Somewhere in the middle of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the eponymous hero, by now several years cast away by himself on a deserted island, is startled awake by the sound a voice other than his own: “Robin, Robin, Robin Crusoe, poor Robin Crusoe, where are you Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?”
If you have read the novel (or my “Parrots, Pirates, and Protheses” post), you know that this startling voice belongs not to a newly arrived friend or rescuer, but to Poll, Crusoe’s parrot. And it is Poll’s words that I found myself thinking of while watching the second episode of NBC’s television adaption of Defoe’s novel: Poor Robin Crusoe. Where are you? What have they done to you?
Those whose appetites for desert island antics and pirate slapstick were not sated by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means, tune in; Also those who measure entertainment by the number and diversity of booby traps made out of bamboo and rope (a la Indiana Jones): This show’s for you. For those us of us, however, who found ourselves entranced by the novel’s much more modest “dramas,” the show is a buffoonish disappointment.
Crusoe’s island adventures in Defoe’s novel, for the most part, are domestic and agrarian. Rather than, “Will Crusoe and Friday free themselves from the curse of the water god’s tomb?” (as NBC’s version offered this week), the novel offers adventures such as “What will Crusoe salvage from the shipwreck before it breaks up?” “Will Crusoe manage to make bread?” “How will Crusoe catch and domesticate goats?” “Who made the single footprint in the sand?”
The novel’s adventures are not about reveling in the lawlessness and primitive world in which Crusoe finds himself, but in getting out of that “meer State of Nature” and recreating the most basic domestic comforts of middle class life in late seventeenth century England: a reasonably varied diet, food, clothes, shelter, religion.
One such adventure in the novel is making clay vessels for storing water and other necessaries: After two months’ labor, Crusoe manages to make “odd misshapen ugly things,” but of this laborious modest achievement, described in exacting detail by Defoe, Crusoe tells us: “No Joy at a Thing of so mean a Nature was ever equal to mine, when I found I had made an Earthen Pot that would bear the Fire.” And the satisfaction of these small world-making achievements is palpable – page turning – I promise. But when NBC’s adaption begins, these – the real dramas of castaway life – are already long past: Crusoe (Philip Winchester) and Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) are happily settled in an elaborate array of tree houses featuring an astonishing collection of technologically sophisticated contrivances, and Crusoe spends most of the time he is not having duels with busty pirate queens, or scoffing at Friday’s belief in dreams as divine messages (in the novel, it is Crusoe who takes one of his dreams as a sign from Providence), pining for his wife and children back in England (Oh, Robin Crusoe – how little they know of your emotional autism and your utter lack of interest in women, so deftly portrayed in J.M. Coetzee’s Crusoe adaption, Foe).
Ironically, NBC’s Robinson Crusoe is redundant. CBS’s Survivor, in its umpteenth season, and ABC’s Lost, going into its fifth, are much more interesting engagements of the Western fascination with castaways and desert islands that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe began. While Crusoe would seem – because it is explicitly based on the novel that is the original Western fantasy of the castaway (and also a crucial tale in the history of European thinking about man in the state of nature, like Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises) – to trump its predecessors in the realm of desert island television drama, but NBC’s rendering takes only the props and trappings of Defoe’s original and adapts them in Jerry Bruckheimer-y, Gore Verbinski-y, Steven Spielberg-y, George Lucas-y ways: a clownish balancing duet by Crusoe and his man on a stone bridge whose design defies all principles of engineering; jokey banter between Friday and Crusoe while cornered by supernatural tomb-guarding hounds; Friday’s slapstick escape from a pirate orchestrated by shaking a palm tree that brains the pirate with a coconut.
Lost and Survivor, by contrast, are much more conscious of Defoe’s preoccupation in his Crusoe, namely, the difficulties of remaking civilization – both socially and materially – out of nothing. Lost dramatizes in genuinely alarming – haunting – ways the fear of the unknown that wracks Crusoe in Defoe’s novel (particularly after he finds a single footprint on the beach much too large to be his own); Survivor, in its admittedly contrived way, is much better at dramatizing the human ingenuity necessary to survive in a state of nature (though Lost attends to this reality of castaway life much more convincingly than Crusoe does as well).
In short, if you are looking for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, don’t look for him on NBC. Though if you are looking for Indiana Jones or Jack Sparrow, NBC’s Robinson Crusoe might just be your man.