'Fifteen men on the dead man's chest -- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!'
Has any line better conjured its fictional world than this, the opening lyric to the menacing sea shanty of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island? The answer, me hearties, is nay.
And this evening, they will be beamed directly into homes across the world as The National Theatre continues its bid to beat lockdown boredom by streaming their stage adaptation of the 1882 coming-of-age classic about a boy who goes on a pirate odyssey. Describing its production as a 'rip-roaring adventure for the whole family', the National Theatre has given its version a twist: its Jim, played by Olivier Award-winner Patsy Ferran, is a girl. 'It’s a dark, stormy night,' the theatre said. 'The stars are out. Jim, the inn-keeper’s granddaughter, opens the door to a terrifying stranger. At the old sailor’s feet sits a huge sea-chest, full of secrets. Jim invites him in – and her dangerous voyage begins.'
Treasure Island is a family story for the ages; a timeless tale of cutlasses and eye-patches, jolly rogers, buried treasure, black spots and 'seaward hos' that has enthralled children and adults alike for almost 140 years. Unlike the bread rations Long John Silver doles out to men aboard The Hispaniola, it is a story that never stales.
It tells the tale of Jim Hawkins, an innkeeper's son who discovers a treasure map at his father's pub and hands it over to local landowner Squire Trelawney. Giddy with excitement, the two set sale to the Caribbean in search of the buried gold. But, unbeknown to them, their ship is staffed with some of the most dastardly pirates that ever sailed the high seas, the most cunning among whom is the ship's peg-legged cook, Long John Silver. It is not long before Silver reveals a shocking secret, setting in motion a chain of events that leads young Jim through the most thrilling and dangerous adventure of his young life.
It has become one of literature's most unforgettable tales – beginning with that opening sentence (one of literature's longest) of any book. Without Treasure Island there would be no Long John Silver, nor the parrot, Captain Flint, on his shoulder squarking 'Pieces of eight'. We'd have no Billy Bones, no X's marking spots, and certainly no Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
It's difficult to think of any story more vivid in detail, colourful of character or spine-tinglingly exotic that Stevenson's masterpiece of 'buccaneers and buried gold'. Or, as the celebrated crime writer Val McDermid described its impact on her as a child: 'The language was clear and expressive, the motives of the characters all too credible, and when I reached the end I was breathless with the excitement of understanding that Silver was still out there. And so was some of the treasure…'
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Treasure Island was Stevenson's first novel, and he never expected it to become the bestseller that it did. In fact, he was so surprised to receive £100 for its publication that he wrote to his parents: 'My dearest people, I have had a great piece of news... there has been offered for Treasure Island a hundred pounds, all alive. Oh! A hundred jingling, tingling, golden minted quid. Is not this wonderful?'