Just as a number of readers before me have also done, I came to read Treasure Island after recently flying through the tv series Black Sails (I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I quickly came around and loved it by the end), which is a prequel to the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although, I didn’t realize this for quite an embarrassingly long time, but then, all my previous engagement with the story has been in the form of The Muppets adaptation or Disney’s Treasure Planet: I thought it was just generic and well-known pirate names being used in the show! I mean, real historical figures are included in there as well! But in any case I felt like a doofus when I finally figured out the relation to the novel that has endured over time in its portrayal of pirates and how their iconography continues to be identified and understood today. It is therefore, a credit to Treasure Island in how it has defined the notion of pirates and their genre throughout the ages: the story itself focuses on a young boy named Jim Hawkins who ends up on an adventure with a crew (including one, John Silver) to recover the hidden treasure of an infamous old pirate, Captain Flint.
But just like other novels I have read that have been adapted in other forms that I have seen/read before, there is always the facet of comparison that comes into play, here. And in this case, I almost find the original source material to be lacking in some ways when I think of the other versions of this story I have seen before, for a few reasons: first and foremost, the language and manner of telling in this novel was difficult to get into. In particular, terms and phrases are used that I had not even an inkling as to their meaning, but trudged through anyways hoping to make sense of it in time. As well, the manner of the narrative is in a very matter-of-fact retelling of a story, which on the one hand is good in pursuing action and gives it a more classic oral-history feel (as if someone is retelling the tale of their youthful adventures by a campfire or something like that), but ultimately left me completely disaffected by a lot of the characters. Jim Hawkins, who is the main narrator of the story, seemingly goes through motions and decisions without letting us into who he is or why he makes these choices. I hardly got a sense of him or any other character and their motivations, which ultimately is different from how I have felt in other adaptations: John Silver, in particular, seems to have more of a paternal vibe in some, while being more fun but mischievous in others, yet here I didn’t get what he was about at all. And perhaps it was also me trying to figure out how this version of John Silver connected to the one we left years earlier at the end of Black Sails, but it didn’t quite work for me in the novel.
However, in mentioning to one of my friends recently that I was currently reading Treasure Island, we got into a little discussion of how we felt about it and she said that she remembered loving it when she was much younger, though hasn’t read it recently. It made me think that this novel really does perhaps seem aimed at not per say a younger audience, but one that just wants to read about an adventure and not get into all that other stuff. I personally want more characterization in order to understand them and their decisions more, but not everyone does. And as I mentioned earlier, this novel is really set up to be an adventure, and that it is with twists along the way.
For me, in the end, Treasure Island turned into an extension of what I had already been engaging with: seeing what happened to these characters years later, though a lot also definitely happened in-between these two timeframes presented. It was ultimately an exercise in discovering how one piece of media and its interpretation came to relate to the other. And while not everything from Black Sails connects exactly, a lot of the tales of the pirates you see in the book are somewhat vague or up for interpretation. In a way, it reinforces the idea presented at the end of the tv series that in the end we simply become the stories told about us: what is real and what is not does not matter, so long as it is a captivating tale that endures over time. And that is what this novel has done, as I said right near the beginning of this review. So despite a few bumps along the way and some difficulties in getting into the language or connecting with the characters, there is something compelling about Treasure Island and its narrative of a young boy on a new voyage with those from the stories he’s been told, and learning the realities behind the myths that grow so big you may not even see them as people any more.
And of course, who would I be without plugging my own artwork, because lo-and-behold, I have made two companion pieces of James Flint and John Silver from Black Sails. Which, as I mentioned, is totally related to this review and my reading of the book in the first place!