Sunday, 18 April 2010

Pirate Latitudes: Soon to be a pretty numbing movie

They say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but the way I see it, they were alive when they did whatever you're talking about, so what's the problem?

Mind you, reading Pirate Latitudes, the book they found in Michael Crichton's desk drawer after he died, you could almost make out a case that he wasn't alive when the book was written. It's not just that it's not very good, because most of the stuff Crichton did in past ten years wasn't very good; it's extraordinarily lifeless. I read it in a matter of hours, because there was nothing to stop and savour, just an accumulation of incidents which didn't carry any emotional weight because they were just flat descriptions of stuff that happened to people too poorly realised to care about.

Having read everything that Crichton has written, I wasn't expecting a book found after he died to be any good, but I really wasn't expecting it to be as bad as it actually turned out to be. It's his first effort at a historical novel since The Great Train Robbery, and it kind of underlines why he didn't do them very often. Part of Crichton's schtick was always that he was describing things which the reader wouldn't know, and a lot of the time his characters internal monologue is infodumps about how high tech works. When you're writing stuff set in the present and using tomorrow's technology, that can be made to work. You really can't do that in historical fiction; the whole idea is that you're seeing the action through the eyes of people who think of themselves as entirely contemporary. So once Crichton says something that boils down to "In those days, you couldn't do that." bang goes the reader's sense that he losing himself in the period. This happens pretty early on. Weirdly, if Crichton had been alive, his editor would have beat that kind of thing out of the book; I think him being dead left editors tiptoeing round the text, unwilling to make the changes it badly needed.

It ought to be a fun book. Pirates are always fun, and the 17th century Caribbean is full of opportunities. Early on there's a hint that Crichton is going to try to make his pirates tricksy and high tech, but instead he sticks to dogged kitchen sink realism. The hinted-at technical prodigies of the book's blasting expert are solidly grounded in what was possible at the time and accordingly play out far too matter-of-factly to be any fun. This is kind of missing the point of pirate narrative - and to make matters worse, there's a bit near the end with a giant squid which has nothing to do with anything, borders on the fantastical and sets at naught the whole earlier approach of being hard realism.

Once Crichton became successful in Hollywood, almost everything he wrote was written with an eye to being filmed, often to the point where you could see the blocking for the stand-ins. Action in movies - particularly the kind of movies which got made out of Crichton books - tends to unfold through a series of setpieces, and as you read through the books you could see the movie taking shape; here's the chase scene, here's the cliff hanger, and so on. But on a good day, Crichton's books functioned passably as novels as well, fleshing out the background that a movie can't really cover.

Pirate Latitudes isn't anything close to Crichton having a good day; it's just a bunch of setpieces strung together in no particular order. The hurricane could just as well have come before the giant squid as after, the sea battle between them or at the end, and so on. The pacing doesn't feel right either, because the big pay off is to take over an unassailable fortress and then steal a bunch of money, but the cast gets that sorted out half way through the book and most of the action revolves around the getaway, which is more than a little fraught. As I write about it now, I wonder if the published version of the book is in the order that Crichton meant it to be, not least because he offs the big villain surprisingly early in the action. Having set up Cazalla as an absolute monster, he's more or less obliged himself by the laws of narrative to keep him in play until near the end - especially the laws of cinematic narrative, where you've paid for a star and by god you want to put him on screen for as much of the movie as you can.

And there's all kinds of little things which left you wondering whether there was supposed to be a better pay off; once the pirates get hold of the treasure, they're appalled to discover that the silver bullion has been contaminated with worthless platinum. This idea is thrown away. Twenty years ago Crichton would have done something with that; something stupidly clever and tricksy, but something. Now it just sits there for a second and the action, such as it is, rushes on to the next pointless thing, leaving me wondering if it was just supposed to be an ironic thing for a modern reader to appreciate.

There's one really stupid thing which I can't believe that Crichton would have left in had he actually intended this travesty ever to see the light of day. Crichton was a trained doctor and medical researcher who prided himself on getting the facts right. And yet Carib Indians with blowguns zap some of the pirates with poison darts which kill the pirates almost instantly. This is exactly the kind of crap you see in the cinema and which is completely impossible in real life. There just aren't any instantaneous poisons in real life. Even the most toxic substances imaginable are far more slow acting than Hollywood would have us believe in even the most ideal situations. And Crichton knew that.

Not that I need that to tell me that Crichton didn't think this thing was ready for prime time. It's just too slapped together. The depressing thought is that it will almost certainly become a movie, and given how bad most of the adaptations of his books have been, the mind reels at how bad this will be. It would have been better to leave in in the drawer.

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