Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review of Treasure Island (1999 film)

I just watched the 1999 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. The film was directed and written by Peter Rowe. It stars Jack Palance as Long John Silver and Kevin Zegers as Jim Hawkins.

This film diverts wildly from the the source material. Some of this is omission, possibly due to the short length of the film. An example is the absence of Mr. Arrow, and a number of other characters. Whole scenes are missing and some are condensed. The biggest diversion though is in the resolution of the plot, which I can only describe as bizarre, or at least not well written or thought out. I won't spoil it here (if you want to know what happens, the wikipedia article for the movie does a good job ruining the surprise). If I ever meet Peter Rowe, and I remember that he was the creative force behind this film, I will require an explanation. Its almost as if he hadn't wrote the ending, shot everything up to that point, and then got tired of trying so he ended it the fastest way he could. Sorry to sound a bit harsh, but if you know the book (or even if you don't) and you see this film, you will think it is strange.

There is also a prologue where events that take place before the main story are shown. I have said it before and I can put it bluntly; I do not like attempts to explain backstory in adaptations of Treasure Island. They never do any service to the work and they deny us the pleasure of wonder and imagination that Stevenson crafted into the original novel. While reading the novel, I am all for imagining how things came to be, but this is a personal experience for me, and should be for everyone who comes to the story. The time spent on this portion of the film would have been better spent on some of the omitted scenes or revising the ending.

As far as production value, it would have been acceptable or even good if the film had been produced about 10 years prior. It doesn't seem to set in the Caribbean, and in fact the film was shot on the Isle of Man (don't get me wrong, its a nice landscape and I think I would enjoy visiting the island someday). The score is almost completely composed in MIDI, which some might not notice but I find distracting. In 1999 one might think there was at least some better stock orchestral music available, if original scoring could not fit into the budget. In some of the scenes the dialog doesn't seem to get picked up well in the recording. Little by little these elements detract from the whole as far as the Stevenson fan is concerned.

The acting is just okay. I would, however say that Jack Palance had been miscast as Long John Silver. Don't get me wrong, he was a fine actor. Perhaps he would have made a better Silver earlier in his career. But most of the blame for the Silver character falling flat in this version lies with the writing. Palance as Silver is robbed of many of the key lines and moments that make Long John one of the greatest villains (or heroic-villains, or villainous heroes) in literature. The foundation of his relationship with Jim (and other characters whose confidence he, by turns, wins or looses) is absent in this movie. 

All of that said, this movie is not unwatchable as long as you don't expect an accurate retelling and can overlook the bizarre ending. It is far from being the worst film version of Treasure Island (that honor goes the the Asylum's Pirates of Treasure Island, which I will never be reviewing but I implore you never to watch). I almost wish that the resources used to make this film had instead been used to make completely new pirate story, unrelated to the Stevenson classic. At least then the writer would have felt no need to either stick closely to the source material or move away by creating something that just ends up… …strange.

Incidentally, the Hispañola is played the tall ship Earl of Pembroke

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