“Treasure Island” (2012): old story, new telling

Can a movie adaptation of a book I have read, and also have seen two other adaptations beforehand (plus two variations thereof, plus two seasons of a prequel Netflix series) surprise me in any way? This 2012 adaptation of “Treasure Island” not only did, but it also had me truly captivated.

The trick, it seems, is in changing the source material in a way for it to not steer too far from the original and still be a faithful adaptation, but to introduce or change elements just enough for those familiar with the story to not know what to expect. (The same trick is being done by the amazing new adaptation of “Anne of Green Gables” in the form of “Anne with an E”, also available on Netflix.) And there were multiple times throughout this 3 hours long movie when I sincerely didn’t know what will happen next. I’m sure the literary purist will frown at the expanded scenes and backstories absent from the book, because almost every character got some. The movie even starts with an introduction of Captain Flint (in this role Donald Sutherland, who in the autumn of his career seemingly wants to star as every villain possible) and his betrayal of his loyal crew. Including, surprisingly, Long John, whom we know along with his henchmen and their motivations from the very beginning.

This might sound like a strange idea, but it makes sense, since the writers traded off a “twist” that is well known in culture for fleshing out the characters more. In the book both the heroes and the villains were admittedly pretty one dimensional. Save for Long John – who alone escaped such clear label, and this is what the book was about in the end – the villains were all treacherous and greedy pirates, and the heroes were all noble and honorable gentlemen. This movie moved the characterization more into the 21st century storytelling, from black and white to grey and grey scale. Billy Bones is no longer an obnoxious drunk but a fun company for the Benbow Inn attendees (and he even sings more of the famous “Derelict” shanty than the two verses from the book, but reaching to the version expanded by Young E. Allison). The good Dr Livesey does not berate Bones for his drinking problem, as in this version he suffers from one himself. While some of the flashback occasionally break the pacing (the doctor’s wife, for example), it helps to fill some of the plot holes I’ve found in the book (like, why did Jim help the people who hunted Billy Bones? Why did he leave the stockade?)

But the definitely best part is Long John Silver. I have to admit, I had a hard time imagining Eddie Izzard – whom I adore for his standup routines and charity work, but had only seen him on screen as the henchman of Sean Connery in the abomination of “The Avengers” (not to be confused with the Marvel one) – even trying to compete with the likes of Charlton Heston or Tim Curry. But he surpassed and is the best on-screen incarnation I’ve seen so far. (Well, among the serious ones, because Tim Curry is still Tim Curry.) He’s given some backstory too, more fleshed out scenes with his henchmen, the ship crew and his wife, and all this makes him a more sympathetic character, while his friendship with Jim Hawkins works amazingly well.

The biggest change, though, is with the Squire Trelawney (played, funnily enough, by Rupert Penly-Jones, known from “Black Sails”, the aforementioned prequel to “Treasure Island” in the form of a Netflix show, as a dear friend of none other Captain Flint himself) who is made from a gentleman into an actual villain of the story. This shift is what makes this move the most interesting, as the shifting allegiances of characters – mostly Jim, also played beautifully by Tony Regbo from “Mr Nobody” – is made into a true moral quandary that I followed from the edge of my seat even knowing the book already almost by heart.

Image result for elijah wood treasure island
Oh, and did I mention Frodo Baggins plays the cheese-obsessed maroon of Ben Gunn?

As the additions go, while I admire the idea of expanding the role of women in the story by giving some actual subplot to the mother of Jim (played by Harry Potter’s Moaning Myrtle, by the way) and the wife of Long John, cutting back to them broke the pacing even more and with the movie’s abrupt ending (modern Deus eX style, as if they suddenly ran out of time or money) it ended up going literally nowhere.

A word about the style. The movie was directed by Steve Barron whom you may not know by name, but you’re surely familiar with his work, as he’s behind all the most amazing music videos that made all our collective childhoods. He’s done Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing”, Toto’s “Africa” and A-ha’s almost everything, including “Take On Me”. And while all this is amazing, his music video directing style is too visible in the camera work and sometimes truly distracting scene transitions. On the other hand, the music itself is really good, and this might also be thanks to where he’s coming from.

In the end, I really didn’t expect this 3-hours experience to grab me as much as it did. And Eddie Izzard’s version of Long John Silver is something truly worth watching!

This review is also available on my Letterboxd profile.

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