Treasure Island

Maybe I’m biased, but I would almost dare to say that if you didn’t read Treasure Island as a kid, then your childhood was incomplete. I so vividly remember my reading of it in 4th Grade; every day we were assigned quiet reading (if we had finished our work), and every day I walked over to the shelf and picked up Treasure Island until I had finished it, and then I read it all over again. Of course, over a period of 15 years I’ve forgotten more of it than I remember, but I can still remember the room and the smell and the accompanied anticipation fo the bell ringing and, of course, the magic of the story itself. It’s probably odd, then, to say that I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations, until this 1934 Victor Fleming/MGM version.

Even for those who haven’t read the book, the narrative has practically become a cornerstone of pirate lore. Jackie Cooper is young Jim Hawkins who runs an inn with his mother when one day a drunken sailor named Billy Bones (Lionel Barrymore) stumbles in with a huge chest, scared because of who’s after him. When he suddenly dies, Jim finds a treasure map in his chest, and he sets out with Captain Smollett (Lewis Stone) and Doctor Livesey (Otto Kruger) in search of the legendary treasure where “X marks the spot”. When searching for a suitable crew, Jim and Livesey runs into the one-legged, parrot wielding, Long John Silver (Wallace Beery) who promises to put a crew together if he can be chef. Little does Jim, Livesey, or the Captain know that Silver and his crew are pirates, waiting for their opportunity to steal the treasure themselves.

Considering the distance between the age I read the book and now, it’s difficult for me to assess just how “faithful” the movie is, but I’ve always been a proponent that, frequently, the best way for a movie to remain faithful to its source material is to be as unfaithful as possible. Literature and film are simply too different to ever make 1:1 adaptations. From what I do remember, it does seem that the ruthlessness of Silver is toned down a bit in the film, and his relationship with Hawkins seems a bit more sentimental than it did in the book. The book certainly had the theme of Silver being a surrogate father-figure to Jim, but two definite changes that illustrates the difference in the two; in the book, Jim’s father was alive, while in the film he’s either dead or absent, and in the novel, Silver ends up leaving his beloved parrot to Jim, which didn’t happen in the novel.

The cast—perhaps the single most important element when adapting great/popular literature, as everyone has their own conceptions of what the characters look and act like—is mixed, but mostly solid. The biggest disappointment is Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, who plays him much younger than he was in the book. In the film, Jackie looks like he’s about 9 or 10 while in the book he was a teenager. This wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t play him with such an annoying saccharine precociousness. The “Gee!”s and “Well, bless my soul!”s get old quick, and his protruding, sad lip turns him from a sympathetic and confused adolescent hero into the cinematic equivalent of ipecac. The supporting cast is barely on screen enough to make much of an impact, but they are quite good, especially Lionel Barrymore as the perpetually drunk and boisterous Billy Bones.

But Wallace Beery’s Long John Silver is the heart and soul of the film. Silver is one of those characters that I can imagine (as a non-actor myself, of course) would be such fun to play. He has the gregariousness of Shakespeare’s Falstaff with the moral ambiguity of Richard III. It places perhaps the ultimate burden on its performer, as the character has to by witty, charming, and likable while, at the same time, committing undeniably despicably immoral acts. Beery not only achieves this, but handles it with the kind of aplomb that makes it look effortless. We like his Silver from the moment he steps on screen, even when we easily see past his façade of lies. Of the whole cast, Beery also feels the most natural—of course, natural in relation to early film standards—and least forced, the most genuine and believable from the moment he steps on screen.

Beery’s presence in the film is so grand, however, that it seems to overshadow everything else, including the other actors and the story itself. The book certainly made the action/adventure angle of the story more palpable and exciting, but the film seems to downplay this in favor of the character drama. This isn’t all bad, and the miracle of Beery’s Silver is that he manages to make us care about Cooper’s Jim by the sheer fact that HE cares about him. It’s one of those “we like him via proxy” concepts, and because our emotional investment lies with Beery’s silver, it becomes easier and easier to transfer that to Jim’s disillusionment. The ending illustrates this perfectly when Jim decides to release Silver from prison, allowing him to escape, and Silver says goodbye to Jim before taking off; it’s a profoundly affecting moment, I was surprised to even find myself shedding a tear.

The film does maintain much of the themes of the book, including the conflict between truth and loyalty, most importantly. Luckily, it’s not insistent on these themes, but they do crop up naturally within the course of the film, especially during the scene in which Jim is being held hostage by the pirates after their “treaty” with the other shipment. Jim promises Silver he won’t run away, and even when the Captain trains his gun on Silver, allowing Jim the opportunity to escape, he refuses to. Such themes probably escaped me when I was younger, but looking back on it (through the lens of the film, obviously) it is rather remarkable how ambiguous Treasure Island is for a children’s book. It almost never presents easy answers, and it certainly doesn’t moralize.

Behind the camera may be the film’s secret weapon in Victor Fleming. If you have any interest in film history, then the name should bring two films immediately to mind: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Both of which were (largely) directed by Fleming in the same year (1939) in Technicolor. But Fleming was a highly skilled and successful directorial craftsman long before them, and he epitomized the Hollywood Golden Age of craftsman who were intimately familiar with their art, and never felt the need to be ostentatious about it. There is definitely the kind of natural ease to the images and charming melodrama to the emotions that were also an essential part of both Gone with the Wind and Oz. Fleming, like Ford, was a harsh taskmaster that, nonetheless, seemed to have a sentimental side, both of which come through in the authority and emotional substance in the films themselves.

Ultimately, this film adaptation might not capture all of the magic of the book, but on the strength of Beery’s performance alone I find it difficult to complain too much. With a better actor playing Jim this may have been the definitive version, but given my reservations on that front I’m inclined to search elsewhere and compare. That said, this is still a wonderfully enjoyable film from beginning to end, and one that truly gets better as it goes on. With assured direction, a rich (but not gaudy) production, and a great actor playing one of the great literary characters of all time, it certainly has enough to recommend it without me slapping any kind of “definitive” label on it just yet.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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