I went into this and its sequel, The Big Six, with great trepidation. While the Death and Glory crew feel about right, Tom's too pudgy for an active kid and never quite as brave or as frightened as circumstances call for. Port and Starboard come across too tiny, or too trivial. There's no real sense of loss when they can't come along, as there is in the novel where they seem Tom's equals. An extra shot or two showing them sailing with their father might have remedied, but really they needed to be bigger. The prose Coot Club's point of view characters are Dick and Dorothea Callum. Dick's a nascent Stephen Maturin, obsessed with nearly anything observable or calculable, even sailing which he conquers by thinking out every move, sometimes too slowly for the quirks of the breeze. His sister protects, worships, and dotes on him to an extent that might seem unnatural were they the least bit older. Here, she's the tallest child and seems so much older and more sedate than the rest that the obsessive sibling relationship hardly registers. Dick, same size as Port and Starboard, is deus ex machina, humorless Sherlock Jr., and little more.
To an American who's never crossed an ocean, the shots of the narrow rivers and wide waters, the tidal play, bridges, and shallows, the boats and barges, make up for a great deal. But there's little sense of travel, of space. In the books, it's fascinating how quickly a child on a bicycle can shortcut a winding river journey: Time flows differently on water, on shore. Bicycles, land routes, like sci-fi wormholes, cheat time.
While I waited for the DVD to arrive, I did my best to imagine how I'd have filmed Ransome, whether the two Coot stories and Great Northern?, which belongs with them thematically, or the Lakeland books. First of all, as with the books, each film would need a map, not just bracketing the action, but ever-present. The camera zooms in and out, computer tech allowing the near zooms to morph into live action and zoom-outs to morph back to the map, so that we always know where we are. "Live" coloring shows the tide creeping up and down the map. I fear some readers may deem such things obtrusive or anachronistic, but tech should also give credible ambient sound, mostly lacking in the existing TV serial: boats' creaking, water lapping, birds' calls and chatter day and night, the breeze, the sails' flap, rainfall, the audio differences between day and night, etc., etc., and more that I can't imagine because, though I've read, I've never been. I'd link sounds to the map, so we hear locations before the zoom in or even when the focus simply passes an area without zooming.
Besides working on the casting flaws noted above, I'd shoot any and all adults from, at most, the eye level of the tallest child. Maybe I'd go so far as to shoot the tallest children, when appropriate from the eye level of the shortest children.
And tacking: I don't think there's a bit of sailing lore more significant for Ransome than this against-the-wind technique that, to a novice, seems an almost magical accomplishment of the impossible. The very first novel, Swallows and Amazons, begins with seven-year-old Roger running "in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm" (p. 13). Film offers a unique opportunity to show, not just talk about, tacking, all the more so, since in Coot Club, Dick and his sister are relative novices.
Note finally that Roger isn't pretending to tack; he "was tacking." It was just a hill. He was on land. He had no sails. But still he was tacking. Perhaps more so the Lakeland group than these Coots, but Ransome's game was always to blend children's make-believe so seamlessly with reality that there is no line. In any single moment, the two coexist. Any film worthy of Ransome would have to achieve the same. The camera can never show anything but reality, while the imaginary rivals it in the actors words, faces, and body language.
Too bad Miyazaki never caught on to these. Another British children's novel, B.B.'s Brendon Chase, really cries for Miyazaki's unique ability to blend reality, imagination, and Nature.
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