Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island has been made and remade over fifty times for television or movies. Really, with that track record it would be more newsworthy to announce that a film based on it wasn’t in the works. But naturally, given the utter dearth of successful pirate related films over the last decade, Hollywood is aiming to remake it again. Because the fifty-third time will be the charm.
Of course, they’ve figured out the missing ingredient: “[Long John] Silver’s character will be hipper, in the style of Robert Downey Jr’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.” So the charismatic pirate who keeps switching sides, all the while mentoring the young protagonist in the ways of piracy will be hip? I wonder if that’s code for acting like Keith Richards.
An interesting literary thought experiment is identifying authors so influential that if every copy of their work disappeared from the face of the earth, their literary contributions would remain essentially intact because their innovations and ideas are reflected a hundred times over in other lesser works. Shakespeare’s the classic example. Get rid of Hamlet and the story has still been told and retold over and over. The characters are never quite the same, the language never quite as eloquent, specific plot points evolve over time, but the essence of the tale is embedded in our literary culture so thoroughly that the loss of the original at this point would leave behind a perfect impression like a fossilized shell immortalized in limestone.
The point is that Treasure Island is exactly this sort of work. It invented or at least popularized half the cliches we now associate with the pirate genre: peg legs, skull & bones, parrots, “X” marking the spot on treasure maps. It’s a wonderful book, one of those that every kid should get lost in at some point, but in a larger cultural sense it has been rendered ex post facto into a bundle of cliches by a hundred imitations going through the motions. The answer isn’t to make Treasure Island hip, it’s to understand that it’s already been made under different names. There’s no need to film Long John Silver in the mold of Jack Sparrow because Jack already is bound inextricably to the notion of Silver, the latest mask fitted to the old bones of the myth.