Last night I started to watch the Sky 1 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’. I say ‘started’ because I didn’t even make it to the end of the first show before I had to turn it off. Now, I never turn things off. I never walk out of the cinema. I’ve sat through some atrocious movies, but this time it was different. I turned off ‘Treasure Island’ because it wasn’t ‘Treasure Island’.
It seems fairly obvious that it’s not easy adapting a pre-existing work for the screen. For a start, the unabridged audiobook of the novel is over 7 hours long. Something clearly has to go. A lot of the meat of the story is contained within the narration, the descriptive text. When we read, we create the pictures for ourselves, but when we watch the production company has done a lot of the work for us. So, this should cut down a chunk of the time taken to tell the story. Sometimes, I imagine, it is necessary to chop the dialogue around in order that it makes sense in its new context, sometimes side stories need to be lost to make room for the main thread. All of this I understand, accept and would happily watch.
The Sky 1 adaptation of a classic work of children’s literature, a work that frequents best children’s book lists, changed the story. My issue with this is that I don’t understand why.
For a start, the book is aimed at children and anyone who’s read it can tell you that, even though it was published in 1883, it isn’t hard to follow. We follow young Jim Hawkins as he embarks upon the adventure of a lifetime in search of pirate gold and with him we met the morally ambiguous ship’s cook, Long John Silver. As the tale unfolds we, along with Jim, gradually develop a sense of unease around ol’ Barbecue; we learn together, we are betrayed together and herein lies the mastery of Stevenson as a storyteller as his characters grow and reveal their depths. As an audience (and remember this novel was aimed squarely at children) we are capable of following the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the deceptions, the motivations and the reveals. In the end, it’s a simple story about pirates – pirates who want (as we know from all pirates) their treasure.
What I saw in the adaptation was a disregard for the intelligence of the viewer. One of the best things about the novel is our first meeting with Long John – we don’t know him then; who he is, where he’s come from, what’s he wants and what he’s capable of. Sky seemed to think that we needed a prologue, which (and I appreciate that 99% of the population are probably aware that Long John’s not a nice guy) ruined the character. He’s a pirate. A devious, underhanded, cruel and manipulative pirate who wants the treasure Captain Flint owed him. His plan is carefully laid and brilliantly disguised. Sky spelled out every motivation and in presenting Silver so quickly lost the essence of the character. This, of course, is not to take away from Eddie Izzard’s performance – the man was made to play a pirate – but it left me feeling that if this was someone’s first experience of Treasure Island they had been denied the brilliant nuances of the classic. Silver is not the only character to be tampered with, either. The brave, forthright, gentleman Doctor Livesey is portrayed as weak and bumbling; the overenthusiastic Squire Trelawney’s role apparently being exchanged with the Doctor.
Here we come to the crux of my disappointment. I don’t understand why these changes needed to be made. Nothing is gained by reversing the characters of the Doctor and Squire, nothing gained by force-feeding a back story for the pirates down the throats of the viewers, nothing gained by parading Silver in front of us as a caricature of himself and inventing scenes at the Admiral Benbow and with his wife (as if he’s not in it enough!). The novel is a classic for a reason. It has remained a classic for over 100 years because it’s well crafted and well told, so why does it need to be over adapted? Is it because the writers don’t think the audience can work out that pirates are bad guys? Are the viewers incapable of understanding a (let’s face it, not desperately complex) character? Do we now find that pure greed is not a powerful enough motivator? And, even if this is the case, do they not believe the work stands up for itself? Surely, a novel does not count itself as one of the greatest stories, most recorded and dramatised of all time and the origin of our idea of pirates without doing something right?
Treasure Island is not alone in being a great work, not good enough. The Lord of the Rings movies managed to throw in an entirely fictionalised sequence with the elven Arwen, for what can only be described as ‘no reason whatsoever’ and it appears an character in The Hobbit has been invented specifically for the movie. I wish I knew why these ‘adaptations’ have to be crowbarred in when translating beloved classics for the screen. I wish I knew why they aren’t good enough as they are. I wish I knew why the writers, directors and producers aren’t able to work with what’s there and why we aren’t doing more to protect our literary heritage. I wish I knew what is so wrong with staying true to the work of another person. If it’s not good enough or it doesn’t work for the screen don’t do it. Write something else. If it is good enough, let it be good enough. In a period of our history where creativity seems to be dying (last year, according to the BBC, there were 28 sequels released, not to mention the ever increasing list of remakes, prequels and reboots) If you want to make a show that’s like Treasure Island, but isn’t Treasure Island, write it. If you want to make Treasure Island, make it.
Perhaps it’s our fault as the audience. Perhaps we have grown lazy, we don’t want to think about why the character is acting as he is, we want to be told. More than that, perhaps we want characters we already know, story lines we’re already familiar with. Perhaps we don’t want to imagine, we want to be shown. Perhaps we’re so overstimulated that we crave the familiar and the exposition and someone to do the work for us.
Perhaps Treasure Island just wasn’t good enough for the team from Sky. I wish I knew why.
— “‘Sir,’ said Captain Smollett, ‘with no intention to take offence, I deny your right to put words into my mouth.’” (Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island)