Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | July 23, 2011

Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes


A few admissions right off the bat.  I am NOT a fan of Michael Crichton.  I loved the movie Jurassic Park, because I was a complete nut about dinosaurs when I was maybe 6, but I tried to read the novel and didn’t get very far.  “Techno-thrillers,” what Crichton was famous for, are not really my thing, although on Zanne’s recommendation I did (mostly) read Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio and was completely sucked in.  So when Pirate Latitudes was discovered on Crichton’s hard drive and published posthumously in 2009, it for me was not something to pick up because it was Crichton:  I picked it up because it was a massively publicized pirate novel I felt I should give a chance.  I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say I enjoyed it.  I have a tendency whenever I read fiction to translate it into a movie in my brain.  I did it when I read Powers’ On Stranger Tides, although I knew that by the time it became a Pirates of the Caribbean movie probably little would remain of the source.  That turned out to be true.  With Pirate Latitudes, however, the idea of thinking about it as a film was completely obvious:  Crichton’s ubiquitous adapter, Hollywood behemoth Steven Spielberg, had the rights almost as soon as the book was in existence.  So, here’s the query:  Will it work, and how?

Port Royal, Jamaica, some time before 1692


First problem:  realism.  Whatever else Crichton does, he does his research.  Pirate Latitudes has a certain variety of historical accuracy.  It starts out with a gritty description of Port Royal that even gets street names right.  It’s immediately apparent that that this is not Captain Jack Sparrow’s mythological universe but something not only closer to documented fact (should one give Exquemelin the benefit of the doubt) but also the Buccaneer Era instead of the Golden Age.  Not Black Pearl but Captain Blood.  Crichton, for two pages, even name drops l’Ollonais; was this meant to tickle the fancy of pirate aficionados, or was this just a buccaneer he came across with a name worth using?  The book’s grittiness–and bawdiness–make it both fascinating and hard to adapt.  There is sex, blood, and kill-devil…whores, murder, and drunkenness.  Pirate Latitudes is not explicit, but it’s not for kids either.  I would love to see this raw imagery on film, but my distrust of the mainstream–and Spielberg personifies that–leaves me doubting that it will be anything other than whitewashed.

Second problem: It’s not really a pirate novel.  It’s nice–very, very nice–that Crichton gets his sailing right.  In fact, Crichton might even outdo O’Brian in the sense that he can portray marine tactics without making them seem completely arcane.  He gets right that Caribbean pirates preferred shallow-drafted sloops to hefty ships-of-the-line.  But this is a book about a mission, not about the pirate way.  The plot is about taking a fortress that everyone else considers impregnable.  Is this The Guns of Navarone?  The main character, Charles Hunter, assembles not a crew but a team:  the munitions expert, the muscle, the hit man, the marksman (oops, markswoman…oh, sorry).  There is conspiracy and betrayal reminiscent of Leverage.   I like Leverage…a LOT.  But where does that leave the filmmaker?  Is the Pirate Latitudes movie going to appeal to the Italian Job crowd or the Blackbeard crowd?  If Spielberg can do both, I’ll be impressed, but it will be a feat, and I’m not optimistic.

Blood versus Levasseur:  This is how it’s supposed to be.

Third problem:  Crichton makes good plots but has no ability to create characters with depth.  Captain Hunter has neither charisma nor real background.  He is little more than a “practical” privateer.  His team members are types, not people.  Hell, the main villain only makes it half way through the book before being dispatched without any flair:  I wanted a Flynn versus Rathbone duel and got a cursory cutlass to the throat.  I love the book’s realism, but it lacks completely what makes fictional piracy attractive–romantic swashbuckling done by men that make even other mens hearts flutter.  Sparrow/Depp, Barbossa/Rush, Turner/Bloom, Jones/Nighy all pulled it off expertly.  This in turn poses the more practical problem of casting Pirate Latitudes.  When I make books into movies in my head, it’s a nice, satisfying exercise to create a dream cast.  X-Men was exemplary:  Try to imagine other than McKellen as Magneto, Stewart as Xavier, or Jackman as Wolverine. Crichton, however, gives so little to Hunter and his team that I can’t really picture them.  The transition from page to screen, for me, falls apart.

The old Spanish Caribbean fort of Portobelo–perhaps a model for Matanceros.

Fourth and final problem:  The book doesn’t know when to stop.  The setup in Port Royal is grand.  The mission to the impossible Isla Matanceros is well-executed.  I’ll grant the showdown between the Spanish warship and the captured treasure ship for its nautical detail.  Yet there are pieces that are disposable to the point of embarrassment.  Hurricane?  Witches?  Cannibalistic Caribs?  A tiny cameo by the kraken?  Was Crichton, in this novel that might not have ever been meant to see the light of day, just getting his pirate ya-ya’s out?  I won’t give more spoilers, but I will say that the end of the book is a collapse not a conclusion.  Just keeping to Crichton adaptations, Jurassic Park left the dinosaurs running wild and thus available for sequels.  Pirate Latitudes actually ends with an epilogue describing the eventual deaths of all the protagonists!



Pirate Latitudes was a quick read.  From one point of view, that makes it disposable, little more than fluffy entertainment.  From another point of view, that makes it fun, a “page turner.”  I consumed Pirate Latitudes like I would a good onion dip, delicious but not a real meal.  The book has the potential to become a great pirate movie if the dross is skimmed away and Crichton’s period realism is actually permitted to get filmed.  The book also has the potential to become a pointless, brainless blockbuster.  Mr. Spielberg, evidence shows me you could go either way.  I’ll tell ye this:  Pirate Latitudes, while chock full of faults, has the goods.  Make it right, man.  OK, I’ll buy a ticket either way…call me a sucker, and I’ll admit it.  While we’re waiting, people, go get the book, and tell me what you think.

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Responses

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