Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT  |  Sept. 10, 2002 at 10:06 AM
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HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- Can a two-hour movie possibly do justice to a 30-year literary saga taken from the works of the distinguished novelist Patrick O'Brian?

Perhaps not, but that is the intent of director Peter Weir and Fox Studios with its secretive production of "The Far Side of the World," one of 20 volumes from O'Brian's massive naval epic of the Napoleonic Wars ago.

This film is a major incursion by movies on the works of a legendary author who stands alone among contemporary writers of historical fiction.

O'Brian's tales of Capt. Jack Aubrey and his "particular friend," physician and superspy Stephen Maturin, are superb classics read with fanatic devotion worldwide.

While O'Brian, who died two years ago, cannot be compared to Shakespeare, he was a master of the English language. Book reviewers universally praised his work as do millions of readers.

Many Internet sites reflect O'Brian's amazing popularity, his every book and each of his major characters are researched with a thoroughness unknown to contemporary authors.

To writers O'Brian is a greater hero than Lucky Jack Aubrey, his brilliant warrior, and more clever by half than his devious sidekick Maturin.

O'Brian has created hundreds of lives known to his readers, vibrant, living men and women, each endowed with shortcomings, wit, eccentricities and "little ways" who stay charmingly within their idiosyncratic entities.

O'Brian's uncanny attention to detail and sense of time -- late 18th century to mid-19th century -- rivals Dickens.

He recreates the lingua franca, food, habits, dress, rites, superstitions, patois and class distinctions more precisely than a pack of sociologists.

To read O'Brian is to board a time machine back 200 years to mingle with living, breathing Britons, many Europeans, Africans, South Sea Islanders, American colonists -- the entire human spectrum of the era.

His adventurous heroes sail the seven seas fighting innumerable naval battles, all scrupulously researched and historically accurate from international naval records, letters and the British Admiralty.

O'Brian's stories explore the immense panoply of 18th and 19th century civilizations, including religion, politics, agriculture, zoology, astronomy, botany and the ever magical world of tall stately sailing ships that coursed the seas for his Britannic Majesty.

History unfolds in all its splendor and filth, providing a unique framework for the sometimes piratical protagonists, ever alert to sink the enemy or capture a "prize."

Readers become as acquainted with Barret Bondon, Aubrey's loyal coxswain; Preserved Killick, his shrewish steward; as his beautiful wife, Sophie; and her stunning cousin, Dianna.

On every page O'Brian's astonishing prose offers verbal pictures that cannot very well be translated to the screen.

Everywhere can be found figures of speech, bold, imaginative word usage and charming etymological grace notes that soar above the narrative itself, creating an enchanting resurrection of a bygone world.

O'Brian's books contain elements of great literature, and are found in the literature department of book stores.

The words might seem stilted to today's audiences accustomed to the graceless jargon of sitcoms and screen writers.

Russell Crowe, an Oscar-winner for "Gladiator," will star as Aubrey, a miscasting.

Aubrey is a tall (6-foot-4) broad-chested man of enormous vitality with bright yellow hair, deep blue eyes and a benign grin, beneath which lies a voracious lust for life and passion for violent battle.

No actor alive or in the past could play Aubrey believably, save perhaps Charlton Heston (an avid fan). Each reader has affixed Jack Aubrey indelibly in his mind. No mere actor would do.

Stephen Maturin will be played by Paul Bettany, an unfamiliar face, which may be to the good.

Maturin is a saturnine eccentric, ill-favored small man with pale eyes, little hair and a physique that would do credit to Don Knotts.

O'Brian writes with keen insight into his fully developed characters, their triumphs, appetites, folly, courage and weaknesses.

Neither Aubrey nor Maturin, while respecting each other, consider themselves heroes or anything like. They are absorbed by concern for God and country, but given to sumptuous meals, pleasure of the flesh and above all duty and the welfare of subordinates.

Movies invariably infuse their heroes with the sure knowledge of their magnanimity and bravery.

Aubrey and Maturin are too occupied doing their jobs, establishing their families, homes, reputations and financial status.

O'Brian's agile filips of action, surprising tenderness, outrageous comedy and thrilling sea battles radiate random emotion from outrageous guffaws to spellbinding dramatic tension to tears, even in the most cynical reader.

Each of his books, from "Master and Commander" to "Blue at the Mizzen," has its own substance and narrative with thought-provoking, sometimes heart-wrenching passion.

Can a single movie convey depth and clarity of character, complexities, idealism, faults and transcendent reaches of the human heart and mind as has the genius of O'Brian?

Reading the books will provide the answer.

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