Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stephen R. Bown's "The Last Viking"

Stephen R. Bown is the author of several critically acclaimed, award-winning books on the history of exploration, science, and ideas. His latest book, The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, covers the incredible exploits of the famous Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole on skis and dog sled, the first to sail the Northwest Passage, and the first to fly over the North Pole.

Here he shares some observations about adapting The Last Viking for the big screen:
People often say to me "That story is incredible - why doesn't someone make a documentary or a movie about it." I usually brush it off politely, because I know the story to be too complex or to require too much back-story to be make any sense to someone who hadn't already read the book. This is often the problem with non-fiction; the story, or parts of it, might be incredible but to remain true to the known facts you can't just adjust the story for length or dramatic impact, or make characters more admirable or likeable.

My latest book The Last Viking was no exception. Roald Amundsen is chiefly known for beating the British Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911. But in a remarkable career that spanned decades he also sailed the famed and feared Northwest Passage, sailed the Northeast Passage and then turned to airplanes when he couldn’t get his ship through the ice to the North Pole. Then he died mysteriously when his bi-plane disappeared into a fog bank on a rescue mission for another Polar explorer in 1928. I discovered hundreds of interviews, profiles and articles in the New York Times archives that revealed an entirely new aspect of his personality and showed that he was a famous celebrity in the United States for at least ten years before he died. He travelled the country delivering amusing and exciting slide lectures to audiences that included the political and cultural elite and was frequently in the news. How do you put all that into a 2 hour film?

Amazingly, I recently read that a major Hollywood movie is being planned featuring Amundsen, but focussing on only one of his dramatic adventures. The Race to the South Pole, according to various sources, is being produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for Warner Brothers with Casey Affleck set to play the role of Robert Falcon Scott. No word yet on who will play Amundsen.

While The Race to the South Pole is not based on my book The Last Viking, which is only just published, as an author who has spent the past two years researching Amundsen's life I can hope that the portrayal of Amundsen is not as the dour, ruthless and dastardly foil to a heroic Scott, as he is sometimes stereotyped by Scott admirers. Certainly he was single-minded - or goal oriented as we say these days - when he was on an expedition. But afterward on the lecture circuit he was a charming and amusing eccentric, a great storyteller with many admirers, particularly in the US.

I suppose I will have to wait and see. Of course I'm open to consultation!
Learn more about the book and author at Stephen R. Bown's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue