On Stranger Tides: Why Jack Sparrow Makes a Lousy Protagonist

The only reason I Netflixed Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides (2011) is that I’m a big fan of the Tim Powers book it’s based on. I knew making Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow the lead would require mutilating the story (I was right) and I wasn’t that impressed with III, but still, I wanted to give it a try.
I’ll get into it more this weekend, but for right now I want to focus on one huge problem: Jack. He’s a lousy hero, at least for something like this.
I don’t mean the fact he’s a pirate, a schemer and a scoundrel: Plenty of heroes make that work. But he’s a funny man, and the movie isn’t exactly a comedy.
I read a pamphlet some years back (I think Darrell Schweitzer was one of the authors) that said your hero has to fit the story you’re doing. Someone who charges into action when you need a plotter and a schemer, or someone who schemes when you need bold action is going to wreck the story: If Othello starred in Hamlet (to use Schweitzer’s example), he’d have run Claudius through in the first act.
I agree. I know the standard rule is that you come up with great characters and let them dictate the story, but unless your story is character centered, I’m not sure that works. If you’re writing a mystery, for instance, something has got to happen to your character so he can get involved and solve it. It’s not crime to let the plot dictate your character, as long as the character works. For example, your plot may require someone tough, swaggering and dumb, but if you then have him act like a canny, subtle schemer because you need him to make the plot work … well, unless you knit the two sets of traits together somehow, your story has problems.
Jack Sparrow works great as a colorful supporting character in Curse of the Black Pearl. He’s eccentric, quite unique, but since we’ve got Will and Elizabeth, two normal people, as protagonists, it still works as a straight adventure.
Not On Stranger Tides. Jack Sparrow is just too … Jack Sparrow to have the goals or drive a protagonist needs. Sure, he wants the Black Pearl, but it doesn’t affect the plot much. He also wants to find the Fountain of Youth but I’ve no idea why—we’re told he does but that’s about it.
He’s not dynamic enough to root for as a straight hero or really thrill to his exploits (and he’s not really swashing his buckler much in this one, so exploits are few). That would have worked in a comedy, something like Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, but this isn’t one. It’s a fantasy adventure we’re supposed to take somewhat seriously, but Depp undercuts the seriousness without turning it into a comedy or parody. Result: Failure. Even the serious bits feel oddly shoehorned in, such as the relationship of one theological student (the original protagonist of Powers’ book, IIRC) and a mermaid.
I doubt it’s the last we see of Jack (even if the big-screen series is dead, there’s always TV), but it may be the last time I watch him.

1 Comment

Filed under Movies, Writing

One response to “On Stranger Tides: Why Jack Sparrow Makes a Lousy Protagonist

  1. Pingback: Movies | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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