Friday, April 13, 2012

'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson

13 April 2012

In preparation for reading Andrew Motion’s ‘Silver: Return to Treasure Island’ I have been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel (as an unabridged audio book read by Michael Page). It’s always interesting to go back to the original version of a story you think you know well. The first thing that struck me was how short ‘Treasure Island’ is: the plot, particularly in the first half of the book whips along at a frantic pace with all those iconic moments (the black spot, the apple barrel, the discovery of Ben Gunn) appearing to pass in the blink of an eye. It’s a gripping adventure which is all the more exciting as we see it through the naïve eyes of the young Jim Hawkins (though narrated in hindsight by in his adult voice). And Stevenson very cleverly creates a mythic quality to his story by constantly suggesting that the main events were those that happened before this novel begins (Captain Flint acquiring and hiding the treasure and slaughtering his crew). George Lucas did something similar in the first ‘Star Wars’ film, making you feel you were coming in halfway through the story, but then made the mistake of trying to tell us the backstory through the prequels. Stevenson also constructs a magnificent set of colourful characters, building the excitement by continuously trumping the level of evil: when Jim first encounters Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow he finds the old pirate terrifying, but the arrival of Black Dog makes Billy Bones seem tame by comparison, and then the tap tap tapping of a blind man’s cane heralds the arrival of an even scarier figure. All this is before the appearance of the main villain, Long John Silver, and in a league table of evil, the ghost of Flint seems to loom above them all. Silver is a wonderful invention – the loveable rogue who is constantly swapping sides. For Jim and his audience it is impossible to know whether to admire or revile his guile and duplicity. Like Fagin, Silver is a despicable figure but one whom you are pleased to see escape the gallows. Despite the thrilling plot and wonderful characters, ‘Treasure Island’ is not a great work of literature. The writing is difficult at times and the second half of the book seems to drag a little. Like Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ (reviewed here in May 2007), Stevenson seems to have hit upon a great story but one that has really found its best expression in some of its many later versions, adaptations and continuations. I look forward to seeing what Andrew Motion has done with these legendary events and characters.



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