The North Water is coming to BBC 2 and we cannot wait
Murder, mayhem and mutiny galore awaits in a nail-biting adaptation of Ian McGuire’s acclaimed novel
The North Water gives us a tale of survival set against a harsh Arctic wasteland, where the real monsters are the human ones. A story about a 19th century whaling expedition gone wrong, it pitches amoral harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell) against disgraced ex-army surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell) who finds himself caught up in a murder mystery that threatens not only his life but everything he thinks he knows about the nature of truth, justice and the possibility of redemption.
Imagine the sense of brooding evil, like a layer of filth, that suffuses Conrad’s Heart of Darkness crossed with the spiritually motivated meditation on good and so masterfully delineated in Melville’s Moby Dick and you’ve got a good idea what this story is all about. A pinch of Judge Holden, McCarthy’s terrifying scalp hunter in Blood Meridian and an echo of the sadism that makes Jack London’s The Sea Wolf’s protagonist Wolf Larsen appear so demonic and you’ve got the appeal of Henry Drax down as well.
The copious references to blood, guts, cannibalism and rape reflect period accurate language with reviewers unanimous in their praise for the story’s accurate portrayal of the times, if at times critical of character complexity. It’s undeniable, however, that the great strength of The North Water lies in its cinematic detail, the plot peppered with incidents such as the visceral butchering of a whale carcass or the appearance of a singular white bear, as important to the story as Melville’s white whale is.
Now the BBC delivers on that filmic potential with a four part limited series based on the book, shot in the Arctic itself. (Having travelled as far as 81 degrees north to shoot scenes in the pack ice, the TV series is now rumoured to be the one show that has gone the furthest north in order to film!)
This is a round-up of the choicest scenes to look forward to:
I mean, what more can be said? A bear cub the ex-surgeon chases deep into the wilderness like a flickering beacon of hope in the literal shipwreck of his life makes for some powerful symbolism.
Rendering an animal believable without infantilising it is a difficult feat, both in literature and film. Recent examples where it has been done well is in the BBC’s own adaptation of His Dark Materials where we get to see the mighty Iorek Byrnison carry Lyra on his back across the icy wasteland of the tundra.
Historical writer Colm Toibin (Brookyln) points out how he believed writing about a bear to be beyond any contemporary novelist until he read McGuire. The trick, he says, is to evoke their presence without letting the ‘bear stand for any untamed nature or large question’.
I’m hoping to see something that stumps even the bear-grappling spectacle in The Revenant and affects just as deeply as the bear hug in Good Morning, Midnight (which George Clooney’s adaptation The Midnight Sky sadly omitted!).
The Siege of Delhi
One of the decisive conflicts during the 1857 Indian rebellion against the East India Company, these are blood-soaked, sweat-drenched flashbacks that make up the bulk of Patrick Sumner’s trauma. The back story which shows how far people will stoop in the quest for wealth offers rich opportunities for showing battle scenes that evoke the horrors of bloodshed.
The North Water is a character piece. The writing is centred around this ‘butcher of men’ who makes Sweeney Todd look like a benign children’s story-the seductive blankness in his character propels the story forward like an inhuman force of its own. Critics of the ‘absolute evil’ trope in characters underestimate the potential of true amoral darkness, as personified by the original blood-sucker, Count Dracula or the Devil himself. It will be interesting to see what Colin Farrell makes of the brooding menace that is Henry Drax.
A lot of this story is told by a man criminally addicted to opium. Sumner doses himself liberally with it in order to stomach the bleak vision of his life and his own drug addled hallucinations make for a good offset to the clarity of the ongoing violence. Will his addiction be treated in glorious excess as the opium den is in acclaimed period drama Penny Dreadful, substance addiction played off as a crutch for a sentimental Viktor Frankenstein? My hopes are on a rendition that pays simultaneous homage to the seediness of The North Water without falling into overt sentimentality.
As the body count rises and the crew must make camp on the pack ice, they encounter members of the local Inuit tribe. When Sumner is incapacitated, they are the ones to nurse him to health. Imagine The English Patient crossed with The Terror and you’ve got yourself the mental image I’m hoping for. The latter, AMC’s breakout about a crew trying to map the 1845 passage of the fabled Northwest passage in the Arctic flipped the script in its own depiction of indigenous culture. The community in The North Water is rendered with humanity, Sumner himself being adopted by the so called ‘uncivilized’ savages. An exploration of cultural heritage that pays credit to history and mythology seems only appropriate.
McGuire’s prose is sparse but lyrical in turn. There are visually arresting scenes, especially when it comes to the butchering and dismembering of whale carcasses. Blood dripping on ice, guts spilling and men savagely hacking at flesh is what we can expect-whale hunting in the 19th century was, after all,a messy, smelly business. Here is to hoping that the show will deliver on the gore that made something as supposedly delicate as a lady’s whale bone corset possible!
There’s a rape of a child within the first fourteen pages of the book.There’s bawdy ship talk that would make Tyrion Lannister feel right at home, replete period typical gay bashing. More than murder, it’s addressing the way rape is handled that can make or break a show as 13 Reasons Why can testify. How to be hands-on and unsparing without descending into splatter porn? That’s the bridge The North Water will have to cross.
Make no mistake, this is a story just as much about the darkening of human souls as it is a revenge drama replete with crunching blows, splatter and gore. Dreams and the ways in which they determine one’s fate play a role. The novel takes a page out of Moby Dick which similarly operates from a prophecy of doom. While cultural sensibility is more of a given these days, religion is still somewhat of a backburner. An acknowledgment of the existential struggle between man and nature but most of all that between man and God would cut to the quick once the novelty of impaling polar bears, clubbing seals and murdering men in cold blood has settled in.