Several years ago Russell Crowe starred as Jack Aubrey in a movie adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” – a seafaring saga set during the Napoleonic wars. When I first saw the movie I didn’t like it. Russell Crowe looked out of shape and seemed to be breezing through the part as if his mind were only half involved. The movie was competently done, but I just couldn’t shake the negative impression I had of Russell Crowe’s performance. Well, I saw the movie again two weeks ago and realized I was a complete idiot and that Russell Crowe and the rest of the cast had nailed their parts, and the movie itself was an excellent screenplay superimposed over a meticulously researched recreation of life on a British frigate. What changed?
Well, for one thing, just before I saw the movie for the second time, I had just finished reading the first two books in O’Brian's series, Master and Commander and Post Captain, and now had a really good feel for the character of Jack Aubrey and the subtleties of life in the British navy. So when I saw the movie again, I realized Crowe was faithfully rendering the character – masterfully, in fact – and that Peter Weir, the director, had not lost any of his magic or attention to detail since he directed the excellent Harrison Ford movie Witness some eighteen years earlier.
But what was interesting to me was that the movie itself hadn’t changed, but my ability to appreciate it had. My ignorance had caused me to misunderstand and under-appreciate a really sterling work. Also, quite interestingly, I realize now that my original opinion of the movie had been influenced by a negative article I had read about Russell Crowe the week before. Ha! Aren’t we human beings interesting characters! We think our opinions are more than that – we think they are all pearls of pure wisdom handed down from Mt. Olympus. Little do we realize how many of our supposed objective opinions are shaped by ignorance and prejudice.
This same principle holds true for book reviews. Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series has been called by the NYT book reviewer, ‘the best historical novels every written.’ And if you go to Amazon you will find hundreds of people who wholeheartedly agree. And yet you will also find a few who criticize the series as boring, too nautical, and plotless. It makes you wonder how many of those critics actually made the effort to appreciate O’Brian’s genius. So the learning principle for me is that whenever you give your negative opinion on the hard work of another, you should think twice – after all, you might be the problem.
My next posting will be on what makes a good book title.