Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Super-Blog Team-Up | The Treasure Island Expanded Universe

One of the best things about hosting the Fourth Chair Army Invasion podcast and now AfterLUNCH is all the great people I've met and get to have cool discussions with. One of those is Chris (aka Charlton Hero) from the Superhero Satellite blog who invited me to participate in this month's Super-Blog Team-Up, a blog crossover project where a bunch of different bloggers all talk about different aspects of the same topic on the same day. 

They do this a few times a year and this time it's about the concept of Expanded Universes. I'm a big fan of the idea. When Star Wars came out in 1977, I immediately started dreaming about sequels and craved more adventures with Luke, Leia, Chewie, and Han. And I was able to get them through Marvel's comics (and Pizzazz magazine), newspaper strips, and novels like Splinter of the Mind's Eye, Brian Daley's Han Solo trilogy, and L Neil Smith's Lando Calrissian series. Those died down after a while, but came back in a big way in the '90s thanks to Dark Horse Comics and Timothy Zahn's hugely successful Heir to the Empire sequels. Suddenly, the Star Wars galaxy was wide open for exploration again. But I didn't stop there. The concept of Expanded Universes got me interested in exploring the comics and novels of other favorite things like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes.

For the Super-Blog Team-Up though, I want to talk about an EU that I've only discovered relatively recently: the surprisingly large number of prequels, sequels, and crossovers related to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. I'm mostly going to talk about English language spin-offs here (or at least ones that have been translated into English), but the novel has inspired stories in various languages, including at least one Russian sequel and a Dutch prequel. 

I feel like I should mention, though it probably goes without saying, that most of these prequels and sequels were created independently of each other. So not only do they not reference each other; most of them will directly contradict. It's not an Expanded Universe in the sense that a central publisher or studio has exclusive rights to manage and curate a cohesive continuity. But that doesn't make it any less exciting to revisit these characters and their adventures as imagined by many, many different artists.

The novel was published in 1883 and almost immediately inspired spin-offs (though the authors of those first works wouldn't have thought of them that way). One of them was by Stevenson himself: a play he wrote with WE Henley called Admiral Guinea. It was published in 1892 and is about a meeting between the eponymous "admiral" and three other characters. Admiral Guinea was once the commander of a slave ship, but has given that up and now calls himself Captain Gaunt. He's remorseful about his past occupation, which complicates his feelings about his daughter's wanting to marry a former pirate. And while all of this is going on, a former crew member of Guinea's shows up to extort money from him. This past companion is a blind beggar named David Pew, whom Treasure Island readers know as Blind Pew, the sightless vagabond who delivers the Black Spot to Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow Inn.

A couple of decades later, Peter Pan's creator JM Barrie worked Treasure Island characters into the backstory of Captain Hook and his crew. Barrie had published the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up in 1904, but in 1911 he published a novelization of it called Peter and Wendy. In the novel, Barrie adds details, including references to Treasure Island's Captain Flint and Long John Silver. One of the pirates who sets up the plank for the children to walk is named Bill Jukes, whom Hook says served on the Walrus with Flint. And Hook himself claims to be the only man feared by Barbecue, a reference to the sea cook Long John Silver.

Treasure Island got its first full-on spinoff novel in 1924 with Porto Bello Gold, a prequel by AD Howden Smith. I haven't read or seen all of the Treasure Island EU that I'll talk about, but I have read Porto Bello Gold. It's told through a new character named Robert Ormerod, a merchant's son who also happens to be the nephew of the notorious pirate Captain Murray (not a Treasure Island character as far as I remember). Murray forces young Ormerod to join a scheme to liberate a ton of treasure from the Spanish for political purposes and piracy ensues.

The connection to Treasure Island comes from Murray's partner, the infamous Captain Flint. And Flint's crew of course includes Long John Silver, Billy Bones, and Blind Pew. Ben Gunn is also a character, but he works for Murray as a steward whose great goal in life is to escape having to wear a uniform.

It's a great, fast-paced novel about the capture of the treasure that everyone's looking for in Treasure Island as well as the conflicts that need resolving in Stevenson's tale. It puts all the proper pieces in place, but avoids feeling like that's it primary purpose. It's very much a story about Ormerod and his allies (a mountainous frontiersman and the daughter of one of Murray's conspirators) trying to survive the schemes and shenanigans of the cutthroat crew they've been forced to join. The prequel stuff happens in the background, which is great. And it's all spiced up by a brilliantly faithful characterization of Long John Silver who's just as cunning and flattering as Stevenson wrote him. I highly recommend it.

In 1935, HA Calahan wrote a sequel called Back to Treasure Island. I haven't read it, but it's about the recipients of the earlier treasure who (all except Jim Hawkins) have lost their shares in bad investments and want to return to the island to collect the other treasure. Silver finds out and the adventure continues.

The adventure also continues in the 1954 film Return to Treasure Island, which has Tab Hunter and Dawn Addams as contemporary (that is, 1950s) treasure hunters looking for Flint's other treasure. I haven't seen this yet, but don't be surprised if I watch and blog about it soon. It's summer and I'm in the mood.

Also in 1954, producer Joe Kaufman decided to piggyback on the success of Disney's 1950 Treasure Island adaptation with his own sequel. He brought back the Disney film's Byron Haskin to direct and the iconic Robert Newton to play Long John Silver. They filmed in Australia and called it simply Long John Silver, although it was released in the UK as Long John Silver's Return to Treasure Island, creating some confusion with the Tab Hunter film. The plot is about Silver's attempt to rescue Jim (recast with Kit Taylor, instead of Bobby Driscoll from the Disney film) from another pirate who's kidnapped Jim along with a governor's daughter. And if they end up getting that legendary second treasure, then that's good too.

Long John Silver spawned a TV series the following year, The Adventures of Long John Silver, also starring Robert Newton and Kit Taylor. It only lasted one season, but there were 26 episodes.

Everyone's favorite crazy pirate hermit Ben Gunn got his own novel the year after that in 1956 by RF Delderfield. It's called The Adventures of Ben Gunn and describes his career (as told to Jim Hawkins). Which makes it also a prequel to Treasure Island since Gunn talks not just about his becoming a pirate, but also the specific events that led to his being marooned on the island.

A couple of decades later, Leonard Wibberley wrote a Treasure Island sequel in 1972 called Flint's Island. It's about another ship that accidentally stops at the infamous island to repair some storm damage, but then Silver shows up looking for that second treasure again.

In the mid-'80s, the Return to Treasure Island name got another go on a mini-series with Brian Blessed as Long John Silver. The official name was John Silver's Return to Treasure Island and while I call it a mini-series, it was ten episodes long. And they were fairly episodic installments, as opposed to a strong central story that just needed ten parts to tell. It took place a decade after the events of the novel. Jim has just graduated from Oxford and is returning home to the inn where his mother throws him a party with his old adventuring friends, including Ben Gunn. But then Long John Silver shows up, still thinking about that second treasure.

In 1996, there was yet another Return to Treasure Island via a movie starring Stig Eldred (Dick Tracy) as Long John and Dean O'Gorman (Fili in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies) as Jim. In this one, the now adult Jim has a fleet of merchant ships that have come under attack by a pirate named Captain Savage. While trying to work through this, Jim falls in love with a woman who turns out to be Silver's daughter. And you better believe that second treasure on the island plays a part.

In 2001, Frank Delaney wrote a sequel called Jim Hawkins and the Curse of Treasure Island under the pseudonym Francis Bryan. It takes place 12 years later and Jim now runs the Admiral Benbow Inn. When a woman shows up with her young son, looking for one of the pirates marooned on Treasure Island, Jim decides to help her even though there are powerful people trying to stop her. 

In 2007, French comics writer and editor David Chauvel commissioned a pirate volume in his Seven series. The concept of the series is that each volume features a team of seven people, all from differnent time periods. Seven Pirates is by Pascal Bertho and Tom McBurnie, and it has grown-up Jim Hawkins as a struggling merchant who puts together six of his former treasure-hunting partners to (you guessed it) return to Treasure Island for the other part of that booty. This one is French language and to my knowledge hasn't yet been translated into English, but it's made the rounds into some other translations and the publisher Dargaud has translated some of their other comics into English, so my hope is that we get an English version soon.

Speaking of French comics translations, Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray's four-volume graphic novel Long John Silver was published (also by Dargaud) in 2007 and is available in an English translation. I've read this one and it's gorgeous. And it's a great sequel to Treasure Island. Lauffray's artwork is incredibly detailed and immersive. Dorison's plot introduces a fascinating character named Lady Hastings, who is as different from Jim Hawkins as can be. She's delightfully wicked, cunning, and courageous; a worthy foil for Silver and the perfect person to bring him into a new treasure-seeking venture. And Silver himself is as charmingly crafty as ever. Once they set sail, the voyage is filled with politics and scheming. It's the same tactic that Stevenson used in Treasure Island, but to very different results. Treasure Island has its moments of darkness, but this is a scarier version with rougher stakes.

Once the characters arrive in the New World, the adventure becomes a Heart of Darkness-like psychological thriller as the crew heads upriver into the jungle in search of a lost, gold-filled city. Doubts arise in some of them about the wisdom of the venture, so things get tense. And while I always worry about how well these things are going to end, Dorison and Laufray do a nice job with a conclusion that's both epic and emotionally satisfying. They have pirates fighting Aztecs with shades of Lovecraft looming over all of it. The whole thing is a great read on the character of Long John Silver and what drives him. 

In 2008, John Drake wrote a prequel trilogy starting with the novel Flint and Silver. I've read it and loved it, though I haven't yet checked out the other two volumes: Pieces of Eight and Skull and Bones. The only reason is that I listened to Flint and Steel as an audiobook and was waiting for the other two to be adapted that way. But I've since fallen out of love with audiobooks and I'm planning to buy the physical copy of Flint and Steel and then complete the series. 

It's a fantastic book. Even though it's a prequel, like Porto Bello Gold it never just checks boxes and connects dots to get to Treasure Island. Drake has so fleshed out his characters - not only Joe Flint and John Silver, but also Billy Bones, Israel Hands, Silver's wife Selena, and others - that they and their relationships are what I care about. Discovering islands and burying treasure are awesome when they come up, but those are fun additions to the story; not the point of it.

Something that I don't always like in novels is that the plot meanders and there's not a clear resolution by the end. Since it's the first in a trilogy, readers who are adamant about getting a complete story in a single volume may be disappointed and I'm usually disappointed in that, too. But again, it's the characters who are most important in Flint and Silver and I was emotionally satisfied with the way Drake leaves them at the end, even if there are still major plot points to be resolved. It's well-researched both for historical accuracy and consistency with Stevenson's novel, but Drake is a great writer who knows to let that be background to his world and not just dump it all over the reader. I highly recommend Flint and Silver to fans of Treasure Island or just great pirate stories in general. 

Return to Treasure Island was too easy a title to let sit, so in 2010 we got another story with that name, this time a novel by John O'Melveny Woods. This one takes place just three years after Treasure Island and has Jim learning that Long John Silver has been captured and sentenced to hang. Jim decides to rescue his problematic pal, which leads the two of them back to Treasure Island for something called the Pharaoh's Gold. I don't know if that's the notorious "second treasure" mentioned in Stevenson's novel or something all-new, but I'd like to find out. 

In 2011, John Amrhein Jr wrote a book called Treasure Island: The Untold Story. It's not really a prequel or sequel to Treasure Island, so I hesitate to mention it, but it's a cool and unique idea. Amrhein has done a ton of research into actual historical events that he claims inspired Stevenson's story. There's a buried treasure and a map to an unnamed island and even a one-legged sailor. I think I could skip it and still call myself a completist, but it sounds fascinating enough that I'd like to read it anyway.

Not to let that Return to Treasure Island title sit too long, English poet Andrew Motion wrote Silver: Return to Treasure Island in 2012. It takes place 40 years after Treasure Island, so Jim and Long John have long since retired from treasure-hunting. But their kids... I mean, that second treasure is still just sitting there.

I've had some fun pointing out the similarities between titles and plot points in these sequels, but the truth is that I'm eager to read all of them. There are infinite ways to tell stories about the same basic plot, so it doesn't bother me at all that the second treasure is the focus of so many sequels. After all, Stevenson left that detail sitting there just begging for writers to follow up on it. I'm glad that so many have.

One last prequel novel before we get to the TV show: In 2014, David K Bryant wrote Tread Carefully on the Sea. It focuses on Captain Flint and a scheme to kidnap a governor's daughter, but also deals with Long John Silver and how that treasure got on that island.

Of course the big thing that happened in 2014 was the premiere of the TV series Black Sails on the Starz network. I've only seen the first season, but I loved it and need to go back for the rest. The concept is brilliant: It's not just a prequel to Treasure Island with Captain Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones. It also has Stevenson's characters interact with actual, historical pirates like Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Woodes Rogers, and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach. And of course Israel Hands, who was not only the real-life second-in-command of Teach, but was also a character in Treasure Island.

It would take a whole series of posts to cover Black Sails the way I want to. And now that I've done this post and reminded myself of all of this extra Treasure Islands material, I'm gonna. So thanks again to Chris and the rest of the Super-Bloggers for letting me join in for this. I've added a bunch of books and movies to my reading and watching lists as a result.

And if you'd like to read about the other Expanded Universes the Super-Bloggers are talking about, here's the whole list:


Charlton Hero said...

Oh man... now I have a ton of Treasure Island books to hunt down!! Ha ha ha. Great work Michael!!

The Telltale Mind said...

That was great. I had no idea there were so many other books that revolved around the original. I might have to go and seed those out for me and my son.

Anonymous said...

Mr May, having read through Mr Drake's 'Prelude to Treasure Island' novels I can safely say that they're all Rather Good - as are his other novels - though one feels the second book in the trilogy to be somewhat redundant it reads none the worse for that and the trilogy reaches a most satisfying conclusion with the final volume.

I'm not so keen on THE TRAITOR OF TREASURE ISLAND (which is Mr Drake's take on the events of the actual novel and the finale of this series), though I do like elements of the tale: one would still recommend that you read the book, since my dislike is not based on any failure of quality in the actual writing (more on a specific characterisation choice), so you might find that you like it more than I did.

Michael May said...

I had no idea Drake did his own version of Treasure Island. That's an extremely gutsy move and I'll admit that I'm impressed he even tried it. I'll add that to my list, too. Thanks!

James Williams said...

Great Information,
Thank you for sharing..

Ben Herman said...

Pieces of eight! What a treasure of information! I definitely would never have thought this one up. Really great, interesting entry to this round of SBTU. Thanks for contributing.

James S Baker said...

Long John Silver was one of the most enthralling characters I read in my teens. He made me like him, hate him, feel sorry for him, and hate him all over again. Was he the first fictional character like this? I don't know.. but there have certainly been a few nice; Lord Of The Rings' Gollum, and Battlestar Galactics's Gaius to name a few.. Maybe he/they represent the dichotomy of what it means to be HUMAN? A (sometimes) noble shit.

Michael May said...

I love that theory, Jamie. I always love when unlikable characters or straight-up villains are redeemed. And it's even better if they backslide a few times in the process. Keeps me on my toes and makes the final transformation (if there is one) that much more satisfying.


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