The appeal of anything and everything “pirate” related could be largely related to a more general demand for a good adventure and good characters. Entertainment based on pirates simply provide some bonuses, such as exotic locations, heart pumping fan fare, and famous Hollywood faces. In addition, piracy (especially the traditional 1600s-1800s variety) is so far removed from our modern reality that it takes on the characteristics of a good fantasy, much like dragons or medieval knights have.
This distance from the material also provides authors of such entertainment to use a creative license, and romanticize their subjects, no matter how barbaric they might have been originally. This can be seen in such films as The Princess Bride, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Hook.
One of the main reasons for the fascination with piracy (both present and past), is its association with adventure and danger.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a perfect literary example, as is Peter Pan (created by James Matthew Barrie). Both contain exotic locations, and great battles between good and evil. Peter Pan’s location is entirely crafted by Barrie’s imagination, utilizing elements of the Caribbean, the Polynesian Islands, jungles, and underwater kingdoms of mermaids.
Each of these locations were more than likely unreachable for most families in the early 1900s. Thus, the story takes on an even more pronounced air of fantasy, allowing the reader to slip into a world when everything is possible and the characters don’t have to be entirely realistic. This is where characters like Captain Hook are bred: the realm of fantasy.
Captain Hook, one of the most popular pirate characters in both novels and film, was based on the Dread Pirate Roberts (also known as Black Bart and Bartholomew Roberts). But Hook’s hook, ship, crew, and specific actions were created by Barrie. I don’t recall Roberts’ hand being bitten off by a crocodile during a battle with a flying boy in tights after all. Despite the creative license taken by Barrie, Peter Pan is still full of great sword fights, adventures, and as mentioned previously, exotic locations. That’s part of the great literary pirate appeal.
What “pirate” books cannot provide is a resounding soundtrack and famous faces playing the great pirate captains and heroes. Films still include many of the same aspects as the novels (the adventure, the exotic locations, and the battle of good and evil), but the extras can really play an important role. Having Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Depp, and Tim Curry playing great pirates certainly brings a few extra audience members to the theater. Combine a great famous actor with a famous composer like John Williams, and you now have a pirate movie with the complete package. The adventure is all there, but you have audio and visual elements to create a true epic pirate adventure.
However, with all the fan fare, celebrities, costumes and sets involved in the movies, the story can shift from realistic to romanticized rather quickly. Historically, pirates are mainly represented as fierce, brutal, uncivilized characters living on the fringes of society. In the modern films, pirates usually never come close to that representation. A pirate is either unrealistically gallant (like the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride), unrealistically silly or stupid (like the pirates of Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson or Captain Jack Sparrow), or “just a mean old man without a mommy” that we all feel sorry for.
Even Tim Curry’s presentation of Long John Silver from Muppet Treasure Island manages to create sympathy. Where is the ultimately fierce and evil Blackbeard-like character? He doesn’t seem to have a place in the modern film industry, especially when Peter Pan sequels are in the spotlight. In fact, David Cordingly thinks it curious “how few of the [over seventy pirate films] follow the historical events with any accuracy.”
If you took a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World, you probably wouldn’t be struck with fear. If anything, laughter can probably be heard coming from the boats of happy tourists. The pirates are chasing the girls, drinking beer, laughing and acting jolly. If the ride doesn’t give you an altered notion of piracy, then there is the Pirates Dinner Adventure Theater. It also does not emphasize the cruelty and dangerous nature of piracy. How can it, when the dinner menu consists of Walk-the-Plank Mixed Vegetables and Buccaneer Beef?
When we are little, we grow up with Captain Hook, the frilly shirted pirate captain that’s deathly and irrationally afraid of a ticking clock. When we grow up a little more, we experience Disney rides, movies, and dinner adventure theaters that present pirates as goofy, drunken, stupid and almost entirely harmless (if not great singers and acrobats). Realistic portrayals of pirates seem to be entirely gone in the face of such romanticized, goofy or stupid characters.
The appeal of piracy in art, literature, and film has its roots in great adventures, exotic locations and an engaging tale. Films add more elements, like musical scores, visuals and the chance to see your favorite actor pick up a sword. However, as the pirate entertainment industry continues, the pirates become more fictional and unrealistic and much less historically accurate.
Perhaps this is due in part to our distance from the actual acts of piracy that occurred. For people today, the time of great sailing ships and schooners are long gone. Pirates are now on the same fantastical plain as knights, wizards, and mermaids. They have lost their historical cruelty and pillaging, and had it replaced with gallantry, goofiness, and general foolishness. While early literature and movies may have featured aspects of their more historically accurate nature, almost anything modern is dripping with romanticism.