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While nothing can approach reading the actual novel, this television film version of THE MASTER OF BALLENTRAE is far better than the 1953 film version. At the very least it managed to recreate the real personality problems that appear in that egoist James Durrie. Michael York is shown to be an amoral, selfish human being from the start, when he is carrying on an affair with a poor girl of the local village - an affair that leaves the girl with a child that his family has to help support. York never shows any redeeming quality in his James Durrie. In fact one moment I recall (which is not in the novel, but should have been) is when he and his friend Col. Burke (here Timothy Dalton) are commenting on requests from the Durrie family to try to economize while they are living in Paris. York smiles and laughs that they will stop drinking so much brandy and only drink champaign from now on.
Richard Thomas plays Henry far better than Anthony Steel did. Steel was too young in the role - he never grew into the money obsessed ant to York's spendthrift grasshopper that Thomas could grown into. But the writers watered it down a little, allowing Thomas to be a bit warmer than Henry is in the novel (and allowing a genuine affection to grow between Thomas and his wife). It is a bearable change in the story.
Similarly commendable is the worldwide scope of this film version: there are scenes in the novel in the Caribbean, Europe, and India, which are picked up on as we watch James traveling around the world with Burke. The only difference here is that Burke dies in India (but significantly his death barely fazes his so-called friend James). The pirate section in the Caribbean is also changed because the pirate is Blackbeard (called Captain Teach - Brian Blessed in a nice performance). I don't think that Blackbeard would have killed off his own crew as Blessed did, but it was an interesting section of the film.
The finale of the novel in the upstate section of the colony of New York maintains the fantastic trick that Stevenson used in the novel - a trick which may be too fantastic. However, it's results are also watered down here, as only one fatality results.
With all these alterations the story's bitterness is handled quite well. It certainly is a worthy addition to the films that have appeared based on Stevenson's works in the movies and on television.
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