Will Michael Bay's "Treasure Island" Prequel Prove to Be Pirate Heaven or a Rum Do?

Will Michael Bay's "Treasure Island" Prequel Prove to Be Pirate Heaven or a Rum Do?
"Arggh, Jim, lad!": Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll in "Treasure Island" (1950)
(© 1950 - The Walt Disney Co.)

The piracy fan craze triggered by the success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series will soon be exploited on cable and television. Michael Bay, the visually grandiloquent director of “Pearl Harbor” and the “Transformers” movies, is to produce the neatly titled “Black Sails,” an eight-part prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” for the STARZ channel as it attempts to compete with Showtime and HBO.

Meanwhile NBC is readying “The Republic of Pirates,” based on Colin Woodard’s book about the depredations of the ill-fated “golden age” Caribbean pirates Samuel Bellamy (drowned in 1717), Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard, shot and stabbed to death in 1718), and Charles Vane (hung in 1721).

Fox will broadcast “Pyrates,” an extended miniseries produced by Ridley and Tony Scott about the Dutch admiral and privateer Piet Hein’s capture of the Spanish silver fleet in 1628. (The real battle was reputedly bloodless – can the Scotts resist the temptation to cover the decks with gore?)

Finally, there is F/X’s “Port Royal,” producer Gale Anne Hurd’s attempt to do for the lawless pirate mecca of New Providence Island in the Bahamas in the late 1700s what David Milch did for 1870s Deadwood (and HBO). Hurd has promised a sprawling drama involving larger than life “pirates, prostitutes, thieves, and fortune seekers.” One suspects it will be too racy for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise’s core juvenile audience, which could be problematic for the series’ success.

Set 20 years before the events in “Treasure Island,” “Black Sails,” created by “Jericho” showrunner Joe Steinberg, focuses on Long John Silver at the time he served with the crew of the pirate captain J. Flint. A structuring absence in Stevenson’s novel, the dread-inspiring Flint hangs over Jim Hawkins and the treasure-seeking crew of the Hispaniola like a ghost, or the return of the repressed. It will be interesting to see if Bay and Steinberg delve into Silver’s and Flint’s psyches or convey the fantastical elements Stevenson incorporated, and which so entranced the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, or simply present a credibility-testing, effects-laden action-adventure show.  Hopefully, time will be allotted to show how Stevenson’s Billy Bones, Black Dog, Israel Hands, and the nightmarish Blind Pew fell so deeply into iniquity. (And why poor Ben Gunn was marooned.)

Much will depend on atmosphere and the characterization of Silver. Not that Disney gives a damn, but the jokey tone and aburd CGI of the lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” series botched not only the sinister aura of piracy established by Stevenson, the author-illustrator Howard Pyle, and Pyle’s protégé N.C. Wyeth, but even the threat inherent in parts of the original theme-park ride (at least the version I saw at Disneyworld in the late eighties).

Despite many attempts, only two actors have done justice to Silver. Though it’s an outrageous caricature, the eye-rolling Robert Newton’s incarnation, beloved of impressionists, in 1950's “Treasure Island” remains definitive; he repeated it in a 1954 sequel and a 1956-57 television series. Alfred Burke’s Silver in a 1977 British TV series came close to Stevenson’s conception of Silver the sly, treacherous but plausible Sea Cook. However, Stevenson himself might have admired Orson Welles’s 1972 version since Welles resembled William Ernest Henley, the crippled poet and editor who inspired Long John.

The actor Bay casts as Silver in his prime will go a long way to determining if “Black Sails” sinks or swims. Let it be some apprentice devil incarnate and not a smart-talking pretty boy with a baby parrot on his shoulder.