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A shipshape translation

'Master and Commander' is leaner and speedier than Patrick O'Brian's serial novel, but readers can breathe easy.

November 16, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

The movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" brings all of today's thunder and breathlessness to adventures of the early 19th century. The novel from which it was drawn, of course, does not -- not in design, not in effect, not by leagues.

But what we have here, Patrick O'Brian fans, is less jarring a collision of visions than might be expected.

Books or movie? That's not apt to get you far this time. Filmmaker Peter Weir's rendering of seagoing warfare two centuries ago arrived Friday as a flashy garnish, a riveting visual accompaniment, to the 20 lush and astonishing volumes in O'Brian's serial novel of Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin in the service of the British Royal Navy circa 1800-onward.

For those not familiar with these erudite and variegated books of the sea, friendship, love, honor, music, adventure and discovery -- and yes, of war -- the two-hour film will provide a tantalizing preface.

For the vast legions of grown-ups who have been hooked on O'Brian like no stories since adolescence, the film offers a boisterous, booming afterword.

Weir pulls but a single thread from O'Brian's tapestry: a running sea chase and attendant violent battles. There are none of the O'Brian women, the briefest of his grand interludes, little of land, scant introspection and mere suggestion of the deep bottom that kept the books on course for more than a generation.

But with Russell Crowe stepping from the page as a convincing "Lucky Jack," the film arouses senses in ways that even O'Brian could not. It is one thing, for instance, to read about the deafening roar of cannons; it is very much another to be deafened by such a roar. When a cannonball smashes into oak on the big screen, hang on.

Six weeks before his death, I enjoyed a long conversation with O'Brian. It was mid-November 1999, and he had come to New York to be honored by the likes of Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley Jr. and hundreds of others who agreed with literary critics that O'Brian had produced the most formidable body of historical fiction ever written in English.

At the venerable New York Yacht Club, Richard F. Snow, editor of American Heritage magazine, marveled at O'Brian's effect on even sophisticated readers: "There flows from the audience very something like reverence. It's something you don't see with other authors. It's what the great novelists do." The next day, O'Brian and I shared a pot of tea over a dining table in the apartment of his U.S. editor. A notoriously aloof and cerebral man, O'Brian was not, however, immune to recognition. He expressed approval of Hollywood's interest in bringing his work to the screen. For one thing, he said with a sly grin of satisfaction, he stood to make a "good deal" of money in the bargain.

Although frail and feeling "very near ancient," O'Brian was still at work that winter. His books had sold in the many millions, and he announced that he was halfway through Chapter 3 of Vol. 21, writing about 1,000 words a day. Asked about his technique, he again flashed a smile: "May I start at the beginning? I take a blank sheet of paper and I take a pen and I write Page 1. And I go on to about Page 365, and at that point I write 'the end.' " O'Brian went out that evening for another full broadside of literary salutes but then felt weak and canceled the remainder of his trip. He returned to his widower's apartment at Trinity College in Dublin. He died Jan. 2, 2000, at age 85.

That same year, Weir began "casting" for the right ship to portray O'Brian's fictional 28-gun frigate, HMS Surprise. The filmmaker settled on the 500-ton, 179-foot American square-rigger Rose, a fetching replica of an 18th century British 6th-rater. Twentieth Century Fox bought the vessel and had it sailed from Rhode Island to San Diego, where it was enlarged and otherwise made over Hollywood-style.

In recent years, journalists and biographers discovered that O'Brian's own life had been a fiction and not always an agreeable one. But his work has continued to grow in esteem and popularity -- a collection of 2 million or so words that provide readers with that rarest of things: a safe harbor from the vertigo of our helter-skelter age of globalism.

In the custody of O'Brian's precise and full-bodied imagination, we are made to alter course. We are transported back to an era where people possessed time, not the other way around. With near perfect re-creation of period language and perceptions, he recalls the days when friendships lasted a lifetime, when honor was foremost among virtues, when language breathed with eloquence, when our own tiny planet was still big enough to discover -- and, yes, when brutish conquest motivated men to kill one another, as always.

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