I’ve always thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a kid’s book. I had some kind of Golden Book version as a boy, and always picture Long John Silver as Robert Newton (below, right) in the 1950 Disney film. Not any more.
Syfy’s new four-hour version, premiering Saturday, May 5 at 7 p.m. ET is no longer a boy’s adventure story. Starring Eddie Izzard, Donald Sutherland and Elijah Wood, this version is an adult swashbuckler about treasure and treachery and a band of pirates who look and sound like I bet pirates looked and sounded in the 1800s.
The story still centers on young Jack Hawkins (Toby Regbo), who discovers a treasure map that belonged to the notorious Captain Flint (Sutherland). He shares the map with Dr. Livesey (Daniel Mays) and Squire Trelawney (Rupert Penry-Jones) and together they plan an expedition to the island. Trelawney, however, mistakenly hires some of Flint’s former crewmembers — including Long John Silver (Izzard) who, as pirates are wont to do, plan to mutiny and steal the treasure. It all comes to a head on the island with a bit of dueling, shooting and killing. In the meantime, a long-abandoned member of Flint’s crew, Ben Gunn (Wood), who has been living alone on the island and has gone a bit nuts, befriends Jack and helps him navigate the island.
There have been dozens of film and TV versions of Treasure Island
— including the 1996 musical film, Muppet Treasure Island
with Tim Curry as Long John — but I’ve never seen one quite this big and beautiful. From the shots in Ireland, which doubled as the town of Bristol on the coast of England, to the shots of and on the island, the pictures are beautiful. And the ocean voyage shots are so good that they could, under the right conditions, induce seasickness.
Although Donald Sutherland (right) really only appears briefly, he is a wonderfully evil Captain Flint, especially when he decides to murder or abandon his entire crew and keep all the treasure for himself. Toby Regbo does a great job of showing Jack Hawkins’ evolution from a naive boy into a young man capable of violence yet without losing his humanity. And the barely recognizable Elijah Wood (below, left) is a bizarre Ben Gunn with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.
But Eddie Izzard (top, center), whom I’ve seen wearing everything from women’s clothing to military uniforms, creates a novel take on everyone’s image of Long John. With his shaved head and head tattoos, he looks more like a character from Moby-Dick. But for a guy I think of as perhaps the funniest and most intelligent stand-up comedian I’ve ever seen (see his Emmy-winning HBO special Dress To Kill), Izzard does an amazing job playing a complex Long John who is cutthroat and cunning, yet not as savage and bloodthirsty as the rest of his crew. (He even shows a soft spot for young Hawkins.)
I’ve always been a fan of the novel and the Disney movie, but this outstanding production will be the one by which all others are judged.
Already a huge success in the U.K,. where it was shown over two nights, I’ll be interested to if an American audience will be able to sit still for a single four-hour event.
And, as an American audience member, this brings me to my one criticism — and it’s a big one: the heavy British accents. My review copy had no closed captioning and I could barely understand a word of dialog. I hope you’ll watch it and, if you do, leave the closed captioning off and let me know if it was just me and my old ears. Arrrrrgh.