A shipshape translation

Times Staff Writer

The movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" brings all of today's thunder and breathlessness to adventures of the early 19th century. The novel from which it was drawn, of course, does not -- not in design, not in effect, not by leagues.

But what we have here, Patrick O'Brian fans, is less jarring a collision of visions than might be expected.

Books or movie? That's not apt to get you far this time. Filmmaker Peter Weir's rendering of seagoing warfare two centuries ago arrived Friday as a flashy garnish, a riveting visual accompaniment, to the 20 lush and astonishing volumes in O'Brian's serial novel of Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin in the service of the British Royal Navy circa 1800-onward.

For those not familiar with these erudite and variegated books of the sea, friendship, love, honor, music, adventure and discovery -- and yes, of war -- the two-hour film will provide a tantalizing preface.

For the vast legions of grown-ups who have been hooked on O'Brian like no stories since adolescence, the film offers a boisterous, booming afterword.

Weir pulls but a single thread from O'Brian's tapestry: a running sea chase and attendant violent battles. There are none of the O'Brian women, the briefest of his grand interludes, little of land, scant introspection and mere suggestion of the deep bottom that kept the books on course for more than a generation.

But with Russell Crowe stepping from the page as a convincing "Lucky Jack," the film arouses senses in ways that even O'Brian could not. It is one thing, for instance, to read about the deafening roar of cannons; it is very much another to be deafened by such a roar. When a cannonball smashes into oak on the big screen, hang on.

Six weeks before his death, I enjoyed a long conversation with O'Brian. It was mid-November 1999, and he had come to New York to be honored by the likes of Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley Jr. and hundreds of others who agreed with literary critics that O'Brian had produced the most formidable body of historical fiction ever written in English.

At the venerable New York Yacht Club, Richard F. Snow, editor of American Heritage magazine, marveled at O'Brian's effect on even sophisticated readers: "There flows from the audience very something like reverence. It's something you don't see with other authors. It's what the great novelists do." The next day, O'Brian and I shared a pot of tea over a dining table in the apartment of his U.S. editor. A notoriously aloof and cerebral man, O'Brian was not, however, immune to recognition. He expressed approval of Hollywood's interest in bringing his work to the screen. For one thing, he said with a sly grin of satisfaction, he stood to make a "good deal" of money in the bargain.

Although frail and feeling "very near ancient," O'Brian was still at work that winter. His books had sold in the many millions, and he announced that he was halfway through Chapter 3 of Vol. 21, writing about 1,000 words a day. Asked about his technique, he again flashed a smile: "May I start at the beginning? I take a blank sheet of paper and I take a pen and I write Page 1. And I go on to about Page 365, and at that point I write 'the end.' " O'Brian went out that evening for another full broadside of literary salutes but then felt weak and canceled the remainder of his trip. He returned to his widower's apartment at Trinity College in Dublin. He died Jan. 2, 2000, at age 85.

That same year, Weir began "casting" for the right ship to portray O'Brian's fictional 28-gun frigate, HMS Surprise. The filmmaker settled on the 500-ton, 179-foot American square-rigger Rose, a fetching replica of an 18th century British 6th-rater. Twentieth Century Fox bought the vessel and had it sailed from Rhode Island to San Diego, where it was enlarged and otherwise made over Hollywood-style.

In recent years, journalists and biographers discovered that O'Brian's own life had been a fiction and not always an agreeable one. But his work has continued to grow in esteem and popularity -- a collection of 2 million or so words that provide readers with that rarest of things: a safe harbor from the vertigo of our helter-skelter age of globalism.

In the custody of O'Brian's precise and full-bodied imagination, we are made to alter course. We are transported back to an era where people possessed time, not the other way around. With near perfect re-creation of period language and perceptions, he recalls the days when friendships lasted a lifetime, when honor was foremost among virtues, when language breathed with eloquence, when our own tiny planet was still big enough to discover -- and, yes, when brutish conquest motivated men to kill one another, as always.

O'Brian's story unfolds year by year, book by book at the graceful velocity of a three-decker, and with corresponding momentum. Along the way, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin become not just each other's friends but our friends. To an O'Brian reader, just mention of a character like "Diana" conjures a bittersweet lifetime of desire. "Sir Joseph" is enough to convey humankind's endless capacity for intrigue.

Weir provides a different tempo entirely. This is a state-of-the-art action film, edited with the fury of a machine-gun. There is no time for the likes of Sir Joseph or Diana. In fact, women are relegated to passing glances: a suggestive moment of eye contact between Jack and a stranger during a re-supply stop and a peek at the captain's unfinished letter to his wife, Sophie, a letter that O'Brian fans will recognize as running through the whole of the novel, bringing to mind an English country estate, a shrewish mother-in-law, lathered horses, countless swindles, partisan London politics and the squeals of children in the garden.

Seafaring verisimilitude

But the movie is far from just reductionism. Perhaps never have special effects so successfully depicted the ferocity of a storm at sea. Ditto the shock and sensory-assault of 18th century naval battles, which continue on screen, as in real life, longer that one wishes to endure. On a smaller scale, the old wheeze about the "creaking" of a ship underway has never been more earnestly conveyed.

The claustrophobia of naval life aboard a tall ship turns out to be more convincing seen than described. Weir resists the commonplace temptation to place his camera afar and lollygag with panoramas. Instead, he keeps us mostly confined to the tossing decks, where we can barely move without rubbing bodies with other men or bashing our noggins on low overheads.

In my interview, I asked O'Brian about living in one epoch with the sensibilities of another. "It seems to me," he replied, "that just as the 17th century humanists inhabited both worlds, the classical and their own, you can perfectly inhabit two worlds." His remark could be extended to say that one can simultaneously appreciate both a throwback novel and the fast-forward film that emerges from it.

Besides, O'Brian added, there was much about the early 1800s that warrants no romanticizing: "Extremely dirty, extremely uncomfortable.... " In this instance, the writer left the proof up to the filmmaker. O'Brian held so close to the period in his story that his characters seldom ruminated on just how filthy they were. Weir reveals the dirty truth. When the camera walks us below decks, squeezing past cramped, disheveled, sweat-dampened, tooth-rotted sea-hands, we need no scratch-and-sniff card to fill in the scene.

O'Brian was famously exact with detail, Weir too. Polish actors, with their "18th century faces," fill in the cast for the ship's crew. As Weir explained in a briefing paper, he wanted "to get us as far away as possible from people raised on a Western diet, with Kodak-ready smiles or expressions of world-weary cynicism."

OK, but what about Maturin? In anticipation of the movie's release, this question absorbed O'Brian readers above all. They will find that Weir has taken great license with this most complex and inward of the story's characters. Handsome and fair-haired Paul Bettany replaces the "small, dark ... ill-looking" Stephen of O'Brian's creation. The terms of friendship between Maturin and Aubrey, which is the intricate and many-jointed backbone of the serial novel, is implied rather than explored. The movie has taken license elsewhere too. The title of O'Brian's first book in the series is combined with the 10th for the movie. The plot has been altered to reflect modern-day geopolitics: Capt. Aubrey's around-the-horn quarry is no longer the U.S. frigate Norfolk but the heavy French privateer Acheron.

Still, O'Brian was a novelist, not a historian -- and license was his bread-and-butter. "A kernel of fact in my fiction," he would say. He wrote to delight himself. It delighted him enormously that he gathered and engaged such a vast following.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" brings more than a kernel of O'Brian's grand fiction to the screen. Every reader of the series is entitled to an opinion, and mine is that the old man would have found himself smiling, heartily so, at the sight of an Academy Award-winning actor in command of the Surprise, riding high on the topmast, glassing the open ocean for a foe. Tolerable, he might have said, tolerable indeed.

John Balzar can be reached at john.balzar@latimes.com.

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