Patrick O'Brian,
The Far Side of the World
(William Collins Sons & Co., 1984;
W.W. Norton, 1992; 2003)

The book is not the movie.

The recent film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World sparked my interest in Patrick O'Brian's lengthy series of nautical adventures featuring Capt. Jack Aubrey and his close friend and ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin. While the source novel, The Far Side of the World, comes at a midpoint in O'Brian's chronology, it provides a familiar port for a movie fan to embark on the journey. (Had I read the book before seeing the movie, this might be an entirely different review; now, a comparison between the two is inevitable.)

O'Brian's novel is an intelligent, fascinating look at British naval life during the Napoleanic wars. The author quickly draws readers into the world of seamanship and His Majesty's Navy, filling the pages with rich images and jargon that bring a bygone era back to life with less flash but more substance. Book and movie are both enjoyable and absorbing; still, readers will find very little resemblance here, as the movie draws very few scenes and plot twists from O'Brian's text.

Characters, on the other hand, are better developed in these pages, and there are more of them to boot. Relationships aboard ship are more fully explored and there are even a few women -- a handful of officer's wives -- among the passengers. Subplots dealing with international intrigue, shipboard romance and murder (that were dropped entirely from the movie script) kept my interest level high. There is plenty of humor, too, providing the occasional elbow jab in the ribs and hearty chuckle.

The most blatant change is in the identity of the foe; in O'Brian's version, the enemy privateer is American, not French. Blame current events and politics for that one.

The novel can be slow-moving at times; it seems an endless wait before HMS Surprise and her crew even leave port! But there's interest in the details even while bound to land -- Maturin's eccentric fascination for birds, for instance, and the gauntlet of formal meetings and informal callers Aubrey must deal with as he tries to hasten his ship's departure. The voyage itself, to action hounds, will seem interminable. The U.S. frigate Aubrey has been ordered to find and take or destroy doesn't even appear until more than 200 pages have passed -- and even then, it passes quickly by. The cat-and-mouse game that dominated the movie is, here, more mouse than cat.

Don't read the book looking for great sea battles, cannons blazing and cutlasses at the ready, either. There is no great sea battle at the climax, but O'Brian's denouement is satisfyingly unexpected.

I kept turning pages with unflagging eagerness as the story unfolded. The Far Side of the World is not high adventure, but it is historical fiction of the highest order. I believe I will sail with Aubrey and Maturin again, and soon.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 10 July 2004

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