The fans of Patrick O'Brian's sea-faring novels awaited the movie version with just as much anticipation and trepidation as did the 12-year-olds lining up for Harry Potter. Fortunately, director Peter Weir and superstar actor Russell Crowe, who plays Jack Aubrey, are both O'Brian fans who respect the material just as Peter Jackson respects The Lord of the Rings.
But books and movies are two different animals. The imagination is far less limited than the silver screen. A book with hundreds of pages that can take weeks to read can do far more with a story than a tale that has to be finished within two hours in a multiplex.
The title of the film combines those of two different novels, which will prove confusing to those who run to the bookstore after watching the movie. Master and Commander is the first of the 20 books in the series, introducing Jack in his first command, a tiny, unseaworthy vessel that he nevertheless turns into a scourge of the Mediterranean. We also see how he meets Stephen Maturin, a ship's surgeon and naturalist, whose nerd-like personality does not prevent him from also being a secret agent who makes 007 seem like an amateur.
The movie, though, does nothing with the novel for which it is named-apparently wanting to show Jack at his prime rather than as a beginner-so for its plot it jumps ahead to No. 10 in the series. But The Far Side of the World is also changed. Besides having far fewer sea battles than the book does, the movie has them chasing a French ship. In the book, it is an American privateer. Today, the French-bashing in the movie warms the heart, but a film showing the British side in the War of 1812 would hardly serve. (Though in The Fortune of War, Jack gets defeated by the U.S.S. Constitution.)
The movie does nail the details, though, of the novels. It shows the beauty of those tall ships and the teamwork and discipline it takes to sail them-and what cannon balls fired at point-blank range can do to a wooden boat and its crew. The film faithfully depicts the Mozart playing, Stephen operating on himself, Jack holding church services on deck.
Missing, though, is the interplay between the land and the sea that gives the characters complexity. Jack is indeed a master when he is at sea, but he is hopelessly inept when he goes ashore, always getting swindled and having to stay one step ahead of debtor's prison. Stephen is comically inept at sea, but he is a master of intrigue when he gets on land.
None of that is in the movie. But fans can at least hope for 19 sequels.