Film adaptations of favourite novels are notoriously difficult to warm to as we tend to approach them willing them to fail, or perhaps expecting them to fail is a better way of putting it. But if you take both book and film for what they are then it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy both, if on different levels. A good example of this is the film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae. The original novel is the best of Stevenson’s Scottish novels, and is a complex tale that focuses upon the Durie family of Durrisdeer who are torn apart by the 1745 Jacobite uprising.
It’s an obvious understatement to say that Stevenson was a clever writer, but The Master of Ballantrae shows just how ahead of the game he was. Published in 1889, three years after The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped, this novel takes a lot of the themes and techniques of both of those earlier novels and applies them here. The supernatural meets the historical, and Stevenson places a text within a text with Captain Burke’s memoir, a device which could be seen as a nod to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This document is used to tell the story of ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ James Durie’s travels. It also serves to confuse the reader as they have to work hard to decipher a tale which is being told from different perspectives. As he does with Jekyll and Hyde Stevenson plays with the idea of the unreliable narrator to increase the mystery of the tale.
The film version, which is at first remarkably faithful to the novel, is a terrific swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn and Roger Livesay (I Know Where I’m Going and many more). Ok, so it doesn’t ask the questions of morality and loyalty that Stevenson does in the original text, nor does it capture the supernatural feel of parts of the novel, but it is classic adventure movie making of the type in which Errol Flynn excelled. Roger Livesay plays Captain Burke, but his role is that of ‘buddy’ to Flynn’s Durie, there is none of the complexity of his character, or any of the characters, that is to be found in the novel.
And nor should we expect there to be. Film adaptations of novels seem to work best when they take the source material as a starting point rather than a script. Lynne Ramsay’s film version of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, or even the big screen version of Trainspotting, work well because it is the film maker’s vision that we are seeing, not that of the novelist. In fact comparisons between the two should be avoided if possible. I know that folk get a hell of a precious about books in particular when they are adapted for the screen, but really you should judge these things on their own merits. The Master of Ballantrae starring Errol Flynn is an hour and a half of cheesy fun (Jaques Berthier’s camp pirate is one particular highlight) and The Master of Ballantrae the novel is one of our finest writer’s greatest works. I think you’ll enjoy them both (although the novel is better… damn!! This objectivity is harder than I think). Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite: