Much is written about Treasure Island – it’s the most iconic pirate story of all time. And much has been written about Long John Silver, the pirate star. But there’s a lot more to this story than just one guy, so I’d like to put in a word for Jim Hawkins, the young man who narrates the story.
Robert Lewis Stevenson, the author, knew his pirates, and the fact that this boy is named Hawkins is likely no accident. Admiral John Hawkins was an Elizabethan naval hero and sometime pirate (but only, you know, when no one was looking.) So Jim Hawkins starts out with an illustrious name.
|Bobby Driscoll 1950|
And the boy is bright. While Billy Bones, the pirate with the map, is slowly drinking himself to death at the Benbow Inn, home of Jim’s family, Jim is wise enough to notice that the pirate’s bloodcurdling tales of high-seas robbery and murder don’t just horrify the local farmers and tradesmen – they thrill and entertain.
So when Bones dies, and Jim and his mother discover the map, Jim is already set up to imagine a little adventure for himself. As a person not yet legally an adult, Jim needs the help and support of an adult – and in the book this is Doctor Livesey – the local physician.
|Drawn by N.C. Wyeth|
In many ways, Treasure Island is Jim’s coming of age story. The novel is also a turning point in Jim’s life. Livesey is all that a man should be – wise, kind, purposeful and practical. He stands in contrast to Long John Silver, who is… well, he’s a pirate, need we say anything more? While movies of the tale often play up the father/son relationship between Jim and Long John, the book makes it clear that one of Jim’s desires is to make Doctor Livesey proud of him.
It should be noted, also, that in the book, Jim has a father who dies only a few months before the real action of the novel kicks in. The boy has not suffered from the lack of a male role model.
|From Treasure Planet|
Movies usually show a different version of Jim’s home life. In most, his father is long dead, and his widowed mother stressed by running the Inn single-handedly. In Treasure Planet, Jim's father walked out on his family, leaving young Jim growing into a juvenile delinquent. In some (such as one of my favorites Muppet Treasure Island) Jim is an orphan, working at the aforementioned Inn for his room and board.
|Muppet Treasure Island|
Jim’s age is never mentioned, and varies wildly in movies. Some version show him as young as seven, and in others he is a (more likely) fifteen or sixteen. It’s important to remember that one of Jim’s actions is the shooting (in self-defense) of a pirate bent on murdering him. Not an appropriate action for a seven-year old, and a serious business for a person of any age.
Stephenson, writing in the 1800’s, was trying to make a story of wild adventure where a boy could be the center of the action. He could not gloss over the realities that his characters lived in, however. Jim can’t hire the ship that takes him to Treasure Island, and he can’t sail it – he doesn’t know those skills. But he does learn.
|Jackie Cooper 1934|
Confined to the actual abilities of an actual boy, Jim discovers Siler’s plans to mutiny while inside an apple barrel, trying to reach the last of the fruit. On the island, his nature drives him to go places where adults might not go, which in turn leads him to the marooned Ben Gunn. Gunn becomes a powerful ally, which he would not have done if Jim had not met him.
|Played by a Dog on Wishbone|
In the book unlike the movie, Jim and Silver do not have a final farewell, and Silver gets away with a sizable sack of treasure at the first civilized poet on the way home. The adults are in town, “having rum punch” and probably looking up some of the local women – activities that Jim is still judged to immature to take part in.
In the end, Jim and his companions take the place of Billy Bones – they have adventures to tell that excite the neighbors, and will probably keep Jim drinking for free in taverns for the rest of his life. For in the book Treasure Island, there is more gold left to be had on the mysterious isle.
|Shirley Manson 1920|
The Part of Jim Hawkins has been played by many famous actors. In 1920 the part was played by a woman, Shirley Manson. In 1934, Jackie Cooper took the part.
Probably the most famous Jim was Bobby Driscoll, in the 1950 Disney production. This is a very young Jim (Driscoll turned 12 during shooting), but Bobby had done other work for Disney. He would later be the voice and acting model for Peter Pan.
Christian Bale, (later Batman) took the part in 1989 at age 15 for a highly praised version of the story.
|Christian Bale 1989|
Think that Jim Hawkins emerges from the story as a cross between his two heroes. Like Silver, he has proved himself to be an unconventional thinker, a dreamer, and able to kill when necessary But like Livesey, he cares about the expectations of society – he won’s be running off any time soon for life as a criminal.
On the other hand, I can’t believe that Jim sits home in his parent’s Inn and his tiny corner of England for the rest of his life. I think he’s bound to have some more adventures of his own. And since no one had written them yet, it may be something I have to do someday.