Surprised author Tim Powers finds himself setting sail with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’


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Last month, Johnny Depp walked on stage at the Anaheim Convention Center in his Jack Sparrow costume and delighted a surprised audience of Disney fans with his rummy buccaneer’s trademark mutter. Within an hour, in San Bernadino, an award-winning fantasy author named Tim Powers found a flurry of emails from surprised friends and fans filling his inbox.

The reason for the e-mail barrage: Depp’s theatrical appearance at Disney’s D23 Expo included the announcement that the fourth Sparrow film will be entitled ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,’ which echoes the name of a 1987 fantasy novel by Powers about pirates and the Fountain of Youth. Everyone wanted to know if Powers had hit the Hollywood jackpot -- or if he needed to be in touch with his attorney.

Powers was in a tricky spot -- he wanted to publicly celebrate a career windfall but the folks at Disney had made it clear that he was supposed to keep everything under wraps. He was more surprised than anyone that the title had been trumpeted at Disney’s new promotional convention.


‘I was still -- as far as I understood -- not free to talk about it,’ the author told me Monday. ‘Then about a week ago my agent wrote and said, ‘You’re now able to say that in fact Disney did option the book.’ That happened a while ago, it’ll be three years in April.’

The novelist, with a dozen books to his credit, is still a bit dazed by the fact that a book he published during the Reagan administration will setting sail in May 2011 as new edition of a Disney franchise that has racked up $1.78 billion in worldwide box office since hoisting its flag in 2003. ‘Yes, I’m thrilled,’ Power said, ‘I think it’s great.’

The 57-year-old is a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, taking the prize home for ‘Last Call’ (the 1992 tale based in the gritty underbelly of Las Vegas that weaves in tales on ancient magic and wagers for the soul) and ‘Declare’ (a 2001 novel that presents the secret supernatural history of Cold War spies and conspiracies). All of his books, he says, have ‘some kind of supernatural stuff going on, it’s the only sort of stories I can think of.’

Powers is intrigued to see how Hollywood will bend his historical fantasy to its needs. In the original form, ‘On Stranger Tides’ was the tale of ‘Jack Shandy’ Chandagnac, who is the son of a British puppeteer who gave up the family marionette tradition after his father died destitute. He sets sail for Jamaica to find the nefarious uncle who stole his father’s rightful inheritance but en route he is captured by pirates who practice sorcery -- they give him the choice of joining their ranks or execution. Soon he reluctantly falls into service to Blackbeard, who is on a quest to locate the Fountain of Youth.

‘I’ve watched all the movies several times, of course, and I think the clear thing they would use is the trip to the Fountain of Youth,’ Powers said. ‘My main character doesn’t overlap with Jack Sparrow at all [in personality or circumstance]; they’re totally different characters. I suppose they might overlap the Geoffrey Rush character Barbossa and Blackbeard. The only thing I feel certain they will hold on to is the Fountain of Youth since they telegraphed that at the end of the last movie.’ Either way, Powers said he is not going to walk into the theater with too many expectations other than hoping to have a good time as a moviegoer.

‘Some people said, ‘Powers are you worried that they’re going to mess up your book?’ and I always think of something James Cain, the author of ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ said when people asked what he thought of the things Hollywood had done to his books; he pointed to the bookshelf and said, ‘They haven’t done anything to them, look.’ That’s my attitude. Just take all the fun stuff and, of course, any checks.... It strikes me as unrealistic to look at it in any other way.’

Still, Powers has a bit of concern about the project as it moves forward, considering some recent reports. On Sept. 18, after the D23 Expo, Depp spoke to Claudia Eller of the Los Angeles Times and said that the abrupt ouster of longtime Disney studio chief Dick Cook had dampened his interest in a fourth ‘Pirates’ film.

‘There’s a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment,’ the star said, saying also that he was ‘shocked and very sad’ to see Cook walk the corporate plank after playing such a key role in the ‘Pirates’ success story. ‘Pirates’ would also be moving forward without Gore Verbinski, the director of the opening trilogy. On Monday, Powers sounded like a man who wishes he could cast a voodoo spell on all the Hollywood players who are navigating the cinematic ship of the ‘Pirates’ franchise. ‘Nobody talk to each other, everyone just stand and smile, don’t do anything to mess this up, let’s keep this going, OK?’

-- Geoff Boucher


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Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and the Muppets feel the D23 love

Tim Powers photo courtesy of the author.

UPDATED: I typed ‘Civil War’ instead of ‘Cold War’ in an earlier version of this post when describing the novel ‘Declare.’

Thanks to reader SF Strangelove for catching that.