15 Years Later: ‘Master and Commander’ Veered Off the Adaptation Chart

Film Sordid Cinema

Film adaptations of novels, short stories, and epic poetry have consistently provided generations of audiences with ammunition to bemoan that “the book was better,” but it’s hard to perfectly translate anything — especially when it involves readers’ imaginations. That problem is multiplied when it’s a series being adapted, but for 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, scriptwriters Peter Weir (who also directed) and John Collee took a different tack. Titled after two of the twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring Aubrey/Maturin series (and pulling plot ideas from several others), Master and Commander eschews retelling a popular story in order to piece together its own. Instead of distilling a voluminous symphony into a few representative notes, the filmmakers create their own variation — a focused interpretation of the joyous spirit of adventure the saga is known for. The result is not only a unique adaptation, but a great movie.

For those unfamiliar, the novels depict the actions of fictional members of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and cover a time span from roughly 1800-1815. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey is the handsome, dashing captain, born to the sea, a devoted admirer of Lord Horatio Nelson and naval tradition. A good-natured Tory who enjoys a hearty meal and the pleasures of port (both kinds), he is a man that many women like and many men would like to be. His shipmate and particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, is a former Irish revolutionary now turned British naval physician and spy. Outwardly he is less desirable, with his slight build, fickle temper, pale-eyed reptilian glares, progressive politics, and intellectual pursuits offering a stark contrast to his more agreeable counterpart. Initially brought together by their love of music, the unlikely bond between the two is what forms the backbone of the series, and serves as the perfect device for offering different perspectives to navigate readers through the high-seas adventure.

Adapting even one of the twenty books would have been difficult, to say the least; the plots tend to meander, often ignoring typical story beats in favor of going where the wind takes them. Yet, lurking just below the rippling surface are numerous complexities, brewing storms of political and romantic machinations. Instead of trying to cram those elements — along with the rich character development the series is beloved for — into 138 minutes of screen time that would inevitably lead to a disappointed passionate fan base and confused newcomers, Weir and his co-writer decided to distill the series to its essence, resulting in two distinct emphases: immersion into an authentic-feeling, turn-of-the-century British Navy, and the philosophical relationship between two men in the age of reason.

The story presented in Master and Commander is as bare-bones as they come: there’s an enemy ship in the neighborhood (off the coast of South America), and the orders for His Majesty’s Ship Surprise are to burn or take her as a prize. There are detours with an insecure midshipman, an accident involving a musket, and an excursion to the Galapagos Islands, but these seem more like asides than plot points, and have little to do with the matter at hand. And again, while these scenarios are inspired by moments in different books, none plays out exactly how it was originally written, and so still feels fresh to those well versed. The simple-yet-effective main idea is delivered via some opening text, which allows Weir to then turn his attention to what really matters: having the people populating this floating community deliver lines that develop personalities and ideologies instead of merely explaining minutiae.

Character is what’s important in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and Weir does a commendable job conveying at least the basic traits of men that have evolved over twenty novels. From Jack’s enthusiastic appreciation of a bad pun to naturalist Stephen’s desperate climb in the pursuit of scientific avian discovery, the script and the actors do a wonderful job crafting distinct moments. The pair debate the politics of naval life — arguments that stand for larger philosophical arguments on the nature of authority — and both present logical sides. Their deep friendship, so in-depth and key to the books, is less on display here, but enough time is set aside to scratch at the surface of this lasting bond to establish the right impression. Music sessions show both men at ease, adept at their instruments and simply enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company, and Jack’s decision later on choosing friendship over duty mirrors the man many readers know.

So far, this may not sound like typical swashbuckling entertainment (and it’s not), but wait until you see dueling men-of-war blasting away, delivering full broadsides on an epically destructive scale, followed by dueling men of war firing shots of their own, volleying conflicting ideas on governance and the corruption of power. Action at sea comes in furious squalls, and the action in Master and Commander is no different, as any moment holds the potential for danger. Cannonballs shatter hulls, producing massive splinters that pierce like knives, while murderous brutes line opponents’ decks, armed with only the worst sorts of weaponry — and all the while, the ocean reserves the right to claim its own. Like with many of his other films (Picnic at Hanging Rock and Witness, for example), Weir never lets the audience forget nature’s role in all of this, and the sea itself is a looming character. Much like the novels’ author, Patrick O’Brien, he presents the violence with great force and beauty, sparing no brutality, but also simply accepting it as natural requirements of the service.

However, despite the roars of guns and smoke so thick one can smell the powder, the movie wisely also does not ignore the monotony of the sailor’s daily life. The striking of bells, the changing of the watch, holystoning the deck, salted pork and hard tack, twenty-eight inches to sling a cot, etc. These are all important elements of what makes Master and Commander — both film and novel — so engrossing. The painstaking detail contributes to an atmosphere that is intoxicating, and along with the roll of the ocean, the creaking of the planks, the knotting of rope, and the fluttering sounds of sails, helps fulfill one of the main objectives of this adaptation: to transport the audience into another place and time. While the books are filled with yarns, readers know that the little things are what make them so memorable. Plot in the Aubrey/Maturin series exists as a vehicle for character interactions, for a glimpse into naval life, and so Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World follows suit.

An unfamiliar-yet-familiar approach like this is risky, as any misstep is likely to detract from the tone and lead to the doldrums. With no safe plot to cling to, characters must be spot-on (Barret Bonden may be the only real misstep), and efficiency is of the utmost necessity; there’s not a moment to lose, no word to be wasted in this kind of tribute. Unlike adaptations that aim to offer themselves as a possible replacement to the original rendition, Master and Commander instead hopes to provide a complementary experience, a unique taste that incites a craving for the whole meal, spotted dog pudding and all. Without it, I personally would have missed out on the most rewarding series of books I’ve had the pleasure to read, and that is what an adaptation is supposed to do: inspire.

Of course, there are always those who will claim that “books are better,” but it’s difficult to judge this film in direct comparison — and that’s the beauty of this freestyle type of adaptation. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World succeeds fantastically at telling its own story of beloved characters; what makes it special is that it also goes a step further, urging the audience to seek out more of this world, to discover the entire richer experience just beyond the horizon. Adaptations are not perfect, and never will be; so many try to recreate the source material as exactly as possible within a two-hour time limit, only to end up at best as merely pale imitations of a rich tapestry, or at worst a choppy narrative butchered of its vital spirit. In the service of the British Royal Navy one must always choose the lesser of two weevils, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World does this, opting for a uniquely faithful adaptation that sacrifices story for soul.

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