Remaking The Mosquito Coast

Peter Weir and Harrison Ford on set for The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.

The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.

I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.

I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?


  1. Christine Geraghty

    Yes I agree about Front Row and interestingly the Guardian followed the same line of adaptation of the book in it’s listings. Perhaps the press release led the way.


    • Roy Stafford

      You may well be right about the Press Release. I think there has been a backlash about Hollywood remake practices over the last twenty years. The internet and social media has helped to expose the extent of ‘re-making’, particularly of foreign language films and especially if the foreign language film has gained an international fanbase. The first time I remember seeing the “it’s not a remake, we went back to the original book” argument was when the Coen Brothers claimed that their new version of True Grit in 2010 was not a remake of the 1969 film but a new adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis. I think this was nonsense. Of course, in the studio Hollywood era, each studio remade its own films. The Mosquito Coast was a Warner Brothers film adaptation and the TV serial is from Apple.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. john David hall

    I have seen The Mosquito Coast, but only in the cinema at the time of release and mostly recall a very atmospheric film that was a bit overpowered by what seemed like a self-consciously quirky performance from Ford as an anti-hero father very much out of his depth in the environment he had dragged his family into. It was a bit like a downbeat Swiss Family Robinson. It didn’t work for me at the time but could stand a repeat viewing now.
    As for Radio 4’s movie offering it does at least have Antonia Quirke on alternate weeks on The Film Programme now. I have a lot of time for her but she does have a determined slant towards the more eccentric end of the Independent market such as Andrew Kotting. I have lost a bit of patience with Mark Kermode who is a bit over exposed to my mind, but can be found dominating Radio 5 with his opinions most Fridays. I rather suspect Kim Newman does a lot of the heavy lifting in his regular dismantling of film genres on BBC4.


    • Roy Stafford

      Good point about The Film Programme with Antonia Quirke. I only noticed that it had returned during this last week. I think she does take a slightly different line to the original presenter Francine Stock. The issue is really about scheduling and the concept behind the programme. Radio 4 does broadcast several programmes that carry film or film-related material. Many of these are informative and entertaining, but when it comes to flagship reviewing on Front Row or Saturday Review (not currently broadcast during lockdown) Radio 4 generally privileges literature, only rarely recognising film scholars or cinéastes. Kermode has to my mind been moulded by his Radio 5 role to develop a persona which disguises his broader understanding of film culture. I often don’t agree with him, but he is perceptive and knowledgeable. Not sure about his TV series on BBC4 though.


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