Digging for Gold in Treasure Island

Treasure Island

Treasure Island

When I first discovered that I loved classic literature, I wanted to make sure that I read all the classics. This is kind of why I started this blog. But, when I picked up Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I wasn’t really sure if I would love it like all the others. I mean, by all accounts it seemed to me to be rather more suited to boys and men seeking adventure among the rough and tough and not really for girls who generally prefer to read of complicated emotions rather than brutal savagery.

I’ve since changed my mind. Even though feminists may lambaste this book for having not one single empowered female in it whatsoever, the book is just a fantastic story for all those of you out there who are looking for a bit of adventure.

Jim Hawkins’ life is turned upside down when a strange old sailor, with a secret chest and the need to keep watch for a man with one leg, arrives to stay at his family’s inn. Jim is then sent on a whirlwind adventure with his friend, Dr Liversey, in pursuit of pirate’s treasure. But, will the treasure be found when pirates seek to claim the treasure for their own and will do anything to get it?  

Movie Magic:

While there appear to be several film adaptions of the original Treasure Island book, none of these films really seem to have made it as popular films the way some classics have. Other films seem to have completely eclipsed all the Treasure Island films of the past. But, just because no one is watching Treasure Island (whether the 1950s film version or the 2012 television series version or any other of the films) the story is still being told in visual form if not quite the way we expect. There appear to be two films (though one might more accurately be called a franchise) that have taken the story of Jim Hawkins and placed a modern spin on it.

The first of these films I think we can all agree on is Disney’s Treasure Planet. I watched this film many years ago and even as I read Treasure Island, I couldn’t help noticing certain characters that matched the film characters. Undoubtedly, Disney took a story that perhaps seemed a little out-of-date (I mean, to kids, pirates did seem a little last century when space was being opened up as a whole new world for them) and molded the original concept and characters for the new generation. So there are still the characters including Jim Hawkins, Dr Liversey and John Silver, both good and bad, there is still the pursuit of treasure, still the danger of pirates and still the journey to get to the treasure but the setting is now a planet in outer-space rather than a meager island.  While there may be those purists out there (and they are most welcome to their opinions) who think that taking a classic like Treasure Island and putting it in a planetary context rather than leaving the island adventure as it was written, I think, given the time when the film came out (around 2002) and the kind of things kids were hoping to see Disney did a pretty good job bringing a classic story to life and modernising for the modern kid.

The other film which wasn’t exactly a spin-off of Treasure Island the way Treasure Planet was but rather took its inspiration from Treasure Island (as far as I can see), it might surprise you to read, is Pirates of the Caribbean. Wait, huh? How? Well, the concepts of pirates sailing around looking for buried treasure, plundered ships, mutineering, changing of sides, men with cut faces, appendages missing, looking filthy as anything and the talk of hangings, the devil and rum are concepts that are explored both in Treasure Island and in Pirates of the Caribbean. And though the stories are different and the characters are not the same, I still think that quite a lot of the inspiration (perhaps including the inspiration to use Miss Swann in the films because Treasure Island had almost no females) came from this original adventure (or misadventure) to find lost treasure.  What struck me most was the speech of the pirates in Treasure Island. I could almost hear the same words coming out of the mouths of the pirate characters in Pirates of the Caribbean. The terms used by the Treasure Island pirates, like “pieces o’eight”, “cap’in” and the little ditty repeated throughout the novel (that I still cannot decipher the meaning of) are also used in Pirates of the Caribbean. It really makes you think about how classic literature affects so much in the world these days, doesn’t it? 

In My Humble Opinion:

I suppose most who read Treasure Island would want to talk about the serious lack of women characters in the novel. But I think, given the time-frame posed in the book (the 1700s) this would be superfluous. After all, it was simply the time when men went on adventures and women stayed at home (and this coming from a female). Likewise, I could talk about the dangers of greed hinted at throughout the novel. But, I feel that if we spoke about the dangers of greed every time a book hinted at them, we would sound a little like a song on repeat. In short, it may just get annoying. Actually I wanted to talk about one very particular character in Treasure Island (and don’t worry it isn’t the main character which most boring people would discuss). Actually, the character I want to discuss is none other than the good doctor, Dr Liversey.

Whenever I pick up a book, I have a habit (some may call it a nasty habit) of placing the characters I read about into 2 camps: the decent and the not so decent. I do this by reading into their actions, speech and their descriptions. Perhaps you do it too without really thinking about it when you read. In fact, as a writer myself, I think all writers write specifically so that readers can put the characters into the 2 camps. Sometimes it is so that readers can distinguish between the good and evil characters (like with superheroes and villains) and sometimes it is to surprise the reader or teach them a lesson in judgement, when a character we all thought was good turns out to be bad. Of course, all characters have their vices (as they should to make them real) but some have more vices than others and it’s the reader’s job to separate the characters into those with more vices and those with less.

And that is exactly what I subliminally tried to do  as I started reading Treasure Island. But, one character I simply could not fathom was Dr Liversey. The name you would know if you watched Treasure Planet but you also get to read the name, Dr Liversey, on the first page of the novel and later get introduced to the character himself. Dr Liversey seemed to me at the beginning to have all the makings of a decent character: he is described as a gentleman, he is a doctor sworn to help people (which he does), he has an honest witty sarcasm about his nature and he seems brave. From all this, I kind of tentatively (as you do) put him in the decent camp.

But, although Dr Liversey never “becomes evil” as some characters do in the novel. I was never sure whether to trust him or not. I mean, Jim Hawkins is described, by his own admission and the description of others, to be a child. Dr Liversey allows him to join the pursuit of treasure. He is the family doctor and as a doctor has a duty of care, as the family’s doctor, moreover, has a duty of care to Jim and should, if he allows Jim to make the journey with him, have a duty to care for Jim as a temporary guardian. Dr Liversey is directly responsible for Jim’s safe travel and return. I don’t think any of this can be denied. And yet, even though Dr Liversey has this responsibility, he doesn’t seem to care. When, on one occasion, Dr Liversey believes Jim to have been shot by pirates, he shows no inclination to try and find Jim or his body. Dr Liversey simply says he believed Jim to be dead and carries on with his life. This, to me, does not show much care or responsibility – marks of a good character. After all, a good character (and a responsible guardian) would have gone searching in spite of danger (something which Dr Liversey does not seem to fear) and would have either rescued the child if he was alive or brought his body back home if he was dead. On another occasion also, when he believes Jim has betrayed the party and deserted them, Dr Liversey shows no inclination to find him and bring him back even though he is the boy’s temporary guardian and responsible for his welfare. A ggod guardian would have found the boy and brought him back to the safety of the good side. Again, this shows no care or responsibility.

I found myself constantly wondering about this Dr Liversey, described as a decent sot of person but continuously showing no responsibility. I kept wondering whether Dr Liversey was a decent character, or whether he would turn out to be a traitor. I won’t tell you whether or not my suspicions were realised (because that would be spoiling) but I will tell you that now, even after reading the book, I’m not sure how I feel about Dr Liversey. He is such a contradiction that he confuses me immensely.  Should I like him because he is described with likable character traits or should I not like him because of is actions. I don’t really know.

Read the book and see if you like Dr Liversey and if you can perhaps justify what he did to Jim. And do you think Robert Louis Stevenson’s book may have been the inspiration for one of the biggest film franchises, Pirates of the Caribbean? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Reading

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