Golding’s ‘Sea Trilogy’, comprised of Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, and Fire Down Below, was adapted by the BBC in 2005 to critical acclaim. The mini-series, To the Ends of the Earth, was nominated for a number of BAFTAs, including Best Drama Serial, and features Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Cumberbatch has been involved with Golding’s works on a number of occasions – he read sections of Golding’s journals in The Dreams of William Golding, and also narrated the audiobook of The Spire.
To the Ends of the Earth is in three parts; closely following the structure of the books. The director, David Attwood, remains faithful to Golding’s original narrative, and the run-time of more than four and a half hours allows space to represent the richness of Golding’s characters. The claustrophobic conditions of the nineteenth-century ship are represented well; as is the effect this has on the ship’s passengers.
Cumberbatch is excellently cast as the naive but arrogant Edmund Talbot. Talbot is not always a likeable character and in the first episode, behaves disgracefully to Zenobia Brocklebank (in a scene that has become famous as Cumberbatch’s first on-screen sex!). The fractious journey forces Talbot to grow up, and Cumberbatch displays Talbot’s growing awareness of his flaws, and the flaws of the society he inhabits and believes so firmly in. Cumberbatch said, ‘Golding’s books expose [Talbot] at every single level as a fallible young man… But I was very keen to make him sympathetic’. Sam Neill plays Mr Prettiman, who becomes important to Talbot in Fire Down Below, and Jared Harris is superb as the intimidating Captain Anderson. I was particularly struck by Victoria Hamilton who portrays Miss Granham, one of my favourite Golding characters.
Rites of Passage is narrated by Talbot through a journal he is keeping for his Godfather. This is retained in the adaptation as a voice-over by Cumberbatch, and helps the viewer understand the brilliance of the book’s prose. The opening episode focuses on the fate of Reverend Colley (Daniel Evans), who angers Anderson, and irritates Talbot. Attwood intersperses scenes of sex between Talbot and Zenobia with footage of Colley being ritually drowned as ‘entertainment’, demonstrating Talbot’s selfishness. In the book, some of the story is told through Colley’s letters which are found by Talbot, and although this discovery also appears on screen, we hear little of Colley’s own voice.
The second episode introduces some new characters from the ship Alycone, including Charles Dance as Henry Somerset, and Joanna Page as Marion Chumley, who Talbot falls desperately in love with. The two ships have a ball on deck and Attwood directs the dancing in a dizzying effect, which emulates Talbot’s growing confusion, and temporary madness. This part also marks the return of Talbot’s servant Wheeler (Brian Pettifer), who was believed to have drowned. Wheeler is a different man and eventually commits suicide in front of Talbot in a visceral scene.
The events of Fire Down Below are told in the final episode. This is my favourite book in the trilogy and also my favourite episode as we spend some time really getting to know Talbot’s fellow passengers. Cumberbatch displays his comedic skills here, and it’s great fun watching him pretending that everything is going to be fine while the passengers are thrown from one side of the ship to another, surrounded by pools of vomit. The wedding of Prettiman and Granham is hilarious in its awkwardness; with the ‘wedding guests’ jostling for space in the tiny cabin where Prettiman resides. Mr Brocklebank’s flatulence dominates one excruciating scene, and Talbot finally drops some of his arrogance to join in with the drunken laughter. The series ends with one final dramatic flourish, which I’ll not reveal here, but the adaptation doesn’t include the book’s epilogue, set many years after the events.
This is a terrific adaptation, which is faithful to Golding’s vision. Highly recommended (but read the books first!).