Anyone looking for a prime example of how the approach to adapting acclaimed novels has changed over the past 40 years should watch the film and TV versions of “The Mosquito Coast” back-to-back.
Peter Weir’s 1986 film adaptation is slavishly loyal to Paul Theroux’s award-winning 1981 novel, offering a truncated but clear version of events that remains true to the original. It hits all of the book’s key plot points, as American inventor and iconoclast Allie Fox drags his family (wife and four kids) into the Honduran jungle in a bid to start from scratch and create their own piece of paradise. Paul Schrader’s script plays up the “Man of Science v. Man of God” elements of the book and serves up the entire epic story – think “Fitzcarraldo,” but with an ice-production plant in place of an opera house – in less than two hours.
The film flopped upon release, but I actually think it’s aged pretty well over the years despite the miscasting of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in the roles of Allie and his wife, “Mother,” and the somewhat simplistic portrayal of the Hondurans, which is wince-inducing and mirrors the problems in Theroux’s novel. It’s certainly wonderful to see a film from the days when infernos were created by literally blowing stuff up rather than relying on dubious visual effects.
The film version also stars River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton as a young boyfriend and girlfriend. Watching Apple TV’s new seven-part adaptation, there were often times when I felt some executive had said “Let’s remake that ’80s film in which River and Martha played a young couple” – and half of the writers assumed they were talking about “Mosquito Coast,” while the other half thought they meant 1988’s “Running on Empty,” in which they both also appeared.
How else to explain the feeling that this new show is less an adaptation of the original novel and more a mash-up of “Mosquito Coast” and Sidney Lumet’s lovely, understated movie about a family on the run from the FBI and the problems facing their teenage son as he reaches college age. (How River Phoenix’s lush hair didn’t win a best supporting actor role that year is a mystery for the ages.)
The small-screen version of “The Mosquito Coast” shows how TV producers are increasingly seeing novels as mere starting points, potential universes to be opened up and explored rather than source material to be treated as sacred texts. Recent examples include HBO’s “Westworld,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Netflix’s “The One,” and it’s easy to understand this decision from a business perspective, if not a creative one.
A faithful retelling of Theroux’s novel could easily be wrapped up in seven hours, but then what? Anyone familiar with the book will know that the ending (complete with wonderfully symbolic use of vultures) doesn’t leave much scope for sequels and television, by and large, isn’t interested in one-season wonders.
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Hence HBO’s ill-advised decision to bring the cast of “Big Little Lies” back for a second season after the book’s plot had run its course. And hence the decision to turn “Mosquito Coast” into a family thriller that introduces a whole new backstory for Allie Fox and his wife Margot (yes, the mother character actually gets a name this time around, unlike in the book and film), and seems to be structured with a storyline spanning several seasons in mind.
What is that backstory? Well, the show shamelessly teases the real reason why the couple are being pursued by the government throughout the first season in a way that reminded me of “How I Met Your Mother” (every time they’re about to tell their kids what really happened, there’s some predictable intrusion), but it definitely hews more toward “Running on Empty” than Theroux’s novel at this stage.
As well as basically taking the two parents from the book and dropping them in a whole new storyline, the TV version makes some key decisions that I would suggest makes this a “Mosquito Coast” for the woke generation, one devoid of edginess or anything that might possibly offend due to a character’s unlikable qualities.
The biggest change concerns Allie himself, played here by the novelist’s nephew, Justin Theroux. (On a side note, I will never, ever be able to accept the fact that Justin Theroux and gawky British documentarian Louis Theroux are in any way related.)
Reading the character’s diatribes against America and the modern world in the novel, I came to refer to him as “Allie Fox News.” He’s a fascinating mass of contradictions on the page – socialist, colonialist, dreamer, idealogue – and also shockingly racist at times. But as I reread the book before watching the show, I knew there was no way this obnoxious, opinionated “Allie Fox News” character would ever feature nowadays.
Could you imagine any leading character saying this nowadays, as Allie does in the book: “Our technological future’s in the tiny hands of the Nipponese, and we let coolies do our manufacturing for us. And what about those jumped-up camel drivers frantically doubling the price of oil every two weeks?”
In fact, if the original “The Mosquito Coast” were to be released today instead, it’s easy to imagine online protests calling for the publishers to pulp the book and for Paul Theroux to be “canceled” – partly due to “Allie Fox News” and his rants, but also the representation of Hondurans as a fairly simple folk whose main purpose is to follow the white man (either Allie or a missionary).
The problem here is that while “Allie Fox News” is ultimately a monster in the book, that’s also precisely what makes him such a fascinating character. In this sanitized version, he’s a pretty bland guy who doesn’t seem to be passionate about anything as he jobs for Polski Farms in Stockton, California. In a smart update, the farm no longer just grows asparagus but is a vast industrial-farming complex – but why would an alleged idealist like Allie Fox ever consider working there?
We’re told Allie was once an environmental activist who ended up working for the NSA. But as presented here, he’s basically a beardy MacGyver, able to knock up a cellular reception in the desert with a couple of bits of wire and a phone but otherwise a bit clueless.
In one nice touch, one of his big speeches from the book about modern America – “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty, buy what we don’t need, and throw away everything that’s useful – is given to one of his kids. It’s clearly a screed he’s told his offspring many times, but the version of Allie Fox we see on the small screen is all played out, beaten down by life, and most definitely not the Allie Fox we know from the book.
Instead, it’s wife Margot (the Australian actress Melissa George) who’s now doing all the heavy lifting for the family and the one with an even more enigmatic past than her husband’s – as hinted at many times. She spends most of her time casting murderous glances in her husband’s direction, so I really hope she gets more to do if subsequent seasons do follow.
Another major change is the children: While the book and film have four kids – two elder brothers and two young female twins – the TV version drops the twins and has just a teenage brother and sister. The girl, Dina (Logan Polish, the daughter of indie filmmaker Mark Polish), is a 15-year-old who initially appears to be channeling one of the most divisive teenage TV figures of recent years – Dana Brody in “Homeland” – but her character becomes less shrill as the series progresses and probably the most interesting.
By contrast, younger brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) is relegated from the role of narrator in the book and film to somewhat spaced-out sidekick in the TV series, contributing little to either the family or storyline.
Ultimately, by sanding down all the rough edges of the Allie Fox News character from the original and making the story about a family on the run from the feds rather than about a man doing something on ideological grounds and dragging his family along with him, whatever the consequences – this is a “Mosquito Coast” without any real purpose.
The season ends with the suggestion that we may eventually reach some Central American land, but it’s going to take its own sweet time getting there. (In the two hours it took Peter Weir to tell the whole story on film, the TV series doesn’t even leave America’s borders.)
It feels like creators Neil Cross and Tom Bissell read this line in the novel – “God had left the world incomplete, [Allie] said. It was man’s job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it and finish it” – and completely misunderstood what needed tinkering with. So, instead of an ill-fated odyssey into the jungle in which an American railing against his country amplifies all of its ugliest traits, we get a generic thriller involving Mexican cartels, hit men, federal agents, jail breaks and shady pasts.
It’s just-about watchable, it’s just not the “Mosquito Coast” I know and want to see.
“The Mosquito Coast” is out now on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every Friday.