Muppet Treasure Island
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Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

How is Muppet Treasure Island not-so-secretly the truest adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic?

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Feb 15, 2021, 12:49 PM EST

Treasure Island is a beloved book of pirates, coming of age, danger on the high seas, and the thrill of adventure. Throughout the decades since its publication as a serial from 1881 to 1882, people have sought to adapt the Robert Louis Stevenson novel into various forms. It was first adapted in 1918 as a silent film directed by Sidney Franklin and then less than twenty years later as a talkie in 1934 starring Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. It’s even been set in space, in the form of Disney’s Treasure Planet. Of all the adaptations out there, though, one stands superior, cresting the wave of charismatic yet dastardly Long John Silvers, brave and stubborn Captain Smollets, and wide-eyed Jim Hawkinses — Muppet Treasure Island, which came out 25 years ago this week.

Okay, so no, the ocean is not referred to as the “big blue wet thing” in the original novel. However, one cannot deny that the ocean is, in fact, a big blue wet thing. Ben Gunn is also not, canonically, a spirited ex-lover of Captain Smollet, but Benjamina has a connection to Captain Flint, as does the original. There are boars on the island in the novel, they’ve just become a tribe in the film. The Muppets may have skewed portrayals of elements of the novel, but despite all the madcap changes and puppeteering, the film still feels like a true, respectful version of the classic novel. It’s maybe even the truest adaptation. How is this possible? 

Some Treasure Island adaptations, like Disney’s live-action 1950 movie or the 1990 made-for-TV movie with Charlton Heston and Christian Bale, are more or less straightforward adaptations. However, the best adaptations of classic novels can and should do more than just imitate the book. If you wanted the book, read the book. Film is its own medium and with that comes certain artistic freedoms and interpretations, as well as a way to showcase the story in a new visual style. 

Yes, making Captain Smollet a felt frog is indeed an artistic choice, but it wasn’t even the first to replace major characters with animals. That accolade goes to Animal Treasure Island, an anime film made under the consultation of Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Hiroshi Ikeda. But Muppet Treasure Island’s isn’t the truest adaptation because it too makes the story more animalistic. No, Muppet Treasure Island does the single most important thing a Treasure Island adaptation can — it embraces the adventure and the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel whole-heartedly.

ADAPTING WITH MUPPETS

From the beginning, this Muppet filled take on the classic pirate tale lets you know you are about to go on an adventure unlike any other the Jim Henson Company has produced. Even the most die-hard Treasure Island purists admit that the opening to Muppet Treasure Island with its chanting totems and pirates lugging treasure to Flint's secret burial spot emulates exactly the danger and excitement of the original tale in the book.

Every man aboard would have killed his mate
For a bag of guineas or a piece of eight

 

The original book is pretty black and white in its portrayal of pirates. They're ruthless, cruel, and take any opportunity to better themselves, regardless of the cost to another. Frankly, there isn't a ton of nuance present, Long John Silver excepted, of course. The opening number does an extraordinary job in setting up the stakes of the story that is about to follow, with its presentation of pirates slaving away as Flint draws his guns and shoots. As the song goes, "when there's money in the ground, there's murder in the air." 

Now, remember, this is a Muppet movie. Someone just murdered a bunch of people in a Muppet movie. A Muppet Christmas Carol, which is unexpectedly the most authentic take on the Charles Dickens classic, as MEL recently noted, wrestled with heavy themes, but no one murdered anyone on screen. But this is Treasure Island and it's a bit more of a thrilling adventure. After all, dead men tell no tales. It also shows that Jim Henson Studios wasn't going to water down their take on the Stevenson classic. Their pirates, human or Muppet, were going to be just as dangerous.

PUPPETS, PEOPLE, AND PEW

That was something important to screenwriter and creature-maker Kirk R. Thatcher, also known for his work on Dinosaurs and Star Wars. Muppet Treasure Island was Thatcher’s first Muppet feature film, and it was actually his pitch that got the film made in the first place. After the success of A Muppet Christmas Carol, they wanted to do another classic, but were stumped on which to do. Thatcher suggested pirates, the other idea being King Arthur. But pirates and Treasure Island won out.

“We took the book as sort of the map and we just filled it in with, you know, our Muppet characters,” Thatcher tells SYFY WIRE. He had read the book as a child and he and co-screenwriter Jerry Juhl always had a copy on hand when writing, following scene by scene. Many lines were straight out of the novel, as were many scenes.

“In the book, they talk about they get clapped in irons, which means there's no wind and they're lost. It's not lost at sea, but sitting in the ocean with no wind to really blow them anywhere… it raises the tension in the crew,” Thatcher explains. He didn’t want there to be the typical lull in the middle of the film that many adventure stories fall victim to, the moment when the romance develops or there’s just a boring bridge between acts.

”We need something really just to suddenly go ‘trust me, it's not going to be boring.’ So Cabin Fever came up to let's do a nutty song about just losing your mind,” Thatcher laughs. 

Taking these moments from the novel and transposing them into Muppet-style not only makes the film ring true as an adaptation, but also allows it to keep its namesake style. Take Blind Pew for example. The sinister pirate is one of the most dangerous men in the world of Treasure Island and is a noted fighter of impeccable skill. The Muppet Pew is just as skilled in combat and is a formidable foe. Besides, who didn’t feel a little bit creeped out at him stroking Jim’s hair. 

MUPPETFYING TREASURE ISLAND

Casting Muppet Treasure Island was almost as important as getting the story right. Billy Bones was written as Billy Connolly, Thatcher being a huge fan, and Tim Curry ultimately helped shape his version of Long John Silver. But what about The Muppets? 

From Fozzie as, per Thatcher’s description, an “idiot rich kid” version of Squire Trelawney to the obvious choice of Dr. Bunsen as Dr. Livesey, getting the characters right was paramount. It’s why Sam the Eagle as Samuel Arrow works so well, as does his building up of the tyrannical Captain Smollet, only to have it revealed as Kermit the Frog. These characters work in this version of the story.

However, there was a version of the script that went hard to starboard when it came to the novel. As soon as the crew got to the island, the story almost took a very different, if not chaotic, turn.

“There was a volcano and a Tiki God that came alive and chased them down. They were strung up over a lava pit. It was almost like an HG Wells adventure,” Thatcher explains. It may have been a step too far as Thatcher and Juhl were told they had gone a little crazy. 

“At the time, I was very passionate about what's the point of making another version of the art, you know, doing the book again, it's been done literally, I think at that point, 10 to 12 times,” he recalls. That’s when James V. Hart came in. A veteran of adapting beloved books into movie scripts, he helped rework the middle bridge of the script to adhere more to the novel, including the Silver and Hawkins relationship. Thatcher says they kept the latter lighter given the sometimes dark leanings of the relationship in the original text.

This was particularly important as originally there was no Jim Hawkins. There was Jim and there was Hawkins. There was Gonzo and there was Rizzo. Thatcher was always Muppets first, humans second, but that didn’t fly and ultimately Jim Hawkins was made human, played by Kevin Bishop.

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/Disney

“It was that [change] that I disagree with. Oh, you have to have a kid in the movie for kids to like movies. I'm like, that's utter nonsense,” Thatcher laments. Still, many of his characterizations of Jim and Hawkins were kept in, it’s just that Gonzo and Rizzo were playing themselves and sidekicks to Bishop’s main character.

But the point is, in the end, it all worked so well. These characters, human or Muppet, were undoubtedly imbued with the spirit of Stevenson’s words. They were instantly recognizable and the story they collectively told had the thirst for adventure and poignant moments from the novel. Muppet Treasure Island does the fantastic and difficult thing of both being a very serious performance and not taking itself too seriously. Considering everything Stevenson made up about pirates for his novel, it’s along the same lines. Perhaps that’s why it gels so much as an adaptation.

Or perhaps it’s just that Muppet retellings of classical stories are just far superior to any rendition.