Thoughts on the Movie:
Last year, a film based on the book was released with Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) as Percy Fawcett.
To be honest, I had really mixed feelings about this movie. It is not a bad movie. I thought it was well acted, and it certainly tells an interesting story.
But I think it ultimately ends up being more of a “greatest hits” presentation of that story than an entirely coherent narrative. I think another problem is though it tells about Percy Fawcett, I don’t think it really captures Percy Fawcett’s personality.
I suspect one of the problems is there is just way too much to include about Fawcett in a movie, even a movie that ends up being nearly 2.5 hours long. In this case, perhaps a miniseries would have helped flesh out all the stories that need to be told.
As is, the movie starts shortly before his first expedition and carries through to the final one, but it also attempts to combine some of his expeditions. It ends up looking like Fawcett only traveled to Amazonia three times, though he went far more times than that. Grann does not attempt to detail all of his trips, but I counted at least 8 in the course of the book (probably more).
It also led to some of the events being confusing because they are thrown in but not entirely expanded on. Thus, his first trip is stated as a surveying journey but once he gets to the area he never seems to survey anything and instead just keeps talking about reaching the end of the river they are on. The movie never makes it clear whether the river is part of his job or not. (Actually, two separate trips are being combined, which explains some of the confusion.)
The movie also throws in some angst from his wife and oldest son at his frequent absences, but since the number of trips he has taken has been severely condensed and these moments occur sporadically and occur without warning and seem resolved equally as quickly, they don’t really add any human qualities to him. Interestingly, as Grann notes in his book, the real tension in the family existed due partially to his absences but also due to his unconcealed preference for his oldest son over his younger, more bookish son, who felt excluded from his brother’s and father’s adventures.
Another problem is that I don’t think the movie has a good grasp on Fawcett’s personality. They seemed to have really streamlined his personality, which removed a lot of his faults but also seemed to minimize some of his virtues.
I think one of the problems is in the very beginning, where Fawcett’s eagerness to go to South America to begin with is because he feels excluded from society due to his father’s indiscretions and he believes he can redeem the family name if he is successful. I think that does Fawcett a disservice and also ignores how English upper class society worked at the time. (By all accounts, Fawcett’s lack of money was a handicap throughout his life, but he never appears to have been shunned, as the movie makes out. Really, if every family who had a member who squandered a fortune was run out of society, I suspect the English aristocracy would be very small indeed.) Though Fawcett undoubtedly relished the media attention he got, the real man went because of an insatiable curiosity about the world and a desire for adventure, not as a quest to remove family shame.
I think changing Fawcett’s motivations ultimately makes it harder to relate to him than if the filmmakers had not altered them.
Another change I found distracting was the depiction of World War I. The actual circumstances are not explicitly stated, but it implies that he is on the front lines as a major in the infantry and seemed like he was leading his men “over the top.”
Now, I am a bit of a WWI nerd, and I found that preposterous, considering his age and rank. (In reality, he was in artillery, still on the front line, which makes more sense.) I also found the depiction of him being gassed during the war ridiculous. He was gassed, as Grann states in his book, but the movie has other people warning there is gas but only one of the soldiers scrambled for his gas mask. I think any of the firsthand accounts of the war are pretty clear in how terrified soldiers were of the prospect of being gassed, so I wasn’t sure what the movie was going for there, but it just didn’t seem believable to me.
I was pretty vocal about this while watching the movie, which led my grandmother to say, “It is just a movie.” That’s fair enough, but I do think it indicates a recurring problem with the movie in that it didn’t always seem to know which scenes/parts from the book to include and which to exclude.
Particularly problematic is they also skim over the mental imbalance he showed in his later years. Even as a young man, Fawcett was considered hard to deal with and unmerciful to subordinates who couldn’t match his own freakish pace. The war, by all accounts, had a detrimental effect on him and led him to retreat even more into his fantasies about the city of Z. His own financial situation became even more desperate after the war, which only increased his desperation.
But I felt like the film depiction was of a fairly reasonable man. And I never got the impression that he was particularly imbalanced, even toward the end. I was really surprised when I read an interview with the director where he stated that the movie is about Fawcett going into the jungle and going a little crazy.
Ultimately, the best part of the movie for me was the disastrous pre-WWI expedition he embarked on with James Murray, an Arctic explorer. In the movie, Murray is portrayed by Angus MacFadyan, and I thought he was easily the most entertaining part of the film as he and Fawcett quickly disintegrate into a power struggle and a deep mutual loathing.
I know I have spent a lot of time complaining about the movie, but I don’t mean to imply that it is a bad movie. It isn’t, but I do think it could have been a lot better, given its subject matter.
I think the best evaluation came from my family who watched it with me. They didn’t read the book and did not have it as a reference point. Their unanimous opinion was that the movie was good but not always terribly coherent. I think one thing that is absolutely essential for an adaptation is that people can enjoy it and follow it on its own, without prior knowledge of the source.
The verdict: The book
What did you think of this story? What movie adaptions do you think don’t do justice to the book? If you had been an explorer, where would you have wanted to go? Tell us in the comments!