September 29, 2019
There is a comfortable pleasure in revisiting books. This is especially true in the case of the Aubrey and Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. Each book is an immersive wallow in a warm bath. And when you consider the length of the series, you realize what an indulgence awaits.
Perhaps I ought to step back a minute. It is possible that not everyone is familiar with the inimitable Mr. O’Brian’s masterpiece. The Aubrey and Maturin novels are set during the era of the Napoleonic wars, and feature the British naval officer Jack Aubrey and his friend, the surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin. There are twenty novels in the series. I’m currently in the midst of The Commodore, the seventeenth book. (That somewhat saddens me, the consideration that I only have three more to go. Four, if you count the unfinished fragment known as 21.) The novels are un-rushed examinations of nineteenth century British life, the navy, ships, naval warfare, then-current scientific knowledge, and human nature. The recurrent, fully-developed characters, repeated events and expressions become familiar and welcoming. I recommend the series, in case I haven’t yet made my approval plain.
It might be that some are only familiar with the works from the film adaptation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This is an excellent film. I’ve watched it many times. It is not, as the name might suggest, an adaptation of the novels Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World. Instead, it is a new story, combining elements from many — perhaps all — of the books, creating composite characters, and freely shifting around events. It is a masterful example of adapting the essence of a work rather than adhering faithfully to the original.
I’ve wondered at the title of the film. I suppose it couldn’t be called merely Master and Commander since that might lead an audience to believe it adapted that novel, which it clearly does not. Nor, could it be called Far Side of the World — even though that is a more apt description of the events — for the same reason. There isn’t, to my knowledge, an official title for the series. The producers couldn’t very well title the film The Aubrey and Maturin Novels. So, I suppose the name chosen conveys the idea that the film is a loose adaptation of multiple novels as well as could be hoped. Still, I wonder. There might be a better title.
But, to return to the film, I also recommend it. As an admirer of the novels, I quibble at the casting, but only because I cannot help but think of the characters as described. I have no complaints regarding the skills of the actors chosen. They all performed admirably. But if you consider Billy Boyd portraying someone described as large and muscular, you’ll see what I mean. And then there is Paul Bettany cast as Stephen Maturin. Maturin, in the novels, is short, slight, and far from handsome. Mr. Bettany appears to be relatively tall. And I’m probably no judge of such matters, but wouldn’t the expression conventionally good-looking apply?
I’d say the character of Stephen Maturin gets short shrift in the film. The storyline doesn’t provide an opportunity to explore his role as a naval intelligence agent. We do get to see his interest in natural philosophy and his surgical skills. But there is little reference to his Catholicisim, or his Irish-Catalonian background. And Jack Aubrey is also robbed of a chance to round out his character: he is shown only in his capacity as a naval officer and thus we don’t get to see his shortcomings dealing with civilian life ashore.
If I sound critical, I apologize. I don’t mean to. The film is terrific. There is only so much from a twenty-novel series that you can cram into a single movie. The screen-writers performed admirably. If you haven’t yet watched this, go pick up a copy.