Thursday, March 18, 2010

Adventure on the high seas with Horatio Hornblower

Recently I checked out A&E's Horatio Hornblower TV series (adapted from the popular CS Forester novels) to keep me entertained on the treadmill. Great choice, by the way. Interesting enough to keep me engaged and help the time pass quickly, but not so intense that I couldn't shut it off when my workout was over. But apparently A&E decided not to finish the series, so after 8 episodes I was left hanging with most of the story left untold.

I hate leaving a story unfinished, so at my next visit to the library I checked out a few of CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels to see if I could figure out where the TV version left off and take it from there. (Call me lazy, but I wasn't about to tackle the whole saga from the beginning!) Forester was very prolific with Hornblower's adventures and wrote a total of 11 novels (one of which he didn't finish before his death), though he apparently didn't write them chronologically. They take place during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, tracking Horatio Hornblower's career in the Royal British Navy. Hornblower demonstrates courage, brilliance, loyalty, and integrity in the face of countless struggles; staying the course just as you would expect from any true hero.

I've only read one novel all the way through -- Hornblower and the "Atropos" -- while skimming earlier ones that covered the period portrayed in the A&E series. I have to say I'm a bit disappointed. Typically I find a screen adaptation lacking in some ways from the novel. But this time, I think it's the original work that's lacking. Here's why:

The hero: The A&E Hornblower (portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd) was clearly a good guy trying to do his very best. I was sympathic and wanted him to succeed. He was flawed and struggled with difficult decisions, but his goodness and integrity won my admiration. Forester's version, however, was so full of depression and cranky with everyone around him that I got really irritated with him really fast. I couldn't even recognize him as the same person. Maybe if I continued with the series I would get a different impression, but I'm not interested in following such a Debbie Downer for six more novels!

The action: The books are full of action, but also so full of unfamiliar technical seafaring talk that it sometimes took a while to figure out what was going on. Forester's interesting conflicts were so much more dynamic when portrayed visually in the A&E version that even a land lubber like myself could appreciate them. Some of the special effects were a little weak, but many were completely stunning. And those tall ships! Absolutely breathtaking!

The drama: Adapting a novel to the screen always requires some adjustment to the story, and I thought A&E's changes were an improvement on the original. They took liberties with some of the secondary characters, bringing them back in additional episodes instead of introducing us to new and forgettable ones every time. They also manipulated some details of the plot to increase the human dramatic element. It may not have been as realistic as Forester's original, but it definitely made the story a lot more enjoyable.

So now I have a dilemma. Once again, I'm left with a cliffhanger and an unfinished story. Do I continue the series and risk getting more and more irritated with the hero? Or do I squelch my curiosity and hope for the best? Curses on A&E for putting me in this position in the first place!


  1. Only eight episodes? Hmm, I think there's more than that. Mike and I watched the whole thing many years ago and it was at least six DVDs worth.

    Just checked Netflix. The 2003 version is two discs, the 1998 is six.

    I am so glad I'm not missing out with the books because I was wondering if I should try them out. Now I don't have to make the effort. I loved the A&E version and Ioan Gruffud. He was such an amazing hero, full of integrity and courage.

  2. I had to research it too to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I've seen them packaged a few different ways, but it all adds up to eight dvds, with one 100 min episode on each.

    What really kills me is when I go to A&E's website I'm met with the likes of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Kirstie Alley's Big Life." Really? That's the best you can come up with?

  3. Huh, I guess I don't remember from when we watched it. It was about six years ago, I suppose. That's a bummer that there's not more!

  4. Okay, I have to revise my position. I looked over the next few books in the series at the library yesterday, and was disgusted to learn our married "hero" falls passionately in love with another woman. Where's the integrity and moral character in that? So now I am actually glad that A&E stopped the series when they did, because I think I would absolutely hate Forester's Hornblower by the time it was over!

  5. We have the complete series, and, maybe I'm forgetting, but I felt like it was done at the end of "Duty." I didn't feel like it was a cliffhanger. I felt like it was kind of a depressing ending, but an ending nonetheless. They really are enjoyable movies, aren't they? I tried reading the first book aloud on a road trip once, and was exhausted by the sailor jargon after only a few chapters. Note: do not read Horatio or the Twilight series aloud.

  6. You're right, it does have an ending, but it's not a very satisfactory one. The cliffhanger came when I tried to continue the series and read the next book where the TV series left off. But you can leave the movies where they end and imagine that maybe they all live happily ever after, even though that's not what Forester has in mind. Even better, stop watching the movies after the sixth one before Maria is introduced!