From Novel to Film pt. 2: The Mosquito Coast

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux was published in 1981.

Cover to the UK first edition. (Cover art: a detail from Rousseau's La charmeuse des serpents.)
The full painting. Just because Rousseau is fantastic.
I've never read any other Theroux. I've been wanting to see Saint Jack (another movie based on one of his novels) for years, but that one's hard to come by.

It's a fascinating read. Just the right mix of disturbing and thought-provoking. My copy is not the UK first edition pictured above but the Mariner Books edition which has the cover blurb "a gripping adventure story." Which is misleading. It's an adventure novel the way The Shining - a book it very much resembles in some aspects - is a TripAdvisor review of the Overlook Hotel. It's closer to a horror novel than anything - not a supernatural one but a post-colonial Heart of Darkness / Jim Jones one.

It's also modeled rather deliberately after Swiss Family Robinson.
More accurately, it's a reaction (and a negative one) to that novel, as well as the better-known Disney film based on it.

Written by a Swiss pastor intended to teach his four sons about "family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world, and self-reliance."
Theroux's book is also concerned with these subjects but in a much darker way.
THE PLOT: Here's how The New York Times describes it, from their review (with some images from the film:)

"(TMC is) the story of Allie Fox, a Yankee genius, a self-taught engineer and inventor, a rejector of God and the American Way and all other sources of bad workmanship, a born counterculturalist and survivalist who nevertheless feels nothing but scorn for those canting new creeds (...) In his rejection of America, Fox is of course a classic American type; and his will to create a new world for himself would have been understood at Brook Farm or Walden Pond or in any frontier homestead.

"Goodbye, America! And have a nice day!"
 "Settling at an overgrown clearing that is called the ''town'' of Jeronimo in remote up-river Honduras, he brilliantly brings into being his ''better world,'' where, with seeming effortlessness, crops flourish, sound houses rise, water flows to bathhouse, latrine and laundry, old bicycles become self-propelled boats, and so on.

"But his refusal to accept any reality other than his own takes darker and more dangerous forms."
"He declines to join his family in learning to use natural foods and medicines -nature is unacceptable unless his mind has improved it; he imposes cruel and perilous tests and punishments upon his rebellious sons; he grows dishonest, insisting that each failure of his designs is in fact part of his plan. Most insanely, in his obsession with the cultural collapse of America, he begins to insist that in his absence America has been destroyed by nuclear holocaust, and that there may therefore be no alternative to his own version of reality."

I'll get to the film adaptation more in a minute, but Ebert's review is an interesting counterpoint to the above:

"It is one of the ironies of the movie that (Harrison Ford, as Allie Fox) does very good work. He gives us a character who has tunnel vision, who is uncaring toward his family or anyone else, who is totally lacking in a sense of humor, who is egocentric to the point of madness. It is a brilliant performance - so effective, indeed, that we can hardly stand to spend two hours in the company of this consummate jerk.

Which is funny to me, as I thought he was way too likable in the movie. 

I agree that Ford's performance is fine - maybe not "brilliant" but certainly spirited and well-done. Like many 70s/ 80s kids, Harrison Ford was more or less "Wish Dad." (Or world's coolest uncle. Male Authority Figure: the Adventure Version.) Watching him play so severely against type worked against the film when I first saw it back in the 80s; suddenly Wish Dad was ranting about ice and the Bible and no one was safe. And the ghost of Wish-Dad worked against it when I revisited it last week after finishing the novel. Ebert describes Ford as just too unlikable to watch for two hours. Two hours? Try three-hundred-seventy pages. Allie Fox is way easier to deal with in the movie, even though, ironically, it's Ford's inherent likability that is part of the reason the film isn't an ultimately successful realization of the novel.


"I thought I was building something, but I was asking for it to be destroyed. That's a consequence of perfection in this world - the opposing wrath of imperfection."

The book is narrated by Charlie Fox, Allie's fourteen-year-old son. It's also dedicated to him, as if he was an actual person who shared these experiences with the author. That struck me as unusual. I'm unclear why Theroux did it, though it's harmless enough.

"God had left the world incomplete. It was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it and finish it. I think that's why he hated missionaries so much because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens. For Father, there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels, or runners, or a system of pulleys. "God," he said - the deceased God - was a hasty inventor of the sort you find in any patent office. He had a great idea and moved on before he got it working properly. 'How can you worship that? God got bored. I know that kind of boredom, but I fight it'."

Charlie is a passive character, but the novel does a good job of capturing his conflict between love for his father and a growing recognition of his deceit and the danger he poses to all of them.

Charlie (River Phoenix in the movie) winds up being the caretaker of his father's story. "As told to" the author.

As the NYT review notes, "by using an unsophisticated but perceptive narrator, Theroux, like Twain before him, makes room for irony that can remain un-insistent."

The Twain comparison makes sense, as Theroux based Allie on Pap, Huck's racist, child-abusing Dad. Allie's rants are more sophisticated than Pap's, and not racially charged, but it's easy enough to draw a line between the two. Like Father in Swiss Family Robinson (a conceit also recalled in TMC; Allie and his wife refer to one another as "Mother" and "Father" throughout) he's brought very much into the late twentieth century:

"That's why we went to war in South Korea, for labor-intensive industries, which means skinny kids punching out water bags and making tin cups for us. Don't get heartbroken. That's progress. That's the point of Orientals. Everyone's got to have coolies, right? (...) A few years back we were practically at war with the People's Republic. Now they're selling us knapsacks - probably for the next war. What's the catch? They're third rate knapsacks, they wouldn't hold sandwiches. You think we're going to win that war with the Chinese?"

Allie is being ironic here, berating a salesman for the cheap wares at the hardware store, not xenophobic. His misanthropy is pretty universal, though he saves his biggest rants for American educators and missionaries.

"Science fiction gave people more false hope than  two thousand years of bibles. This is the future. A little motor in a little boat, on a muddy river. When the motor bursts or we run out of gas, we paddle. No spacemen! No fuel, no rocket ships, no glass domes. Just work! (...) The crudest high school physics that they stopped teaching when everyone flunked out and started reading science fiction. Get it? No laser beams, no electricity, nothing but muscle power. What we're doing now! We're the people of the future, using the technology of the future. We cracked it!"

Allie makes the above rant after his second attempt at a settlement is destroyed by the rainy season.

With each failure or setback, Allie retcons his vision to suit the new circumstances. When the technological wonder he brought to Jeronimo quite literally blows up in his face, poisoning the river and eradicating everything for a square mile, he declares it's technology itself that was the problem and that he's a "changed man." But it's clearly any vision of the world that won't abide him that is the problem, and he nearly destroys his family rather than admit or allow them to see it. This is, by Theroux's reckoning, the true meaning of Manifest Destiny.

Something the movie doesn't quite get right. Allie is portrayed heroically until about halfway through, while the novel foreshadows it straight out of the gate.

There are some visual clues, but the switch from obsessed genius to Jack Torrance level menace is too abrupt.
The writing is sharp throughout. The Honduran jungle is brought to life quite vividly:

"I had always pictured the jungle as suffocating spaghetti tangles, drooping and crisscrossed, a mass of hairy green rope and clutching stems - a wicked salad that stank in your face and flung its stalks around you. This was more like a church, with pillars and fans and hanging flowers and only the slightest patches of white sky above the curved row of branches."

As is the misery of La Ceiba on the coast:

"Farther along the road we saw a dead dog. Five vultures were tearing a hole in its belly. That was Honduras so far - dead dogs and vultures, a dirty beach, and chicken huts and roads leading nowhere. The view from the boat had been like a picture, but now we were inside that picture. It was all hunger and noise and cruelty."


"Look around you, Charlie -

this place is a toilet."
Peter Weir and Paul Schrader's adaptation of the novel came out in 1986. It failed both at the box office and with critics, but its reputation has improved over time. For me, I don't think it really holds together all that well as a story - certainly not as an adaptation of the book - but it's worth watching. Good production value and certainly a powerful (if a bit unfocused) vision.

Shot in Belize rather than Honduras (understandable)
Close enough, at any rate.

It more or less follows the events of the novel, but it excises some in-my-eyes crucial bits:

- Allie's Missing Finger. I can understand why they didn't chop off Harrison Ford's finger, but it's a well-utilized symbol for Allie's nature (and something the natives find fascinating) in the book. (Maybe they just should have cast James Doohan.)

Harrison Ford's chin scar is asked to carry the weight.
- Charlie's nightmare. Near the novel's beginning, Charlie has what he thinks is a nightmare. He watches in mute terror while the migrant workers (who tend the asparagus in Massachusetts, where the Foxes live and work before their Mosquito Coast adventures) carry his unconscious father across the fields before stringing him up and crucifying him. To avoid being spotted, he crouches in a ditch. Terrified and furious at himself for failing to act, he wakes up in his bed, relieved to discover it was only a dream, until he discovers he is covered in poison ivy. What he saw was not his father but the rigging of a scarecrow on the edge of the field (a nocturnal task.) Not only would this has been a riveting scene to visualize onscreen, both the poison ivy and the terror/anxiety of the vision are important in establishing where Charlie is, psychologically, before being swept along in his father's madness.

- Aboard the Unicorn. On the way from America to Honduras, Allie forces Charlie to climb the rigging during a storm. This is an escalation of a previous "hard lesson from Dad" - forcing him to stay out on a rock as the tide got higher and higher, to prove he could stand up to nature, not be afraid. It's an important scene, and the story is weaker for its absence. (It also foreshadows a later climb his father asks him to make, but we'll get to that when we get to Fat Boy.) Allie's bullying nature is also brought out by his needling the Captain once the storms pick up. He ends up fixing the ship's listing problem but only upon threat of being marooned in Cuba if he fails. This too is missing, so when the Foxes eventually disembark, two key indicators of the troubles to come have not been established.

Making Allie's eventual break, as mentioned previously, seem all too abrupt.

- The Acre. "The Acre" is something Charlie and his brother and some of the Indian children carve out of the jungle that surrounds Jeronimo. It is their secret playground, where they play-act at going to church, selling things in the store, swing on vines and sleep in hammocks. It does appear in the film - for like two seconds, with no symbolic weight.

- The Spellgoods. aka the missionary family who are also aboard the Unicorn. While the novel certainly view the Reverend and his mission with a jaundiced eye, the film stacks the deck against him from the very first. Whereas he and Allie are juxtaposed pretty well in the novel, each reflecting the dark side of the other's evangelism, the Reverend is more or less a one-sided punching bag in the movie. I don't necessarily disagree with the film's take on him, but the one-reflecting-the-other-ness of the book is lost.

It is the Reverend who fires the bullet that ultimately ends Allie's life in both novel and film, but while the novel makes a point of dragging Allie's paralyzed from the waist down body downstream, ("Dead things go downstream, Mother") where he ultimately dies in the surf, hacked apart by the scavenger vultures that have been circling him (and against whom he's been raving) for chapters and chapters, he dies more or less peacefully in the movie, after sharing an out-of-place moment of poignancy with Charlie. All of this works against the themes in play.

Also, in the book, when Allie discovers the Reverend has an airplane at his settlement, it is the final indignity, and it is the airplane he destroys. In the film, it's the church. This undermines things. The plane is a symbol of Allie's own failures in the jungle; the church is just another representation of what we already knew Allie hated.

- Mother. Helen Mirren plays the character much more forcefully than how she appears in the novel, which is probably a good move.

Although she describes her approach to the role as trying to be as passive as possible, her unavoidably strong presence onscreen can't help but make her seem more like a partner and less like a victim of her husband's obsessions.

But in so doing you can't help but wonder... why on earth is she staying with this man?

In the novel, her passivity is almost pathological, which served the critique of the nuclear family / patriarchy / Manifest Destiny. She's undoubtedly more compelling to watch as played by Helen Mirren than she is to read.

She goes from passive-element-of-the-author's-point to a more fully-realized character.

- Fat Boy. This is the technological monstrosity Allie builds from scratch and deposits on Jeronimo's riverfront.

With no electricity, it uses ammonia to produce ice.
 "Ice is civilization" is Allie's mantra, and generating ice-from-fire (a single match sets off the chemical process within) is Allie's singular demonstration of his superiority and capability.

Fat Boy is represented pretty well, actually - kudos to the set designers and carpenters. With one exception - we never see inside it. The novel turns on Charlie's climb (which his father makes him do) through its innards, where he realizes it's a literal representation of his father's twisted mind: all crooked pipes welded into impossible positions, filled with poisons, ultimately deadly. In the film, Charlie crawls along the outside.

Much different.

His technological marvel is destroyed when three men with guns appear in Jeronimo. Allie can't abide their presence. His solution is to lock them into Fat Boy, block off the release valve, and "ice" them to death. It backfires.

Kudos to the pyrotechnicians - this is all wonderfully staged and filmed.
Charlie learns an important lesson at last: his father will destroy everything (and anyone) he's created when the slightest threat to his absolute control manifests itself.
Let's wrap this up with a return to Roger Ebert's review:

"There have been other madmen in other movies who tried to find their vision in these same rain forests. I think immediately of "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," and "Fitzcarraldo," two movies by Werner Herzog about crazed eccentrics who pressed on into the jungle, driven by their obsessions. Those movies were so much more watchable than The Mosquito Coast because they created characters (both played by Klaus Kinski) who were mad with a flamboyant, burning intensity. Allie Fox's madness is more of a drone, an unending complaint against the way things are." 

I think a lot of this has less to do with River Phoenix, actually. His intermittent narration is (as Ebert also mentions, elsewhere) not matched to any image or event that bears it out. It's almost as if they just opened the book and had Phoenix read from it at random. Worse, his voiceover is delivered in this The wild panda moves to the water to retrieve sustenance for her young cub... tone.

Which doesn't quite work.
A different actor for Charlie Fox would have gone a long way. River Phoenix plays him as if he's just kind of there. The character, as noted, is passive, but as with Helen Mirren, that shouldn't have stopped anybody from bringing a bit more edge /point to it all. It's hard to tell a story through someone with little personality, perspective, or energy.

Mr. Haddy, one of the Jeronimo natives lucky enough to escape the wrath of Fat Boy, is good, though:

Kudos to Conrad Roberts.

Verdict: As movies go, not bad, but as an adaptation of a decent novel, not so much. But I've certainly seen worse.
"Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going. Travel is glamorous only in retrospect." - Paul Thereux.


  1. Despite being just the right demographic to have Ford as my Wish Uncle, I never saw this movie, nor have I read the novel. It sounds to me like the novel is handily the better of the two, though.

    I love Helen Mirren, but she sounds miscast to my ears. It sounds like a bit of an inverse of the Kubrick version of "The Shining," actually; in that movie, I think Shelley Duvall's weakness as a character works to the movie's advantage, whereas her it sounds like Weir could have used a bit of that but instead went for strength.

    I'm enjoying this series of posts!

    1. Good to hear, good to hear!

      I agree on Shelley Duvall.

      The novel is definitely better, but the movie's worth seeing. If I hadn't seen it immediately after finishing the book (like, hours later) it's likely some of the things I mentioned might not even have bugged me.

    2. Additionally, re: the inverse of Kubrick's "The Shining," it's interesting, because the common complaint re: Jack Nicholson's casting is that it positions Jack Torrance as "evil / crazy from the get-go" rather than slowly descending into madness. As you know, I disagree with this entirely and argue the character shows signs of instability right from the get-go in the book, so casting Jack Nicholson makes perfect sense or at the very least cannot be considered removing the "descent into madness" angle.

      Here in Mosquito Coast, by casting Ford, though, one has to fight against his Wish-Dad-ness - the very same sort of thing people say about Jack, re: the actor's aura influencing the audience's perception - whereas in the novel, like Jack Torrance, Allie Fox's descent into lower realms of parenting and violence is well foreshadowed from the very first page.

    3. If you had the opportunity to go back in time and recast, who would you replace Ford with?

    4. While not irreplaceable, Ford does a good job and certainly could have pulled it off (audience perception or not) if the script had kept some of the scenes from the novel it chose to leave out. But if I could replace him, that's a good question - who has just the right blend of menace, volatility, genius, madness and charm? Anthony Hopkins, perhaps? Though, I have to say weirdly enough, that isn't ringing the right bell with me. Good question.

    5. Gene Hackman was the first name that came to mind for me. Robert Duvall was the second.

    6. Both of those are excellent choices, definitely.

  2. I've neither read the book, nor seen the film, also. However I will say that I've seen at least two examples of video games (of all things) that are very much like it.

    Hear me out.

    What the descriptions above call out for me isn't The Shining but rather in particular a video game called Bioshock. It's a video game about an underwater utopia that reality has finally caught up to, and it's the player's job to navigate his way to the surface (and hopefully dry land) while overcoming both the now deranged former inhabitants and the city's creator, Andrew Ryan; a character the developers explained was in many ways inspired by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand (whom Stephen Colbert seems to loath with a passion).

    It's hard to describe how effective this game is at conveying the failure of the kind of utopian thinking (if it can be called that) on display in novels or films like "Coast". The best I can do is present two clips that give an idea of how they're related. One is a pretty neat fan-made trailer for a non-existant film version of the game:


    And the other is are two moments of game play featuring the intro to, and final moments of Andrew Ryan (pay attention to his philosophy and see if there are any parallels to Theroux's novel):




    The only other thing this post reminds me of, is character I found out about just two days ago, I think. See if this character might fit Theroux's story. His name is Anarky (yeah, I know, but that's the way it's spelled apparently (because poor literacy is kewl!):



    1. "inspired by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand (whom Stephen Colbert seems to loath with a passion)."

      I'm not a Rand fan - I actually know very little, but she's come up in plenty of other reading I've done and she seems (no offense to anyone who's a fan) like the L. Ron Hubbard of libertarians, or something. But I cringe when the Salon/ HuffPo / Colbert / MSNBC hivemind bring her up. If anything makes me sympathetic to figures on the so-called fringe, it's the uniformity, overkill and tunnel vision of media engineering against them. I'll never understand.

    2. I did remember one more Batman connection to "Mosquito Coast", this one perhaps a bit more surprising and unlikely.

      I'll admit I'm not sure whether or not I agree with the vlogger's take on this character, however I do admit it's an interesting angle nonetheless, as I never once thought to associate a kind of social critique to her actions: