The potential future voyage of Jack Aubrey

Though I have seen perhaps one minute of it, the HBO series “Game of Thrones” is in its final season.

So what should replace it? Christopher Orr has a suggestion that readers will recognize:

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) ofDownton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen.

I was reminded of this when I rewatched Peter Weir’s 2003 big-screen O’Brian adaptation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, on a recent transatlantic flight. It is a fine film (I reviewed it here), but it scarcely attempts to scratch the surface of its principal characters, let alone the rich supporting populations who orbit them.

Those principal characters are Captain Jack Aubrey—brave, gregarious, impetuous, not infrequently subject to romantic indiscretion—and his ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, an accomplished but introverted scholar and naturalist. (He’s also gradually revealed to be a high-level spy, as well as an uncommonly gifted duelist and assassin.) The two meet-ugly at a concert in Minorca on April 1, 1800—Maturin is infuriated by Aubrey’s tapping to the beat “a half measure ahead”—but quickly become fast friends in part thanks to their shared love of music. Together they form what Christopher Hitchens described as “one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.”

In Weir’s film, Aubrey and Maturin were played, respectively, by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. And while both actors offered solid performances, neither was particularly well-suited to his role: Crowe is too dark for Aubrey, and Bettany not dark (or small) enough for Maturin. Properly cast—a pairing such as that of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in Ron Howard’s underrated Rush would be closer to the mark—both are potentially career-defining roles, Maturin in particular.

Though you wouldn’t know it from Weir’s film, which took place entirely at sea, O’Brian provides solid female roles, too, in Aubrey and Maturin’s contrasting love interests, Sophie Williams and, especially, Diana Villiers. (It’s no coincidence that the author to whom O’Brian is most frequently compared—more than Melville or Conrad or Forester—is Jane Austen.) Outwards from this core are found an absurdly generous constellation of supporting characters: Tom Pullings, Barrett Bonden, Preserved Killick, Padeen (if he wasn’t an inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s Hodor, the resemblance is a remarkable coincidence), Sam Panda, Mrs. Broad, Clarissa Oakes, Heneage Dundas, Capitaine Christy-Pallière, the poor, doomed Lord Clonfert, and on and on.

There would be some narrative issues to untangle in adapting O’Brian’s work for television—chief among them the long, alternating storylines at sea and on land—but material this rich and vast could be sewn together in innumerable ways. And while it would inevitably be an expensive production, Hornblower showed that a similar feat could be pulled off way back in 1998. (Moreover, if financing can be arranged for an excellent but decidedly eccentric literary adaptation such asJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—well worth checking out, incidentally, for those who haven’t—surely it could be found for a series with the relative commercial appeal of Aubrey & Maturin.)

So if you happen to know a network executive (or, better yet, are one yourself), please raise the idea with all available alacrity. The possibility of historic television, in both senses of the word, awaits. Until then, we will make do with O’Brian’s novels—which, if it is not already apparent, I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who has not already had the good fortune to encounter them.

The movie was more than “fine” as far as I’m concerned.

It seemed obviously destined for a film series, but the series ended at one. But having the source material of 21 novels (more than the source material for “Game of Thrones”) would, you’d think, be more than enough as a starting point for Aubrey and Maturin.

I watched the “Hornblower” series and enjoyed it.

I have also seen the movie starring Gregory Peck.

In neither case does it seem as though the novel Hornblower became the movie and TV version. The TV series starts with Hornblower as a seasick midshipman who grows in his duties and skill, whereas the movie has Hornblower already as a captain. The always-accurate Wikipedia describes the print version, praised by none other than Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill, as …

… courageous, intelligent, and a skilled seaman; but he is also burdened by his intense reserve, introspection, and self-doubt, described as “unhappy and lonely”. Despite numerous personal feats of extraordinary skill and cunning, he belittles his achievements by numerous rationalizations, remembering only his fears. He consistently ignores or is unaware of the admiration in which he is held by his fellow sailors. He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organize, or cut to the heart of a matter. His sense of duty, hard work, and drive to succeed make these imagined negative characteristics undetectable by everyone but him and, being introspective, he obsesses over petty failures to reinforce his poor self-image. His introverted nature continually isolates him from the people around him, including his closest friend William Bush, and his wives never fully understand him.

Well, the insular Hornblower is not really Peck’s Hornblower, nor is it Ioan Gruffudd’s Hornblower. What about Aubrey?

In his early career, according to HMS Surprise, Aubrey was not a skilled mathematician. In that book, he is described as learning mathematics and “…he studied the mathematics, and like some other late-developers he advanced at a great pace.” In later books, Aubrey is presented as interested and skilled in mathematics and astronomy. He is also a great lover of music and player of the violin; he is a hearty singer. He is a man of even temperament, generally cheerful, sociable and alert to the feelings of his shipmates. He knows every aspect of the ships he sails and how best to gain speed over the oceans from each one by use of the sails without putting too much stress on the masts or yards (which would then break), a complex and hard-earned knowledge. He has been described as “the bluff and ultracompetent Aubrey”.[8] He feels the joy of battle; he is skilled in planning his attacks and in carrying them out, using cannon or hand to hand fighting. By contrast, he cannot watch his close friend, Dr Maturin perform a surgery, and is offended at the sight of blood on Maturin, the natural result of performing surgeries. On board ship, Aubrey on his violin is generally accompanied by his friend and shipmate Stephen Maturin on the cello. Aubrey is particularly fond of the music of Corelli and Boccherini. He is noted for his mangling and mis-splicing of proverbs, sometimes with Maturin’s involvement, such as “Never count the bear’s skin before it is hatched” and “There’s a good deal to be said for making hay while the iron is hot.” …
He enjoys the company of women. From the incident of keeping a girl aboard ship in his youth, unbeknownst to him, she was pregnant when he sailed away. Their son, Samuel Panda, appears in Aubrey’s life fully grown and educated, a dark-skinned version of himself, but a Catholic priest. Before he knew of this young man, Aubrey married Sophia Williams, whom he met and courted in the peace of 1802, when he was on land. They married and had three children, twin daughters Fanny and Charlotte, and a son George. He loves his family, though most of the time he is away on a ship.

Successful TV series are about the characters. Aubrey and Maturin are substantially difficult, yet friends and comrades. Done right, a series would be compelling TV.

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