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Print to Projector: Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare

By  · Published on May 15th, 2010

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:

Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare

by John Toohey

“In 1776, when twenty-two-year-old William Bligh joined James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific as Master on the Resolution, the world was still young.”


Captain William Bligh has his ship taken over in the most famous mutiny in history. What happens next involves 18 men in a boat built for 10, a small amount of provisions, and the entire Pacific ocean.


Beyond having one of the coolest names ever, this book is a harrowing chronicle of William Bligh’s experience after the Mutiny on the Bounty. It begins with Bligh as Master of a ship under the command of the famous Captain James Cook. The men stare wide-eyed into the beauty and danger of the Pacific islands, and they work tirelessly to sketch and regard everything. After warm greetings of food, celebration, and pliable women, the good people of what would later be named Hawaii kill Cook, and Bligh returns to England to find all his work is being claimed by another man.

A decade later, he finds himself finally the Captain of his own ship, The Bounty, and despite all the lessons of the master, Fletcher Christian leads a mutiny against Bligh which ends with the man and a few of his loyal shipmates deposited on an island with unfriendly residents.

Most people know that story, especially film fans. However, most probably don’t know that what follows the events sees Bligh and those men in a 23 foot-long boat attempting to make it 4,126 miles in open water to safety.

Toohey, as a historian, gives as much detail as possible, but as an author, he ultimately tells a fantastic story by placing the reader on a sea-soaked bench next to Bligh with every segment. This becomes especially frightening when you’re next to a nearly-starved, delirious man as he faces weeks more malnutrition and the threat of hundreds of other foul deaths at the hands of the monstrous ocean.

Fascinatingly, even with the cold murky water of eternity threatening to swallow he and his men, the intrepid scientist in him continued sketching and making notations about the islands they had to float past, salivating for sustenance but realizing they’d become food for a people whose ways they did not understand.

Potential Problems

This book is perfect for adaptation. It’s a rich, dark story with several characters to connect with, and despite actually happening, it follows a three-act structure shockingly closely.

However, the book does focus very closely on Bligh, and the other men on the boat would need to be beefed up quite a bit. That shouldn’t be a challenge with a little research and some creative license.

The Pitch

If Open Water and Buried can get made, so can this.


The beauty of this story is that its entire first act has the intensity of the open sea and an island attack, but the second act begins an isolation story featuring survivalism and the threat of slow death. You’d think there would be a heavy tone to all of that, but there is life amongst all of that salt water. Peter Weir wrote and directed Master and Commander which shows the thematic tone necessary and the knowledge of the era and its technology at sea needed to give this authenticity. After all, it is a biopic. Weir would undoubtedly be able to deliver the humanity underneath all the suffering, the smile that comes as you’re gasping for breath.


If only Hitchcock were still alive. Weir could easily direct, and the only reason I’m not stunt casting him to write and direct is because I want to see what else Tom Hooper is capable of on the big screen. Hooper directed the peerless mini-series “John Adams” and transitioned to film with The Damned United. He’s got a fresh perspective, delivers vivid visuals that draw the audience in, and treats historical figures with truth and respect – two things difficult to handle simultaneously.


Eighteen men in a small boat:

Jason Isaacs as Captain William Bligh: This would be a considerably difficult role because Bligh has already been played to iconic heights by Charles Laughton, but Isaacs is a master of the craft that is usually typecast as a villain. Bligh is certainly a villain, but he’s also treated realistically and sympathetically in the work. He’s a man who has to ration out a half cup of water and a teaspoon of pork per day to his men in order to ration, he’s a man who has to pass by islands because they spell certain death instead of the promise of paradise, he’s a man desperate to keep his men alive no matter what.

Matthew McFadyen as William Peckover: McFadyen was recently cast in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Three Musketeers, and he’s proven himself in both Frost/Nixon and Pride and Prejudice. Peckover is one of the men on the craft that helps with navigation, specifically in helping to choose their destination on the other side of the ocean.

Johnny Lee Miller as David Nelson: Miller is an underrated actor who can almost always deliver a strong performance. Doubters should see how he transforms himself from the man they knew in Hackers and Trainspotting for the television series “Emma.” David Nelson is not only the closest confidant to Bligh on the small boat, but he also falls incredibly ill during the trip, and becomes a pivotal figure in the tension-building. He also gets to drink a bird’s blood from a coconut.

Oscar Redding as Fletcher Christian: Christian doesn’t play a large a role in this story (as opposed to Mutiny on the Bounty) since he’s really only present when things start to fall apart and when the men are being loaded into their boat and sent off to their destiny. Redding was in the film Van Dieman’s Land (a country which actually plays a role in the story), and he commanded the screen with a sort of strange fury that was held in just a few nearly-vacant stares. He’s incredibly talented, and it would be great to see him both gain some spotlight and have a chance to work alongside a veteran like Isaacs.

John Hurt as William Adrian Van Este: You can never go wrong casting John Hurt in anything. Van Este is a Dutch Governor of an outpost that the men reach after they pass the Great Barrier Reef. We meet him as he’s almost completely dead himself from exotic diseases, and even though not much is written about him, their landing there would make a natural denouement after the arduous journey, and Hurt would make a great man to great them back to wandering civilization.

Who Owns It:

The rights have never been sold, so they remain with the author.


In this story, we have murder, adventure, drama, courage, comedy, survival and nearly constant rain. I have no doubt that with the right writer and director, this project could be turned into a tight story of a man obsessed with his legacy and obsessed with living up to the apotheosis of his former Captain, James Cook. That central figure would have endless ocean surrounding him and the men charged in his care – giving the opportunity for a visceral filmic experience which could leave audiences rain-soaked and parched before finally seeing hospitable dry land.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.