Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island cover

“Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars of Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17- and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

Regardless of what you think of Treasure Island as a story (and we’ll get there, not to worry), its importance in establishing modern adventure tropes can’t be denied. So many of the things we think of when we imagine pirates – peg legs, parrots on shoulders, fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, the Black Spot – were invented by Stevenson in this book. Basically every single portrayal of pirates created after this story is based in some way on what Stevenson wrote, so if nothing else I appreciate this book for providing us with everything from Captain Hook to Jack Sparrow. (“Captain Jack Sparrow.”)

So it’s just too bad that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. Sure, it’s exciting for a while, what with the murderous pirates attacking the inn and Jim Hawkins setting out on a crazy treasure-hunting adventure, but around the time they get to the island the plot grinds practically to a halt. It takes chapters and chapters for them to get anywhere or do anything, and I was immensely appreciative of how movie versions of this story make sure to move the action along quickly once they land on the island. Also, Book Jim is kind of an idiot – he stows away with Silver & Co. when they row to the island (even though Jim knows that Silver is evil) just for the hell of it, and then once his friends save his ass he abandons them again again, because the best thing to do when you’re on a strange island full of pirates who want to kill you is go exploring without telling anyone.

Also you’ll notice in the passage I quoted above that Jim’s father is alive at the beginning of the story. He dies pretty quickly, but I prefer how in the movie versions Jim’s dad is long gone, having abandoned his son or died a long time ago. It just makes more narrative sense: in order for him to latch on to Long John Silver so quickly, Jim needs to be saddled with enough daddy issues to embarrass a stripper.

So in conclusion, I’m glad I read this book, if only to appreciate its cultural significance, but the movie versions I’ve seen are infinitely more enjoyable.

(In case anyone is curious, I have seen two different film versions of Treasure Island. First is Muppet Treasure Island, which makes Stevenson’s original seem plodding and boring and horribly miscast – Captain Smollett is and always will be Kermit, and there has never been a better Long John Silver than Tim Curry. Also, Disney’s experimental steampunk take on the story, Treasure Planet is highly underrated, in my opinion.)

Verdict: two out of five stars

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. There’s the recent Sky adaptation, starring Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver—it’s a very depressing adaptation in tone, but Izzard is quite good and the kid playing Jim looks like the lovechild of Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

    But yeah, Treasure Planet is severely underrated; the JGL! The theme song! The Emma Thompson!

    • It’s so great! I don’t own it, but every now and then I re-watch it on YouTube. I only saw it for the firs time three years ago, but I vividly remember seeing the trailer in a movie theater before it came out (I would have been about twelve) and having dreams about those hovercrafts the night after.

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