The Mosquito Coast
Rafferty, Terrence, The Nation
The Mosquito Coast
Paul Theroux's 1982 novel, The Mosquito Coast, probably looked as if it would make a terrific movie. The story of a New England crackpot named Allie Fox who, disenchanted with what he sees as America's softness and commercialism, takes his wife and four children off to live in the Central American jungle, seems to have everything: colorful settings, high adventure, family drama, the odd big idea about the state of civilization, and a fat, fat part for a male star. Director Peter Weir (The Last Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously and Witness), a specialist in exotic atmospheres and cultural conflicts, is, on the face of it, an ideal choice to dramatize the material. But somewhere between the idea and the reality, things went terribly wrong. Weir's movie is shapeless and confused, a bizarre amalgam of The Swiss Family Robinson, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Shining and Bergman's apocalyptic Shame--though less fun than that unholy stew of influences would suggest. In one of the big scenes the demented inventor Allie, who's constructed a gigantic, absurd machine for making ice in his adopted village of Jeronimo, organizes a party to transport a couple of small glaciers farther inland, confident of impressing the backward Indians in the heart of the jungle: by the time he gets there, though, all that's left of the Yankee miracle worker's product are sopping bags of water. Weir and his team, having sweated bullets lugging Theroux's characters and ideas onto the screen, must have discovered, too, that what they were carrying was more perishable than it seemed. In two arduous hours, The Mosquito Coast just melts to nothing in front of us.
The movie, in fact, is almost a textbook example of the dangers of literary adaptation. Weir and screenwriter Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed Mishima) are incredibly faithful to Theroux's story, but in a way that exposes the novel's weaknesses and buries its strengths. The book is, like most of Theroux's works, a tricky, intricately constructed narrative engine, more complicated than truly complex: he seems at times to be deliberately hiding the heart of his story among a mess of literary machinery. There's a scene in the book in which the narrator, Allie's 13-year-old son, Charlie, gets his first look at the inside of his father's ice factory, and it might be a description of the novel itself:
This was Father's head, the mechanical part of his brain and the complications of his mind, as strong and huge and mysterious. It was all revealed to me, but there was too much of it, like a book page full of secrets, printed too small. . . . Like the human body, he had said--but this was the darkest part of his body, and in that darkness were the joints and brackets of his mind, a jungle of crooked iron, and paunchy tanks hanging on thin wires, and solderedover scars, tubes like vines in monkey shadow, the weight of metal hoses forking to the ceiling, and everywhere the balance of small hinges.
It made me dizzy. I could not understand enough of it to feel safe. I thought, You could die here, or-- trapped inside--go crazy.
This is the novel's key passage, partly because of its dramatic function as the first indication of Charlie's doubts about his father's overbearing personality, and more importantly because of its thematic resonance. Just this once, Theroux connects the dots for us: Allie's mind is a jungle and so, for all its apparent ingenuity, is his invention and so is the book, and they're all traps. Only the jungle isn't a jungle; it's a metaphor, and not for the usual "primitive' impulses but for a kind of overelaborate rationality that turns the act of making connections into a dense, enveloping paranoia. The obvious echoes of Conrad in Theroux's book shouldn't throw us off: The Mosquito Coast is about the head of darkness.
That scene isn't in the movie. The filmmakers never show us the inner workings of Fat Boy (as Allie calls his invention), much less Charlie's reactions. …