During my commuting years, I read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of British naval adventure on the high (and low) seas in the early 1800s. There are plenty of books in the series – 20, plus one completed posthumously, and I got them in twos and threes (mainly three for the price of two) from Waterstones in Islington. I was already well through them when the film of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was announced, directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, and Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin, doctor and (hidden in the film) spy. That’s a combination I wouldn’t have resisted anyway, since Gladiator had come out in 2001, and the pair had been together in A Beautiful Mind, which had upset me greatly, for reasons I won’t disclose – just watch the film, if you haven’t already.
Captain Aubrey of the books is easily played by Russell Crowe, and the balance of a first-class seaman and a good, stern and adventurous commander is an exciting mix. Aubrey is less at home on dry land, which features in the books, some more than other, and leads to him making injudicious dealings with the sort of people he would dismiss in a minute were he at sea. Stephen Maturin is a bastard of Irish and some other indeterminate minority descent (Catalonian, Basque, or possibly Galician). His intelligence (in both senses) and self-effacement due to the circumstances of his upbringing make him an ideal spy, since he is used to sinking into the background. He is short and fat, and not particularly good looking, which makes Paul Bettany’s performance perfectly amazing, since he is the exact opposite. The loves and lives of both these characters, as well as the development of their friendship, add an absorbing aspect to the maritime adventures, which can be a little overburdened with nautical jargon to the non-naval enthusiast.
The idea of a film based on the novels is fully explored in the extras on the DVD package by Peter Weir. The decision was to avoid the land-based adventures and to cut together various parts from the novels. Hence Master and Commander (the first in the series) with The Far Side of the World (number ten), which does take place in the Pacific with a trip to the Galapagos Islands. But they are not on the HMS Surprise by that time, which was Aubrey’s first real command (HMS Surprise being book three), but having carved his initials in it as a midshipman, does give rise to the excellent line when talking of the attack plans: “well, gentleman, Surprise is on our side.” And that is part of the charm of the film for enthusiasts – spot the bits from which book. Some of the side characters turn up in odd places, all brought to life exceedingly well in the film.
The film finishes well, but with a cliffhanger, as they are sailing away having made Aubrey’s number 2 into a captain and sent him off in charge of the captured ship… It was ready for the sequel, which most British viewers longed for, but the comparative failure in the US box office meant the sequel was never made. Given the extremes they went to to make the first, I think they should just have done it when they had the crew together, like Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3. But they weren’t Disney, and didn’t have long enough pockets.
So for more adventures, it’s back to the books. Spot the quotes or incidents used in the films, and enjoy the idea of the leading men doing the less heroic bits of the stories. They are well worth the reading, some are better than others, and if you’re a Goodreads member, work through Jason Koivu’s reviews, which are excellent summaries and critiques.
In this case: books for the long term, the film for the excitement and the eye candy!