By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Forty years after novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux won acclaim with “The Mosquito Coast,” and 35 years after the eponymous film was released, Apple TV+ has produced a limited series adaptation of the novel. The result, which scarcely resembles its source material, is a spectacular misfire.
The first two episodes of the seven-part drama are screening now. The remaining installments will be released each Friday through June 4.
The production is something of a family affair. Justin Theroux, the author’s nephew — perhaps best known for his brief marriage to actress Jennifer Aniston — takes the role of brilliant, iconoclastic inventor Allie Fox, played more memorably on the big screen by Harrison Ford. Theroux and his uncle were executive producers of the program.
To say that creator Neil Cross has taken liberties with Theroux’s book is to put it mildly.
Among other changes, Cross adds an entirely new central character, Allie and his wife Margot’ (Melissa George) 16-year-old daughter, Dina (Logan Polish). She thus supplants younger teen Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) — sensitively portrayed by the late River Phoenix in the movie — as the couple’s oldest child.
The depiction of Allie’s motives and actions has also been significantly altered. In the book, Allie — fed up with American consumerism and fearful of a war — uproots his Massachusetts-based family and moves them to the titular region of Honduras. He hopes to transform the area into an environmentally sustainable paradise.
In Cross’ take, the inventor, while still an anti-consumerism zealot, has also been on the lam for nearly a decade because of a dispute with the National Security Administration. With the NSA closing in on them, the Foxes escape to Mexico, where Allie believes his network of environmental radicals will provide the family a safe harbor.
Their trek across the Sonoran Desert proves extremely arduous. Having enlisted the help of coyotes Juan (Tommy Martinez) and Chuy (Scotty Tovar), they have a deadly encounter with white American militiamen and must escape other coyotes leading migrants north.
Allie’s insistence that they take shortcuts places them in still greater peril, with the corpses they pass starkly reminding them of the fate that may be awaiting them. Once south of the border, the quartet double crosses a drug cartel. Both it and the NSA then pursue the renegade family into Mexico City.
The show’s plentiful violence, which occasionally feels gratuitous, includes several murders — one by the slitting of a throat — torture, domestic abuse and cruelty to animals. Much of the rough and crude language also registers as unnecessary, while the graphic depiction of decomposing bodies is not for the squeamish.
Add in illicit drug use and underage drinking, and it’s clear that even many adults will want to opt for other programming. That’s especially true given that, banal and even ludicrous, this version of “The Mosquito Coast” boasts little in the way of the artistic merit that might make its seamier elements worth enduring.
Dina and Charlie repeatedly ask their parents, during the first few episodes, what Allie did to make him a NSA target. In response, he and Margot remain coy.
The children are naturally exasperated by this, but so, too, is the audience. Left in the dark, viewers will find it difficult to decide whether they should root for the Foxes or not. Once Allie’s backstory is belatedly explained, moreover, it hardly makes him a credible security threat.
All this is very much in contrast to Australian director Peter Weir’s memorable — though uneven — film, by the conclusion of which Allie clearly emerges as a tragic yet sympathetic figure. As presented in Ford’s underappreciated performance, he’s a man of admirable righteous anger who goes too far, ultimately alienating the people he loves.
Distorting the original narrative, Cross turns it into just another lurid, run-of-the-mill action adventure, thereby losing the original protagonist’s essence. The flimsiness of his loose adaptation may leave unengaged TV fans with all too much time to wonder why a series called “The Mosquito Coast” isn’t, in fact, set there.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.