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Can 20 Literate Novels Yield 1 Good Film?

Movies* Patrick O'Brian fans feel hope and horror about the Fox project, starring Russell Crowe.

September 04, 2002|KEN RINGLE | WASHINGTON POST

ROSARITO, Mexico — Fox Studios Baja sits beside one of Mexico's dirtiest, most litter-strewn roadways, about 25 miles south of the U.S. border. Across the street teeters a phalanx of thrown-together shacks crowded with rusting lawn ornaments and terra-cotta palm pots. Within the guarded studio gate, a 20-foot-tall inflatable monkey wobbles astride the replica turret blown from the replica battleship Arizona in Fox's cinematic version of "Pearl Harbor," which was filmed here.

It's a stunningly improbable setting in which to contemplate the novels of Patrick O'Brian, whose highly literate 20-book Aubrey-Maturin saga celebrates the wondrous, the noble and the poignantly heroic in man, and is currently being filmed, at least in part, here.

The $135-million motion picture is "The Far Side of the World," a cinematic treatment of the 10th of O'Brian's tales of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. It stars Russell Crowe, the Oscar-winning actor of "A Beautiful Mind," as Capt. "Lucky Jack" Aubrey and is directed by Australian Peter Weir, whose acclaimed films include "Gallipoli," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Dead Poets Society," "Witness," "The Mosquito Coast" and, most recently, "The Truman Show."

The cast includes Paul Bettany (Crowe's college roommate in "A Beautiful Mind") as Aubrey's surgeon-spy companion, Stephen Maturin and Billy Boyd (Pippin in "The Lord of the Rings") as Aubrey's coxswain, Barrett Bonden.

Shooting began in June and is expected to conclude by November, with release of the film possible late next year.

For O'Brian's millions of passionate worldwide fans, what's happening here is a constant subject both of hope and of horror. They fear that no film project could ever do justice to O'Brian's novels, whose mischievous erudition resembles an improbable blend of Jane Austen, C.S. Forester, Charles Dickens and Marcel Proust.

The books carry Aubrey and Maturin on global adventures afloat and ashore during a somewhat elastic 15-year period when the Royal Navy is contending with Napoleon's ambitions in Europe and, for a while, with the fledgling U.S. Navy. Layered beneath Aubrey's erratic climb through the naval ranks are profound explorations of life and the human heart. Richard Snow, editor of American Heritage Magazine, writing in the New York Times, described the series as "the greatest historical novels ever written."

So ardent and proprietary are O'Brian readers that long before the author died in Dublin in January 2000, entire Web sites were devoted to fantasy suggestions for which actors, living or dead, could best play the swashbuckling Aubrey, the secretive Maturin and others in O'Brian's galaxy of memorable characters.

But rather than reassuring or involving this literary fan base, as Warner Bros. did with pre-"Harry Potter" blitzes, Fox has attempted Ft. Knox-level secrecy. Last November, for example, a studio spokesman denied that any O'Brian picture was in preparation even as Weir's wife confirmed from Australia that the director was in London casting the film.

More than 300 extras have been hired for the fight scenes, and a reasonably clear picture of the movie-making emerges from willing, if cautious, cast members and workers despite the best efforts of studio lawyers and the "40-some" executives Fox publicist Sandy O'Neill says must approve any statement to or access by the press.

"What everybody but Fox executives seems to realize," said one extra, "is that with 5 million O'Brian books in print in this country, never mind those worldwide, O'Brian's readers are in a position to either make or break this film. And that decision is presently balanced on a pinhead."

That pinhead is the mysterious 400-page script penned by Weir, John Collee and Larry Ferguson that reportedly changes daily. By best accounts, it is a kind of O'Brian pastiche, in which the more provocative ingredients of the 20 volumes are pasted onto a plot drawn largely from "The Far Side of the World."

That O'Brian book sent Aubrey, Maturin and the Surprise around Cape Horn during the War of 1812 in an effort to sink or capture an American warship preying on British whalers in the Pacific. Weir apparently decided that compared with the fleet actions, exotic locales and intricate and crowded period settings of most O'Brian books, the more limited scope of "Far Side of the World" lent itself better to budgetary realities.

Fox marketers reportedly worry that, abbreviated on theater marquees, "Far Side" might lead moviegoers to think it's a Gary Larson movie. They also decided the American public would never hold still for the United States as the enemy (have they never heard of "Madama Butterfly"?), so the Norfolk has been renationalized as the French vessel Acheron.

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