Today we welcome author Darlene Marshall, whose new novel Castaway Dreams is now available, to talk about the enduring appeal of castaway stories, and some of her favorites. Welcome, Darlene!
We’ve been fascinated by stories of castaways on desert islands ever since Odysseus washed up at Calypso’s feet. The idea of being out of place, struggling to survive against the elements, reinventing yourself, is a theme explored again and again in literature from The Odyssey to The Tempest to Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies. Many of us read Island of the Blue Dolphins in American schools, a somewhat unique castaway story in that its protagonist is a woman.
It’s also a theme explored on stage and in film from the earliest days of silent pictures, with too many films to mention here. From literature we have a hand-tinted film of The Tempest in 1905, the first Robinson Crusoe movie in 1926 (my personal favorite is 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars with Adam West in a very small role as the hapless 2nd astronaut), and Lord of the Flies in 1963.
Other castaway movies include George C. Scott’s harrowing The Savage is Loose (1974), Swept Away…(1974 and remade by Madonna in 2002), The Black Stallion (1979), The Blue Lagoon (1980), Six Days, Seven Nights (1998), Castaway (1986 with Oliver Reed), and, of course, Cast Away with Tom Hanks (2000).
Tom Hanks’ Cast Away is the movie most people of this generation think of when you mention this theme, the movie that made a volleyball named Wilson into a cultural icon. It was extremely well acted and was far more realistic than many other films about how one survives—or doesn’t—isolated on a desert island.
IMDb lists others with a theme of castaways washed ashore, but there is one film I wish to focus on in particular. I saw it when I was much younger, and it resonated with me. I don’t know if it was because I had a crush on Kenneth Moore, or if it was the basic story, but the film was 1957’s The Admirable Crichton (also released as Paradise Lagoon). Be warned, there are spoilers in this discussion of the play and movie.
The Admirable Crichton is a stage play written by J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), first produced in London in 1902. It skewered Edwardian society in a setting instantly recognizable to fans of Downton Abbey. The hero is a 30-year-old butler who says to the employee lowest in the hierarchy, Tweeny, “To me, the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with everyone kept in his place.” The Dowager Countess would have approved. This is a view shared by Lady Mary Lasenby, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Loam, Crichton’s employer. As the play opens, the principals are preparing for a radical monthly event instituted by Loam—the servants taking tea upstairs with the family. The servants hate it. The daughters hate it. Crichton and Lady Mary especially hate it, and it leaves all involved uncomfortable.
The action then moves to a deserted tropical island following the shipwreck of Lord Loam’s yacht. The survivors include Loam, his three daughters, Ernest Woolley (Loam’s nephew, a useless fribble), a clergyman, Crichton and Tweeny.
It is clear from the outset that only Crichton has the skills necessary to survive and after being sacked by Loam for his impudence, Crichton and Tweeny take themselves off to the other side of the island. Crichton builds a fire, obtains food, and the cold, hungry aristos follow the smell of roast pork and woodsmoke to Crichton’s camp.
Two years pass and this is where the play takes a darker turn as Crichton, perhaps through necessity, has become a benevolent dictator known as “The Guv.” The Edwardian world is turned upside down, with all the survivors cheerfully serving Crichton. Lady Mary is a skilled huntress, and Tweeny lords it over the younger Lasenby sisters. Crichton’s word is law on the island, and he and Mary have developed a tendre for each other. Barrie also liked to explore gender issues in his writing, and this shows in the character of Lady Mary. Mary has the most personal growth amongst the aristocrats. She revels in her physical strength and her new found abilities in bowhunting, a far cry from her languid lament early in the play on the dearth of servants aboard the yacht: “How will we ever know it’s morning if there is no one to pull up the blinds?”
The play makes much of the role reversals and Crichton’s alpha behavior, but the film focuses more on the romantic comedy aspects. It does a masterful job of showing the budding romance between Crichton and Lady Mary. Moore’s acting is particularly stunning during the scene when a naval gun is heard offshore, signaling that the castaways are found.
Neither the play nor the film offer the happily ever after ending most romance readers expect. It’s more a study of the classic castaway theme: what happens when you take people out of their normal lives and put them in an environment that will challenge their very ability to survive? Will they become better people (Lady Mary) or devolve into savages (Lord of the Flies)? Who are we when civilization’s constraints are stripped away from us? Are we Crichton, the very model of a perfect servant or “The Governor” who imposes his will on those less capable?
An interesting footnote to the play is that Barrie considered writing an ending where Lady Mary and Crichton are together at the end. He didn’t write it in that fashion because he knew audiences of his time would not accept such a pairing. Also, I confess that I chortled with glee when in Fawlty Towers’ “The Germans” episode, Basil says of Manuel finally showing up, “Oh, it’s the Admirable Crichton.” There’s also a reference to the play in Red Dwarf: The robot butler is named Kryten.
What’s YOUR favorite castaway story or romance?
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Darlene Marshall writes award-winning historical romance about pirates, privateers, smugglers and a possum or two. Her new romance is Castaway Dreams: “A dour doc (after a fashion), a dizzy damsel (more or less), and a darling (and potentially delicious) doggy. Three unlikely companions sharing adventure on a desert island. One may have fleas.”