Good Books: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson; Good Movies: Treasure Island, 1950

Sometime around 1951, I saw Treasure Island  and was delighted. What a great movie, I thought, and the hero was a kid! Like me! About a year ago I got a DVD that promised to be a copy of the original film. I am fully aware that memories tarnish over time and did not expect Treasure Island to hold up after more than sixty years. But it did! I read Treasure Island as a kid and several times since, it is a fine novel. And I have seen a number of illustrations for the book done by different artists, and read the Classics Illustrated comic. Anyway, I want to review the movie (as it exists on DVD) and take a look at the book with an eye to plot differences. Along the way, I’ll mention some of the illustrators who worked on this title. (This post is image-heavy and may take a while to load. Many of the illustrations will embiggen if you click on them.)

Stevenson claimed to have been inspired by a map, possibly of one of the Scottish isles re-imagined as a pirate treasure location, by his step-son. (The map is reproduced in many editions of the book.) He also says that he set out to write a book for boys. And although it is true there are no girls in the book — the only female character is Jim’s mother, who does not appear in the Disney film at all — many young women read this novel or watch this movie with enjoyment. (One woman who was enthralled by Treasure Island was J.M.Barrie’s mother, who tried to hide her enjoyment from her novelist son for fear she would be seen as disloyal.)

The map (from the Swanston Collected R.L.Stevenson, available at gutenburg.org)

The map (from the Swanston Collected R.L.Stevenson, available at gutenburg.org) The Disney film map shows only the islet in the bottom right corner, which is where the treasure is buried.

The book begins with Jim Hawkins saying that all these events occurred years before, which is taken by cranky critics to be a spoiler, because that means the reader knows that Jim will survive. That just shows how little these critics understand literature. Anyway, Jim’s recollections begin with the wasting away of his father who dies leaving Jim and his mom to look after the Admiral Benbow Inn, located in coastal Devon. A guest named Billy Bones takes up residence at the inn during the period of Mr. Hawkins’ decline, and he is a thoroughly disagreeable mean drunk. He promises various payments to Jim’s parents and Jim himself, and cheats all three. He threatens the guests, has nasty drunken fits, and is generally a blight on the landscape. Here we might note that Stevenson never romanticizes his pirate characters — they are all scum and you don’t want to turn your back on any of them. Bones enlists Jim as lookout: the boy is to watch for seamen inquiring about him and, in particular, he is to watch for a one-legged man, who is to be feared.

Finlay Currie as Billy Bones, getting ready to take his last drink.

Finlay Currie as Billy Bones, getting ready to take his last drink.

One day, a man with a nasty scar on his face does turn up at the Admiral Benbow, looking for Billy Bones. This is where the Disney movie begins. Jim lies and says he knows no such man but the scarred man notices a sea-trunk, marked “WB” and knows that this means “William Bones”. Jim reports to Bones (played by Finlay Currie, who I believe, never, ever played a thoroughly unlikeable character) who immediately identifies the scarred man as Black Dog, which is not a name associated with Goodness and Mercy. In the book, Bones and Black Dog clash and Billy Bones drives the other pirate away.

Billy Bones: catches his sword in the inn sign when he swings at Black Dog by John Cameron; gets the Black Spot by Derek Eyles; is found dead by Louis Rhead

Billy Bones: catches his sword in the inn sign when he swings at Black Dog by John Cameron; gets the Black Spot by Derek Eyles; is found dead by Louis Rhead

Soon enough, another visitor arrives at the Admiral Benbow: Blind Pew, an uncanny figure who latches onto Jim with a vulture grip and demands to be guided to Billy Bones. This scene is handled much the same way in both book and movie. Pew makes Jim guide his hand to that of Bones and drops something into it. “Now that’s done!” he cackles and scuttles away. Bones opens his hand to reveal the Black Spot! A piece of paper with a black circle on it and the words, “after dark”, in the movie. The book has it after ten o’clock. “We have time,” shouts Bones, “We’ll do them yet!” But he collapses and dies. In the book, Jim informs us that this is the second person he has seen die, the first being his father. Now, memory of the first being “fresh in his heart”, he bursts into tears, though he never liked Billy Bones. What he doesn’t say is that he will witness quite a few more deaths over the next year or so.

Pew grabs Jim,left to right: by Frank Godwin, a comics artist whose masterful pen and ink illustrations are some of the best for Treasure Island; Roberto Innocenti, for a 2012 Italian translation of the novel.; Mervyn Peake, from 1947m still in print.

Pew grabs Jim,left to right: by Frank Godwin, a comics artist whose masterful pen and ink illustrations are some of the best for Treasure Island; Roberto Innocenti, for a 2012 Italian translation of the novel.; Mervyn Peake, from 1947 still in print.

In the movie, the dying Bones gives Jim a packet. In the book, he finds it in Billy Bones’ sea-chest which he and his mother are pillaging for the money owed them. Jim’s mother refuses to take a nickel more than her debt but the coins are all manner of issues and denominations and it takes a while to calculate. Jim urges her to take the lot, but she won’t because that is not the Right thing to do. So they are almost caught when the pirates suddenly swarm around the Admiral Benbow, not waiting until the appointed hour at all, those scurvy swabs. Jim and his mother hide outside while he ponders that they might be killed because of his mother’s “greed”. But, of course, it was not just greed, but righteousness, that caused her to delay. Jim is not quite what moderns call an unreliable narrator, but Stevenson makes it clear that he does not always see things the way others — including the reader — might. Later, Jim demonstrates a rather cavalier attitude toward doing the Right Thing. Have I made it clear yet that I admire Stevenson’s writing?

Now the cavalry arrives in the form of a posse of revenue agents called by Jim through the local lord, Squire Trelawney. The details and differences between book and movie aren’t important. What is important is that, during the confusion when the armed guard arrives and the pirates scatter, Blind Pew falls under their horses and is killed. In the book, that is; on the DVD nary a trace of Pew amongst the pirates. I thought I remembered… but possibly that’s an illustration I recall. Maybe Disney couldn’t bear to kill a blind man, even if that same blind man is one of the nastiest villains ever imagined. “It’s that boy,” says Pew, when the pirates can’t find the map, “I wish I had put his eyes out.” There’s echoes of fairy tales and myth in that declaration.

Top: Classics Illustrated #84 by Alex Blum. The face in the chopped-off panel at right is that of Billy Bones. Bottom: Pew seeking the aid of his shipmates, who have fled, by N.C. Wyeth, possibly the most famous illustrator for this story; Pew is ridden down by Edmond Dulac. Dulac was a great illustrator, but chose to see everything in Treasure Island from a distance. There is little of characters in his illustrations.

Top: Classics Illustrated #84 by Alex Blum. The face in the chopped-off panel at right is that of Billy Bones. Bottom: Pew seeking the aid of his shipmates, who have fled, by N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s colors are often very similar to those of the Technicolor Disney film; Pew is ridden down, by Edmund Dulac. Dulac was a great illustrator, but chose to see everything in Treasure Island from a distance. There is little of characters in his illustrations.

Jim turns the map over to Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey. The doctor, who had ministered to Billy Bones and tried to get him to stop drinking, is very upright, courageous, and, for Disney, a sort of father figure to Jim. In fact, the movie turns on which dad Jim will choose: the upright Livesey or the scoundrel Silver — but that’s yet to come. The Squire is a bluff gentleman, thick as a post, who cannot keep from blathering every thought that winks into his head. The Doctor tries to rein him in, but Squire Trelawney is a fool. Not that Doctor Livesey would allow you to say that, because he is as loyal as he is upright. At any rate, these two and Jim decide to sail after the treasure on the map.

The Squire sets out to Bristol where he finds a ship, the Hispaniola, and Captain Smollett to command her. He also runs his mouth about a treasure map and all the wrong type of seaman are attracted to him. All this is much the same in book and movie, except that Disney leaves out Jim taking leave of his mother and his old home. The lad setting out on his life adventure with both joy and apprehension, and the leavetaking of home, is older than fairy tales and the beginning of many great stories. Stevenson glosses this device. When Jim sees the boy who has been apprenticed to take over his work, he has an attack of tears. Then:

I am afraid I led that boy a dog’s life; for as he was new to the work, I had a hundred opportunities of setting him right and putting him down, and I was not slow to profit from them.

Jim is, you see, not a stainless hero but a genuine human being with both good and bad traits.

Jim leaves home, by N.C.Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations are perhaps the best-known. The original paintings are three feet by four and cost Wyeth an enormous effort but one that he felt was worth it. He called the Treasure Island illustrations “far better in every quality than anything I ever did.” Wyeth’s version has remained in print since 1911. (See end notes for more details on this edition.)

In Bristol, Jim finally meets the Old Sea-Cook, as an alternate title of Stevenson’s novel calls him. Long John Silver is a charming fellow. Although Jim remembers Billy Bones’ warning and is alarmed to meet a one-legged man, Silver soon charms him. In the movie, Silver gives Jim a pistol, which will figure in the later action; in the book, he simply talks Jim around. At one point, Jim spots Black Dog and gives the alarm. Silver sets men after the pirate, but, of course, they don’t catch him.

A bit more about Long John Silver from the book: He is now fifty years old. The men call him Barbecue. They say he has education and could have been something more than an ordinary seaman. And he is powerfully strong. Even with only one leg, the other seamen fear him. Silver has a wife, partner in his Bristol inn. She is a woman of color, a “negress” in the novel. The Squire has some casually racist things to say about her that Stevenson later exposes as gas when Silver explains to the other pirates that, the instant the Hispaniola sailed, his wife had sold up the inn and all their belongings, and now awaits his return with Flint’s treasure at a certain secret place in England. Silver also explains compound interest to his pirate buddies and says if they have any sense (which he knows they don’t) they will invest their loot, a little here, a little there, so as not to arose suspicion.

Long John Silver by Frank Schoonover, as played by Robert Newton, by Edward A. Wilson

Long John Silver by Frank Schoonover, as played by Robert Newton, by Edward A. Wilson

Both book and movie describe Silver’s outer trappings, the one leg, his parrot named Captain Flint that squawks “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” Both present him as a charming, scheming rogue — but he is also a murderous villain, more so in book than movie.

Perhaps here is the place to talk about Robert Newton’s wonderful performance as Long John Silver. It is said that Newton, who had been a major star in English film, was a complete alcoholic. The director, Byron Haskin, kept him working by continually asking his advice on how to do scenes and treating him with the respect due a legendary actor. If so, we owe Haskin a debt of gratitude for eliciting this great performance. (Haskin says that he simply let Newton rip and chew all the scenery he wished.) And it is a performance that everyone remembers. Every time someone goes “Arrrr” on Talk Like A Pirate Day, he is quoting Robert Newton, who adapted his native West Country dialect to the role. But kids in 1951 were the people who really appreciated the Newton performance. Robert Crumb has written about his older brother, Charles, who tied up a leg and crutched around the neighborhood so much that he actually damaged his ability to walk for a while. Others may speak of Wallace Beery or Charlton Heston (haven’t seen that one myself) but Robert Newton’s is The Great Portrayal of Long John Silver for ever. So I say.

From Robert Crumb, Treasure Island Days and from an early comic scripted by Charles, drawn by Robert. (The Complete Crumb Comics vol. 13 and vol. 1, respectively.)

From Robert Crumb, Treasure Island Days and from an early comic scripted by Charles, drawn by Robert. (The Complete Crumb Comics vol. 13 and vol. 1, respectively.)

The Hispaniola sails and the voyage is uneventful except for the death of the first mate, Arrow. He is drunk when he goes on deck in a storm and is swept away. In the book, Jim learns later that Silver has been feeding rum to Arrow; in the movie, Jim is made accomplice to Arrow’s killing by bringing the rum to Silver. That’s pretty heavy and something Stevenson would have made more of. As it stands, Jim winds up his adventure with PTSD — but that’s yet to come.

“Here ye are, Mister Harrow. Sweeten the plum duff to yer taste.” Arrow chugs at the bottle before lurching on deck. Silver pushes him above with his crutch.

Jim goes to fetch an apple from the barrel that stands where every man can help himself. Doctor Livesey thinks this a good health measure, Captain Smollett (in the book) believes it will make the men soft. Smollett is a brave commander, set in his ways. Some time or other I expect some grad student has written a thesis or a dissertation on Stevenson’s approach to class — his characters simply accept it as part of the world they live in, often they are ruled by assholes and that’s the way of it — but someone else can look that paper up. Where was I? Oh, yes! The apple barrel.

The barrel is almost empty and Jim climbs inside to get an apple. Then several men group outside. One is John Silver, another is one of the non-pirate seamen, Dick. Silver (in the book) talks of days sailing with Flint, how he lost his leg and Pew his eyes in the same battle. It was an educated surgeon that amputated his leg, “knew Latin by the bucket”, but that didn’t save him: “He was hanged like a dog, and sun-dried like the rest, at Corso Castle.” Dick declares he will join the pirates — in the book, they call themselves “gentlemen of fortune”. Then both in book and movie, Silver speaks of his plans. Israel Hands wants to move now and take the ship, but Silver reminds him that, although they can steer a course, none of the seamen can set one. He bids them wait until all the treasure is aboard. In the book, he says that he would have them sail halfway back to England, to at least the trade winds region, but he knows that that the impatient pirates won’t hold out that long. He says that when they reach the island and the ship is loaded with treasure, then they will kill the others. One thing, says Silver, “I claim Trelawney. I’ll wring his calf’s head off his body with these hands.”

A pirate approaches the apple barrel and Jim fears he will be discovered — the movie does this well, with a pirate knife descending to pierce either an apple or Jim — when the cry is heard: “Land ho!” And everyone rushes to see.

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Jim calls a council in the Captain’s cabin. There, he tells Smollett, Squire Trelawney, and Doctor Livesey of what he has heard. Everyone recognizes that only Silver keeps the crew from open mutiny. Aside from the four in the cabin, only three brought from Trelawney’s estate can be counted on (says the book). So they are seven against nineteen, nine against twenty in the movie. Now comes a key moment.

In the book, Jim is told to keep his ears open. He is worried but agrees. In the movie, Doctor Livesey tells Jim to stay friends with Silver, something that causes him some dismay — “Stay friends with him?”. (Bobby Driscoll was a good actor.) One surrogate father tells Jim to spy on the other, who is not made out to be quite the villain that Stevenson created. Here is the setup for the drama of the movie’s final scene.

Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll on the way to the island, before Jim gets away. Good old charming Long John Silver. Even the movie can't completely whitewash him.

Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll on the way to the island, before Jim gets away. Good old charming Long John Silver. Even the movie can’t completely whitewash him.

Action in the book is compressed in the film, but the effect of both is that Jim is ashore on the island when the pirates aboard the Hispaniola try to take the ship, against Long John Silver’s orders. Then occurs perhaps the most horrifying event in the book, so chilling that Disney left it out of the movie.

Jim has scampered ashore and hides from the pirates. After a while he hears Silver arguing with Tom, who refuses to join the pirates. Their argument is interrupted by a scream from another part of the island. Someone else who refused to join the pirates has been murdered. Tom walks away from Silver who hoists himself on a tree branch and hurls his crutch so that it strikes Tom’s spine with bone-breaking force:

Silver, agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch, was on top of him next moment, and had twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body. From my place of ambush, I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows.

Death of Tom: by Frank Godwin, Louis Rhead -- Rhead worked in black and white, then colored a few pages for the publisher. Both B/w and color versions may be seen in the Gutenberg.org edition ; Mervyn Peake

Death of Tom: by Frank Godwin; Louis Rhead — Rhead worked in black and white, then colored a few pages for the publisher. Both b/w and color versions may be seen in the Gutenberg.org edition ; Mervyn Peake.

Jim falls into a swoon and lies senseless, overwhelmed by the sight. And, when I read this part, I lost any liking whatsoever for Long John Silver. But you may differ. After all, there were many folks who found Ted Bundy charming. And I do not intend this as an off-hand comparison. It seems to me that Stevenson has created a character who is a model sociopath — not that Stevenson knew the term — charming, manipulative, ruthless, and completely without remorse. I can visualize Silver ruling a gang or a prison block. Stevenson has described a particular kind of villain that now has a label.

Now the situation is: the pirates have taken the ship, Captain Smollett, Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and three loyal men are barricaded in an old stockade. Jim runs into Ben Gunn, marooned for three years and dreaming of cheese, toasted mostly, who guides him to the stockade and asks for a meeting later with someone of that party. Jim delivers his message to the stockade and the Doctor says he will speak with Ben Gunn. In the book, he mentions that he has a piece of Parmesan cheese in his snuffbox, “very nutritious”, and will give it to old Ben. But first the pirates attack the stockade with the ship’s cannon.

Ben Gunn by Ralph Steadman.

Ben Gunn by Ralph Steadman.

The cannonade failing, Long John Silver arrives under a flag of truce. Captain Smollett refuses to treat with him, offering instead to take back any pirate who surrenders to a fair trial in England. Their parley finished, no one offers a hand to help Silver up. In the movie, we can see Jim feeling sorry for Silver, but not in the book.

The pirates attack the stockade in earnest. There is fierce fighting and, when it is over, the Captain’s party has five men left (one wounded), the pirates, eight. So the odds have improved, but the situation is desperate. In the movie, Doctor Livesey gives Jim the map and tells him to buy his life with it if necessary. In the book, this comes later.

Attack on the Stockade. Top: N.C.Wyeth; Abraham Gray kills the big boatswain, by Bohuslav Mikes (Czech edition, 1967). Gray left the pirates to join Jim's party. He makes it back to England; Mervyn Peake. Bottom: Ralph Steadman

Attack on the Stockade. Top: N.C.Wyeth; Abraham Gray kills the big boatswain, by Bohuslav Mikes (Czech edition, 1967). Gray left the pirates to join Jim’s party. He makes it back to England; Mervyn Peake. Bottom: Ralph Steadman.

That night, the Doctor leaves to meet with Ben Gunn and Jim goes on his own excursion. Jim knows that if he can cut the Hispaniola free from her anchorage, she will drift into the beach. He determines to bring this about. He does not ask permission or advise anyone of his plan, he just leaves. At the end of the novel, Captain Smollett tells Jim that he won’t sail with him again. “You’re too much of the born favorite for me,” he says, which is an interesting observation. In the book, Jim grabs a brace of pistols from the common armory as he leaves; in the movie, he has the weapon given him by John Silver.

Jim boards the Hispaniola: Edmond Dulac;George Varian; Lyle Justis

Jim boards the Hispaniola: Edmond Dulac; George Varian; Lyle Justis

Jim locates Ben Gunn’s goat-skin coracle and paddles out to the Hispaniola. He cuts the hawser and climbs up a rope while the coracle is demolished by the larger vessel. Along the way, he witnesses a fight to the death between Israel Hands and another pirate. Hands, who is injured and drunk, staggers topside and collapses by the rail. Jim surveys the fallen pirate, then sets to steering the Hispaniola so that it grounds on the beach. Meanwhile, Israel Hands recovers and tries to get Jim to help him. But it is a ruse! Hands tries to grab Jim. In the book, Jim pulls out a pistol and pulls the trigger, but the powder is wet and Jim clambers aloft to recharge his pistols. In the movie, he simply climbs the rigging. Hands follows, knife in teeth, and here is a great scene in both book and movie. “One more step, Mister Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out!” Hands throws a knife that catches Jim in the shoulder as he fires his pistol(s). Hands falls to the deck. Now Jim can chalk up a killing to his credit.

“One more step, Mister Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out.” Left to Right: Frank Merril; Bobby Driscoll in the Disney version; Frank Godwin; Bohuslav Mikes.

Jim contemplates the two corpses in the water, by Zdenek Burian from a Polish edition of 1947. These deaths take a toll on Jim, in the book.

Jim contemplates the two corpses in the water, by Zdenek Burian from a Polish edition of 1947. These deaths take a toll on Jim, in the book.

The ship is beached and Jim makes his way ashore. He struggles through the jungle to the stockade where he collapses on the floor and discovers that the place has been taken over by pirates! In the book, Doctor Livesey wants to get away from the stockade, which is located in a malarial swamp, and he knows that the treasure has been moved to Ben Gunn’s cave, so he wants to go there to protect it. The Doctor later explains that it bothered him to leave Jim, but “I did what I thought best for those who had stood by their duty; and if you were not one of these, whose fault was it?” The movie is not so clear on why the stockade is given over to the pirates.

Long John Silver takes him in hand and says that the minute he spied the Hispaniola on the beach, he knew the game was up. Now he wants Jim to help keep him from hanging and, in return, he’ll keep the pirates from murdering Jim. Jim also discovers, in the book, that Doctor Livesey has given Silver the treasure map along with the stockade, something that neither Jim nor Silver understand. “There’s something under that,” says Silver, “Something, surely, under that, Jim — bad or good.” In the movie, Silver finds the map in Jim’s shirt when he tends to him.

Doctor Livesey comes to the stockade next day to tend the wounded. Jim gives his promise not to attempt escape and, when he has the opportunity to bolt, doesn’t take it. In the movie, Jim bites on a musket ball as the doctor does something unseen but painful to his knife wound. I can’t tell you how much that impressed me when I first saw the film. The doctor leaves and the pirates confer amongst themselves, finally giving Silver the Black Spot. There is a wonderful bit when Silver sees that the paper has been cut from a Bible.  He shakes his head; the pirates have brought disaster on their heads with that blasphemy.  Then he uses the treasure map to regain leadership of  the gang. This is where the treasure lies, he says, and the pirates examine the map and pronounce it genuine. The other thing is, Jim Hawkins is a hostage to prevent treachery from Smollett’s group. So, the Black Spot is rescinded and Jim will live yet a while.

“I had a line about my waist, and followed obediently after the sea-cook, who held the loose end of the rope, now in his free hand, now between his powerful teeth. For all the world, I was led like a dancing bear.” Jim complains about his indignity. A chapter later, he is afraid: “Now and again I stumbled; and it was then that Silver plucked so roughly at the rope and launched at me his murderous glances.” Left to Right: Frank Merrill, Louis Rhead, Mervyn Peake.

The pirates — only six left now — set out to get the treasure. Jim is tied up and dragged along by Silver. “It’s only for show,” Silver says in the movie, but in the book, as they get closer to the treasure, Jim senses that Silver is switching sides again and may knife him the instant he is of no value as a hostage.

They locate the spot where the treasure is supposed to be and it’s gone! Now, once again, George Merry tries to take leadership from Silver. Long John, meanwhile, has backed away from the pirates and is on the other side of the empty treasure pit when Merry threatens him. Then shots ring out from the trees! One pirate drops dead, George Merry is wounded and Silver takes the opportunity to kill him. “‘George’, said he, ‘I reckon I’ve settled you.'”

Finding the treasure: magazine illustration by Douglas Crockwell. Silver settles with George Merry, Michael Foreman, from an edition still in print

Finding the treasure: magazine illustration by Douglass Crockwell. Silver settles with George Merry: Michael Foreman, from an edition still in print

It transpires that Ben Gunn has removed all the treasure (except the bar silver) to his cave. Captain Smollett’s party, six men including Ben Gunn, seven counting the captive Long John Silver, use the only unwrecked boat to transfer wealth to the Hispaniola. There are still three pirates (besides Silver) on the island, but they seem unable to concoct a plan. Now, book and movie become very different.

In the film, Silver seizes an opportunity to grab Jim’s pistol — the one he had given the boy — forcing the others to leave him with the boat. He rows, and Jim is supposed to steer, but the boy purposely runs the boat aground. Silver jumps out to shove the craft free. He asks Jim for help, and, when that isn’t given, points a gun at his head. But Silver hasn’t the will to shoot Jim and he lowers the pistol. He tries desperately, on his one leg, to free the craft. The Doctor leads a party that is closing in. Earlier, Silver had made a little speech about giving Captain Flint to Jim as a trinket, because creatures don’t take well to prison. Now Jim jumps up and pushes the boat free. Silver waves good-bye, raises a sail, and is away. The Doctor lays a hand on Jim’s shoulder and admits to some liking for Long John Silver himself. End of movie.

In the book, the skeleton crew of the Doctor, the Squire, Jim, Abraham Gray (the only seaman to survive, he came over from the pirates), Ben Gunn, Silver, and Captain Smollett (who is wounded and unable to do anything heavy) maroon the three surviving pirates, then sail the Hispaniola to the nearest port in Spanish America and there pick up a crew. While in port, Ben Gunn helps Silver to escape so that he cannot disturb their homeward voyage, Silver has stolen a sack of gold worth perhaps £400. Everyone thinks that is a cheap price to pay for getting rid of the old pirate. Jim fills us in on what happens to some of the others: Ben Gunn runs through a thousand pounds in less than three weeks, but finds a place; Captain Smollett retires from the sea; Abraham Gray buys his own ship and becomes a master; nothing is said of the Squire or the Doctor. Nothing is known of Silver’s fate. (Nor the marooned pirates, one of whom has malaria.) As for Jim:

The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

Stevenson was criticized for the violence in Treasure Island, but I think he is honest about its effects. Just as he is honest about every character in the book: the upright Doctor who would abandon Jim in favor of those who had done their duty; the gasbag Squire who happens to be the best shot of the party and does some damage to the pirates; the wicked Long John Silver who would only slit your throat if it meant profit to him; and Jim Hawkins, who would disobey any order if he took a notion, who saved the expedition, and who now finds his dreams haunted.

None of this is to disdain the movie. Disney, too, was criticized for too much violence and bowdlerized this film when it was released to television in the 1970s. (The DVD has been restored.) The Disney narrative is a bit different, what with the father/son overtones instead of the boy’s brush with psychopaths, but it is still a great movie.

And a great book. Stevenson was a straight-forward storyteller, but he always understood the ramifications of his narrative and the personalities of his characters. And look at the details! The map. The description of the island (it has rattlesnakes). The careful consideration of 18th Century sailing. The wonderful names: Israel Hands, Benjamin Gunn, George Merry — every one of them sings out England! An England of yeomen and sailors, a vanished vision perhaps, but still… Vladimir Nabokov was one critic who recognized Stevenson’s genius and wrote/lectured about Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde in his Lectures on Literature. Enough. You get it or you don’t.

More On The Movie:

Disney had money tied up in Britain, where post-WWII currency restrictions meant that he couldn’t remove it. So he decided to film this, his first movie not to include animation, in England, where the money he was owed could go into production. He had been thinking about an animated version of Stevenson’s book and had the rights so it seemed a natural project.

Young Bobby Driscoll had starred in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart, films that combined animation with live action. He received a special juvenile Oscar for his work in So Dear To My Heart. But, in England, legal problems arose with Disney using a foreign juvenile lead. Disney’s lawyers managed a one-month delay in court proceedings, which Disney used to film all of Driscoll’s parts, then shipped him back to America. The English courts were not amused and Disney paid a modest fine. But Driscoll could no longer work in England.

Some filming was done around England, some on a set with painted backdrops, and some on the ship. The Hispaniola was a re-fitted cargo ship (used to transport coal) that was a hundred years old. After the Disney movie, it was moored as a tourist attraction, then used again as a set for the 1956 production of Moby Dick.

Robert Newton returned in Long John Silver, directed by Byron Haskin in 1954. He had a few other movies but died from alcohol-related problems in 1956 at the age of 50.

Bobby Driscoll was slated to play in other Disney films, but there were problems. Disney could not clear the rights to Tom Sawyer, which was to star Driscoll, for instance, and a role in Robin Hood was axed because he could not work in England. He did the voice of Peter Pan for Disney and also served as reference model for Peter’s facial expressions in that movie. As puberty set in, Disney could not find a role for Driscoll. The young man had acne which was covered over with heavy makeup. The teen-ager turned to drugs, and did a stint in prison in 1961. In 1965, he cleaned up and went to New York where he became involved with an arty crowd, including Andy Warhol. He got back into heroin and OD’d in 1967 or ’68. His body was not identified for a year and a half until his parents, who had been searching for him, sent his fingerprints to the New York police. He was a fine actor who deserved better.

The DVD released in 2002 is serviceable, but do not try to load the player software on the disc. I could not play the DVD in DVI or Microsoft Media Player, but James River Media Player did okay. Technicolor is saturated and rich. Particularly in the opening sections at the Admiral Benbow Inn, everything has a sheen, as though some kind of weird dew was falling everywhere. If it doesn’t look that way on your TV, then adjust that machine!

The Book:

The 1911 Scribner’s edition of Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth is the one to get if you are looking to buy a copy. Scribner’s re-photographed the Wyeth paintings and the illustrations are first rate. I cannot tell if Scribner’s is still reprinting this book or not, but copies of this edition are available. You can also read the Scribner’s edition with thumbnail versions of Wyeth’s paintings on the Net.

A better internet version is that of 1915 illustrated by Louis Rhead. (The credits state Rhead and Frank Schoonover, but Schoonover only did the 1922 dust jacket/frontispiece.) Or you can read the one illustrated by John Cameron. An edition made for Spanish-speaking people with troublesome English terms linked to their definition includes illustrations by George Roux (the original illustrator), Milo Winter, Wyeth, and Rhead, as well as  pictures of other 18th Century maritime objects.  The 1924 edition illustrated by Frank Godwin is available on-line if you are a Questia or Playster member.

Although nineteen illustrators (plus Robert Crumb) have been referenced in this post, that only scratches the surface. Early illustrations by George Roux and Frank Merrill may be seen here. The University of Minnesota has 450 illustrated editions collected by Lionel Johnson as of the year 2000. And there is a partial list at the Robert Louis Stevenson Archive. Possibly no book except Alice In Wonderland has had more good illustrators work on it, and this is still happening. In 2015 the V & A Award for book illustration went to Sterling Hundley for the Folio Society edition of Treasure Island. (None of those illos are reproduced here.) Most of the illustrated editions mentioned in the post are out of print. I have avoided more recent English illustrated editions — Michael Foreman’s 2009 version is, I think, the only exception. In-print editions besides the Hundley and Michael Foreman’s include those of Mervyn Peake, John Lawrence, Matthew Cruikshank, Robert Ingpen, and many others. Condensed or edited editions abound and are to be avoided.

Non-illustrated editions of interest include the 1905 “Biographical” edition with essays by Stevenson and his wife, and a 1909 annotated edition.

4 comments on “Good Books: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson; Good Movies: Treasure Island, 1950

  1. Ernesto Guevara says:

    Many thanks for the fine piece on Treasure Island-my very favourite book since childhood and I also loved the Disney film from that first matinee I saw so many years ago. Both Newton and Driscoll play their parts well. There have been many excellent film adaptations since, but this version remains my favourite.

    Cheers,
    Ernesto

  2. Phillip Minden says:

    Do you know if there’s an edition in print with Roux’ or Paget’s illustrations? I can only find an English/German version.

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