Put This on Television

Christopher Orr is on to something:

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen.

I think the parallel here would be the work done on the series Rome, which was enormously expensive, and would consume a great deal of time and effort. If I were going to undertake this as a television project, I would probably have to constrain the project to a limited number of sets.

Look at the set depicted above--look at the detail. Anything less and you're not going to convince anyone of anything. And yet, that scene was probably filmed on a soundstage.

The first logistical problem is filming at sea. No, you don't have to venture far out into the water with a functioning three-masted sailing ship, but you have to have something convincing. In the case of the Master and Commander, movie, they had a terrific replica of Jack Aubrey's Surprise. They used a water tank with gimbals and the HMS Rose, which is moored in San Diego, California (perfect for a California-based production). Everything else you could CGI as needed. There are set piece battles that would be prohibitively expensive and would have to be done sparingly.

The second would be filming on sets on land; much of the Aubrey-Maturin series takes place in England and on other land-based locations like the island of Mallorca. You could film those anywhere. It's the sea action that begins to present the next set of challenges since your source material has the duo sailing all over the world. Given the proximity of the Caribbean and Hawaii, no problem shooting on those locations if costs are kept at a minimum. Too many location shots and you're going to run out of money fast. An ocean is an ocean, of course, but can you convincingly shoot the English Channel, Gibraltar, and the South Pacific in one place?

The third would be scope--how many episodes per year? Do you do a 16 episode season and break it into two pieces or do you do it with 10-12 one hour episodes? Then, you have to find an Aubrey and a Maturin. You're not getting Russell Crowe to do this--it would be ideal, of course, and you could film half of it in California and half in Australia. Would Crowe give up his time and is he now too old for the role? Probably not, but could you get Paul Bettany? Probably not. You could find two younger actors and run with that. That's what I would do--I'd keep the costs down that way and then I wouldn't have to worry about someone bailing in Seasons 4 and 5 if I was lucky enough to get there. Ha! Listen to me go on.

The limitations are there, but this is eminently doable if you approach it like they did Poldark for Masterpiece Theater. For Poldark, they used limited sets and creatively applied small touches to enhance the look and feel of the series. You could do all of this in Europe and you could probably do it all in California, but there would be endless applications of CGI. Would that add up to a television experience that would draw in enough people?

Well, give it a season and find out.

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