Romanticizing Robinson Crusoe: The Role of Female Gender From Novel to Film

Pierce Brosnan in Robinson Crusoe (1997)

Pierce Brosnan in Robinson Crusoe (1997)

Whenever a novel is adapted to film or television, it would seem that change on some level is inevitable. Characters are cut, new characters are added to fit the adaptation, seasons and sometimes even major settings change. We may observe substantial changes in plot or the exclusion of important details. In some instances it seems as if the only similarity between the adaptation and the original text is the title. In the film adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, we observe many of these changes– though perhaps none more significant than the emphasis placed on the role of the female gender.

In Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, you can count the number of times the female gender is mentioned on one hand. Crusoe makes brief mention of his Mother in his introduction, during which he summarizes his family history (Defoe 4). He entrusts what money he earns during his early voyages in the story to a friend’s widow for safekeeping while he is at sea: “My Benefactor and faithful Steward, who I had left in Trust with my Money…” (Defoe 200). Lastly, he spares but one sentence to the mention of his wife: “In the mean time, I in Part settled my self here; for first of all I marry’d, and that not either to my Disadvantage or Dissatisfaction, and had three Children, two Sons and one Daughter: But my Wife dying, and my Nephew coming Home with good Success from a Voyage to Spain, my Inclination to go Abroad, and his Importunity prevailed and engag’d me to go in his Ship, as a private Trader to the East Indies: This was in the Year 1694” (Defoe 219).

In the 1997 film adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, the storyline at its most fundamental is changed. In the opening scenes we are introduced to the character of Mary McGregor –one who did not exist in the novel– whom we come to find Robinson Crusoe plans to marry. However, as the McGregor family grows more prosperous, Mary finds herself betrothed against her will to one of Crusoe’s close friends. In the resulting duel, Crusoe and his friend come to blows and the friend is killed by an instinctual plunge of Crusoe’s sword. Facing retribution for his actions, Crusoe is forced to flee, leaving his beloved Mary behind. It is at this point that Robinson Crusoe joins up with a ship setting sail to retrieve slave cargo; a voyage which will eventually leave him shipwrecked on the island (Hardy).

The role of the female gender in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one which seems intentionally overlooked. Surely the fictional character of Crusoe, who records every minute detail in his journal (up until the point which he begins to run out of ink), could spare more than just one sentence for the description of his wife, who would later bear his children? But in its essence, Robinson Crusoe is the story of a life created and spent on an island, and the explorations of Civilization versus Nature, Freedom versus Captivity, and Free Will versus Providence. There is hardly time for love for a man who is busy refortifying his shelter while simultaneously trying to decipher the Divine Will of God.

Why then does the 1997 film adaptation of the novel insist upon creating a love story with a gender hardly mentioned in Defoe’s original text? Let’s overlook the fundamental plot points the film adaptation also changes –Crusoe spends a mere five years on the island instead of twenty-eight, and Friday is killed on the island instead of saved– but we stray even further from the original story by the weaving of a romance throughout. How the film represents gender is vastly different from the novel. The change within the adaptation to film is so substantial, if you were to “de-romanticize” it, Robinson Crusoe wouldn’t have ended up on the island at all, as he would have had no reason to flee without the conflict over Mary McGregor.

This revamping of Robinson Crusoe’s love life (or in Defoe’s version, lack thereof) detracts from the essence of his time spent on the island. Without a love interest, Crusoe is free to contemplate a variety of life’s biggest questions. He comes to develop a reverent attitude towards the wisdom of Providence. He is free to explore the dynamic between Organized versus Natural Religion in the Cannibalistic tribes who have never known any different than to cannibalize, and also in the stories that Friday tells of his own people.

Though many details of Defoe’s novel remain similar in the film adaptation, the “Hollywood” take –namely, to create a love story– on the classic tale of Robinson Crusoe remains firmly interwoven throughout. Enhancing the female role in the story is adding an element that Defoe clearly did not leave room for, and detracting from the central themes of the original story. Rather than being allowed the focus, Crusoe’s struggle for survival as he adapts to the island is forced to take a backseat to wistful thoughts of his one true love, far away from the island on which he is stranded. Daniel Defoe’s original and complex themes in his novel Robinson Crusoe should be allowed to stand on their own as sufficient entertainment– rather than the “dumbing down” and commercializing of Defoe’s work of fiction in order to appeal to a broader audience.

Works Cited:

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994. Print.

Robinson Crusoe. Dir. Rod Hardy. Miramax Films, 1997. Film.

Image Courtesy of Internet Movie Database (IMDb): Pierce Brosnan and Polly Walker on the DVD cover of Robinson Crusoe. Miramax Films, 1997.