for National Geographic News
When screenwriter John Collee was first approached about adapting to the silver screen Patrick O'Brian's adventure tales of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Collee had to make a confession: He hadn't read the books.
O'Brian's 20 novels of the sea, beginning with Master and Commander in 1969 and ending with Blue at the Mizzen in 1999, chronicle the fictional friendship between the rowdy Captain Jack Aubrey and the studious surgeon Stephen Maturin during the British-French naval wars of the early 19th century.
The books, which have sold some three million copies in the United States, have a legion of devoted followers who revere their vivid and complex portrayal of maritime history. One historian, Richard Snow, went as far as to call the books "the best historical novels ever written" in a 1991 New York Times article. But ask anyone outside of O'Brian's immediate circle of fans, whose Internet discussion groups are affectionately known as the "Gunroom," and few will have even heard of the English-born writer, who died in 2000 at the age of 85.
"O'Brian was a niche author," Collee, who quickly became a great fan of O'Brian's yarns, said in a telephone interview from his home in Sydney, Australia. "It's not the most accessible writing when you first try to get into it. O'Brian doesn't write plots in the way that a lot of modern authors write, which follow pretty closely the three-part structure of films. Instead he writes meandering, 19th-century plots in which stuff happens."
Now, O'Brian's popularity may get a boost as Master and Commander: Far Side of the World sails into movie theaters across North America. The sweeping epic stars Russell Crowe and is directed by Peter Weir, who helmed Witness and The Truman Show.
The movie is actually based on the tenth book in the series, Far Side of the World. Weir, a long-time O'Brian fan, chose the book because its storyline is more straightforward than in some of the other Aubrey/Maturin novels.
When Weir, a fellow Australian, asked him to collaborate on the screenplay for Master and Commander, Collee had scant knowledge of maritime history, but soon found that he didn't have to go far in his search for background reading.
"Often when you write a screenplay adaptation you have to read masses of research material beyond the book," Collee said. "With O'Brian, that wasn't necessary. His books are the best source of information that's available on that period."
O'Brian didn't begin writing his books until the latter part of the 20th century, when he was already in his 50s. His followers say he was someone who seemed to have walked out of another era: the arcane world of the 19th-century British Navy.
Retaining O'Brian's obsession for historical detail was always going to be a monumental task for the filmmakers. First, they had to find a vessel to portray the H.M.S. Surprise, Aubrey's 28-gun warship.
They found it in Rhode Island, the homeport of a 20th-century replica of an 1800s-era British tall ship named Rose. A crew sailed the three-masted wooden frigate through the Panama Canal to San Diego, where she was retrofitted, then taken to Ensenada, Mexico, where most of the movie was shot.
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