You’re not a eunuch, are you?

I love prototypes. Love ’em. Few things fascinate me more than thinking about what was supposed to be, or what almost was. You can tell me stories all day about the Wind Temple and the Earth Temple, how Luke Skywalker was originally a girl, and how Sephiroth and Aerith were almost lovers. It’s really interesting to me hearing about how ideas get from the unformed initial draft stage to a final, polished, complete story.

Now, when you’re talking about prototypes, there are basically two reactions you can have. The first is “Wow, that sounds cool! Why didn’t they do that?” Usually the answer here is executives getting cold feet, actors rebelling, or time or money running low. The other is “Man, what a terrible idea! Good thing they didn’t do that!”

There are a number of media who fit into the former… even stories where I liked the final form sometimes have prototypes that seem nearly as interesting to me. Final Fantasy VII, in particular, has a huge number of draft plot points and alternate characterizations, many of them contradictory, and several of which seem more interesting (to me, anyway) than what ended up in the final version. (Specifically, Vincent Valentine was originally going to be a smooth, womanizing Fox Mulder-type, a journalist following up on bogus supernatural stories. Instead, we got generic angsty borderline-stalker vampire dude.)

Today, though, I’m going to talk about an example of the latter: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

It’s fairly well-known that the Pirates of the Caribbean series was originally going to be a more straightforwardly heroic swashbuckling series. (Semi-originally, anyway — the original original screenplay of the film had no supernatural elements and was pretty heavily rewritten into this several years later, which is what I’m basing this post on.) Will Turner was envisioned as the main character, a Luke Skywalker type, while Captain Jack Sparrow was going to be his reluctant trickster mentor. Johnny Depp, though, took over the film with his quirky, flamboyant, swaggering portrayal of Jack (to the consternation of Disney executives, evidently), and thus we got the film series as we know it, with Jack as the central figure and Will as more of a supporting character.

That original screenplay is still a fascinating read, though. There are a number of small changes that make you think “No, that’s not right“. The villain, Captain Barbossa, is more generically evil, more willing to explode into a rage at the slightest provocation. (The final version likes to fancy himself as a reasonable, civilized man, and only loses his temper when thwarted or questioned.) Commodore Norrington doesn’t have a stick up his ass, which his arguably his defining trait in the final film, and even offers to help rescue Will at the end out of the goodness of his heart.

The biggest change is still Jack, though — and it’s a good thing, too, since a movie about Original Jack would have been terrible. Original Jack not only lacks Real Jack’s sense of style and quirky mannerisms, but also his most important character trait: His unreliability. The key characteristic of Jack is that the viewer is never certain, from one scene to the next, just what his motives are. Is he good or evil? Is he manipulating everyone he comes into contact with in furtherance of some grand scheme, or is he making it up as he goes along? Is he a great pirate, or merely a gifted amateur with good luck? Nobody knows for sure. (Or at least not in the first film, but I like to pretend I live in the happy alternate universe where the sequels never happened, so.) The only certainties about Jack are his towering self-confidence and his desire to see his own ends met no matter what, and he’s a better character for it.

Original Jack doesn’t have any of that. He’s still got the scheming and the backstabbing as Real Jack, but there’s no teeth to it, since Original Jack is such a goody two-shoes that he borders on being sanctimonious about it. He’s constantly bragging about how honest and trustworthy he is. Where Real Jack wears being a pirate like a badge, and you get the impression that he can’t really imagine being anything else, Gibbs tells Will that Original Jack was forced into it — he was originally a cartographer(!) and turned pirate only after being marooned by Barbossa. Real Jack saves Will because Will is useful to him, but Original Jack saves Will just because he’s too goll-durned nice to let him drown (and he rubs Will’s face in it, too). Real Jack is left in the hands of Barbossa because Will doesn’t trust him and knocks him out cold, but Original Jack volunteers to stay behind, muttering something about “balancing scales” or whatever. Both of them decide to own Norrington’s accusation that Jack is “the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of” — but Real Jack does it by making Norrington eat his words. Original Jack just makes a speech about how he might be the worst pirate ever, but he’s a good friend and an honest man and a loyal ally and really, doesn’t that make him the best pirate ever GLURGE.

It reads like the writers were afraid that an audience wouldn’t be able to sympathize with an out-and-out pirate, so they wrote a pirate who barely qualified for the title and emphasized over and over that he was really a good person on the inside. Johnny Depp took their pirate character and played him as a bloody pirate, and the film was nigh on infinitely better for it. Everyone’s willing to root for a rogue if he’s entertaining enough, and Depp maxed the entertainment value at the cost of some of the character’s sympathy.

Tack on an ending that doesn’t really make any sense (as opposed to the final film’s excellent one), and you’ve got a mediocrity. Thank god for rewrites.

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