our heroes have to deal with mutiny and a marooned soul named Ben Gunn, who wants cheese more than anything in the world. The movie is way more fun than this synopsis makes it, especially when it comes to the rapport between Jim Hawkins and the ship’s cook, Long John Silver. Initially, Jim is rather starstruck about Silver, who is like a mentor, and he is dismayed when he finds out that Silver is heading the mutiny.
The Hestons’ history with the novel goes way back. Charlton read it to Fraser at night when he was about four years old, and the boy was absolutely riveted. After the last chapter was over, Fraser asked to read it again, which Charlton readily agreed to. “I think we read Stevenson’s classic four times. By then he could read it himself. And did. I truly believe Treasure Island lay germinating inside him all the years he was apprenticing in film locations around the globe.” Charlton later wrote.
The film was green-lighted by Ted Turner for his TNT channel, and he just so happened to have a suitable ship in useable condition to play the Hispaniola: the Bounty. Yep, as in the one from the 1962 M-G-M film. Shooting was done in and around Jamaica, and was completed on schedule. Fraser even edited the film himself, which, amazingly enough, got by with the studio execs, who, as everyone knows, are famous for ordering films chopped up, for better or for worse. His instincts were bang-on, because the film was very successful when it aired, and if I remember correctly, it was one of the few TV movies of the time to merit a VHS transfer. That’s how I first saw it, and I had no idea then that the film had premiered on cable.
When things germinate, there are two possible outcomes: They can age like fine wine, or they can be like the guy in that one parable in the Bible who let his master’s money just sit there. In the case of Fraser Heston’s Treasure Island, it’s a lot of the former and a wee bit of the latter. How much of it was done right? Let me count the ways. The lines are mostly straight out of the book. It’s respectful of the material, and probably what Stevenson himself would have envisioned had he lived to see his novel translated into film. The cast is absolutely stellar, made up of mostly busy British character actors, such as Christopher Lee, Julian Glover, and Peter Postlethwaite. Christian Bale puts in a fantastic performance as Jim Hawkins, showing his legendary acting chops even at that young age. Charlton said later that Bale didn’t need a stunt double, as he was fearless–climbing up rigging and getting right in the thick of things.
As for Charlton, I know there are a plethora of opinions out there of him as an actor, but his Long John Silver is the best one I’ve seen. He’s got the parrot on his shoulder who squawks about pieces of eight, naturally, but Heston’s Silver is gritty and forceful, without a hint of hamminess or campiness like, say, Wallace Beery or Robert Newton. There are no “Arrr, mateys!” in this version. One of the big critiques of Heston is that he went back and forth from talking like a pirate to talking like someone with a little more education. This shouldn’t be chalked up to bad acting, though, because that’s what Silver did in the book. Silver was an antihero before antiheroes were cool. He thinks nothing of committing mutiny, but he’s not above keeping Jim Hawkins safe when his cohorts are out for blood. The man was also an opportunist, and always looking for ways to get himself ahead.
When it comes to improving on Heston’s Treasure Island, my beef is very, very small. For someone who knew Treasure Island inside and out, Fraser could afford to take a few chances with the material. Stick to the book, absolutely, but there is a lot of room between sticking and straying. On the other hand, I’m glad he stuck as close as he did. Stevenson’s book is superlative entertainment, and it doesn’t need a lot of tweaking.
For more swashing of buckles, please visit Fritzi’s Movies Silently. Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow!
Heston, Charlton. In the Arena: An Autobiography. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1995.