Treasure Island contains dozens of pirates – from Long John Silver, whom no one will ever forget, to George Merry, whom few remember. Stuck somewhere in the middle of the pack is Ben Gunn. A bad pirate but a good man, Ben is one of the characters that give Treasure Island its depth.
In the novel, Jim Hawkins stumbles across Ben after the pirates have mutinied and are searching the island for Flint’s treasure. Ben is a former pirate who was marooned on the island three years before. He had led a ship in search of the treasure. But without the map – formerly in the hands of Billy Bones and now possessed by Jim – the group was unable to locate the loot.
After 12 days of hunting, they sailed off, leaving Ben behind. Over the next three years, Ben kept himself alive by catching wild goats. He built himself a shelter and a small boat. Time on the island has caused him to reflect upon his life, so that he had decided to reform his morals. But he has never ceased searching for the Flint’s treasure.
As a literary device, Ben provides plot twists, surprises, and even some comic relief. If it wasn’t for him, the story of Treasure Island would have played out much differently.
The character, like Robinson Caruso, was most likely based on Alexander Selkirk, a sailor who chose to stay on a lonely tropical island rather than go on in a leaky ship under poor leadership. Three years after being left behind, Selkirk was rescued by the same captain he had abandoned three years before.
Like Selkirk, Ben lives on goats, clothes himself in goatskin, and longs for cheese. This latter is especially interesting in light of recent discoveries that cheese might be considered an addictive substance.
In the book, Ben Gunn is a nobody. He is a little off-balance from his long, solitary stay on the island. He tries to help Jim and the rest of Jim’s company, but even his efforts to frighten the pirates with spooky moaning noises fail. At first the pirates believe it is the Ghost of Flint, and are terrified. But when Long John Silver recognizes the voice of Ben, the other pirates lose their fear, even if Ben is a ghost. To quote the pirate George Merry, "Nobody minds Ben Gunn [...] dead or alive, nobody minds him"
But Ben Gunn is an integral part of the famous tale, and he appears in all of the Treasure Island movies. Movies, however, provide a wider variety of expression, and Ben Gunn has been played by many different actors and in many different ways.
In some movies – in Disney’s famous version from 1950, Geoffrey Wilkinson plays Ben is just about what we’d expect – comic relief.
The Muppets, in 1996, went far astray. The rule in Muppet movies is that all the Muppets must be shown. So in a story with no women, Ben became Benjamina, and was played by Miss Piggy. This Ben has parlayed her way into leadership of the local savage tribe (which doesn’t appear in the book) and is bedecked in gold and jewels – obviously living the good life. We wouldn’t expect anything else from the world’s most famous pig.
The Disney’s 2002 steampunk version of the tale – Treasure Planet – also uses Ben for comic relief. But in this version Ben is a robot, B.E.N. a Bio-Electrical-Navigator. Ben is missing part of his computer circuit (a callback to the original character’s mental difficulties) and when the missing piece is restored, he is able to info-dump a lot of crucial information that saves our heroes, even as the pirates perish.
In the 2012 version of the movie, Elijah Wood (formerly Frodo Baggins) plays Ben as a man completely consumed by isolation-induced madness. He paints his face with white lime, wears feathers in his hair, and rambles in his speech. He has become a religious fanatic, obsessed by goats, which he thinks are symbols of the devil, and with Silver, who he also thinks of as Satan incarnate. Ben in this version has the guts to attack by night and murder members of Silver’s crew. But in the end, he chooses to stay on the island rather than go back to civilization.
What most versions agree on, however, is that Ben finds Flint’s treasure himself, even though he doesn’t have the map. (He’s had 3 years, and Flint left a lot of clues – it’s entirely plausible)
So what happens to Ben? In the book, he goes back to England with Jim and company. Given £1,000 worth of treasure (a tiny percentage – less than 1/100th) Ben blows it all in 19 days of high living. Though he is given a job-for-life by Squire Trelawny, a member of the expedition, he is teased about his poor money-management for the rest of his life.
In 1957, Ben Gunn got a “biography” when R.F. Delderfield published the novel, The Adventures of Ben Gunn. The book tells the story of Ben Gunn’s life, as told to Jim Hawkins (the narrator of Treasure Island). The book gets generally good reviews.
Jim and Squire Trelawny seem to find Ben’s difficulties in readjusting to the outside world funny, and Robert Lewis Stevenson expects the reader to, also. But I don’t know what anyone expected. Ben is a poorly-educated man. He’s fresh off a traumatic event, being marooned for three years. He’s never been taught what to do with large sums of money, and is rightly overwhelmed by traveling from a deserted island to one of the largest cities in the world.
It’s probably just what the rich often seem to expect. “I can handle a lot of money. Why can’t everyone?” In modern times, Ben could be expected to have some time under treatment by a counselor, and maybe an attorney to represent him in the splitting of the gold. In Stevenson’t book he gets the money, blows through it, and spends the rest of his life working as a servant for Trelawny. At least he isn’t left entirely out in the cold.
And hopefully he gets plenty of cheese.