Review: Horatio Hornblower, Collectors Edition

When like me you don’t watch much TV, you don’t have to be worried about being sucked into the latest TV miniseries. I knew about the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, but because I don’t watch TV I had only caught part of one episode on TV when it originally aired, and that only was because my sister told me about it. It was much more convenient for me, more than a decade after the first episode aired, to sit down and watch all eight episodes in a row over a few days while I convalesced.

Like with most miniseries, there is a mental disconnect between what you read in the books and the miniseries. My mental imagining of Horatio Hornblower was little like Ioan Gruffudd’s portrayal. Director Andrew Grieve’s version of the famous fictional 19th century British naval captain took some getting used to, but overall I very much liked it.

If there is a problem with the miniseries, it is that it covers the least interesting parts of the novels: Hornblower’s career starting as a midshipman through a commander. C.S. Forester actually started with the fifth book and wrote the novels that constituted his early years much later. To put it kindly, I suspect that like me most readers would agree that the latter half of the series was more interesting than the first half. This is in part because a naval captain can have a much more interesting time than a midshipman or lieutenant. The good news is that in the unlikely event that more of these adventures will make it onto film they should only get more interesting. This is because the finest novel in the series is probably the very first written, Beat to Quarters. The TV series ends just as Hornblower is promoted to Post Captain. Moreover, since Gruffudd is aging along with the character, if someone could produce Beat to Quarters, Gruffudd would be just about the perfect age to portray Hornblower, as Gruffudd is 36.

Turning a book into a TV series always involves a number of deviations from the books. If you have read the series a half dozen times like I have you will notice plenty. In spirit, the series is faithful to the books, and perhaps that’s what counts the most. The naval battles were rendered much better than I anticipated, as was life aboard a British naval ship at that time in general. If you watch the DVD extras, you realize the producers actually had to construct a frigate as well as a number of other ships. This is not an easy thing to do these days, as frigate building is something of a lost art. Moreover, constructing 19th century naval vessels is very expensive. So the same ship stands in for a number of ships because to really show the variation of naval ships would have been cost prohibitive. For example, most gun decks were below the main deck, not on the main deck. The ship in the TV series also looks suspiciously new and overly clean, which in fact it was at the time. Although sailors did their best to keep their ships shipshape, in reality most British naval ships of the period were creaky and barnacle encrusted.

Most of the characters are dead on. I particularly like Robert Lindsay as Sir Edward Pellew and Paul McGann as Lieutenant William Bush. Bush is a recurring character in the later novels. He becomes Hornblower’s sturdy and dependable right hand man. As for Gruffudd’s portrayal of Hornblower, his Hornblower shows a streak of friendliness as well as humanity that was absent in the books. In the books, we knew Hornblower felt this way, but he considered it unmanly to actually behave this way. In short, Hornblower becomes likeable, rather than the isolated and removed character portrayed in the books. As Forester made clear, Hornblower was a secret humanitarian (and by today’s standards would be a liberal) but in the British navy of the 19th century where discipline was foremost, it was frankly not allowed. Just as if you were a gay, you kept your humanitarian instincts deep in the closet.

It seems unlikely that more episodes will be made. After sponsoring eight episodes, A&E finally figured out they were too expensive to continue. The good news is that Gruffudd loved playing Hornblower and would be glad to make some more Hornblower movies. Presumably, he needs some underwriters. Sign me up to buy a few shares of any future Hornblower movies. It would be a pleasure as I age to watch Gruffudd act through the best part of the series. All the remaining books deserve to make it to film. Given the constraints of miniseries, they were not the epitome of a Hornblower realization for the screen, but they came close. My hope for a proper Hornblower movie with this cast is likely to remain a fantasy.

If you haven’t seen the series of eight you can always buy the DVD set, of course. By the end of the eighth episode, Duty, like me you might feel crestfallen that there simply are no more episodes to enjoy. The good news is that if you have not read the books, you will have the pleasure of reading them.

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