Hornblower: The movies that were better than the books & how they did it {Part 1}

Well. Today we’ll be talking about characters and the craft of writing. Also a lot of Horatio Hornblower.


Everyone knows how much I hate all of those topics.

So this is something I’ve had rattling around in my head for a while and hey, look at me, I actually got it down into a post. (Albiet a post with an inordinately long name.)

Hope you all enjoy. -rubs hands together- Let’s get going.


It’s an oft-repeated phrase in the world of fiction.


Yeah, the movie was okay. But the book was better.”


As a rule, yes. Generally the book is better than the movie. Books honestly have the advantage over movies. They’re longer. There’s more room for character development and little nuances to develop that you don’t get to see on screen as well. There’s more freedom to paint the image and more room to move your characters around without going outside the bounds of normal size.


So usually, with this huge advantage, books are able to get out better quality things than films.


Buuuut, in my opinion, there is one very notable exception to this rule.


In case you didn’t read the post title, that exception is Horatio Hornblower.


As a dedicated member of this microscopic fandom, I have both read the books (most, though not all) and watched all the Hornblower episodes. Surprisingly, the plot quality in the movies is much, much better and more engaging than the books.


And seriously, the obvious writing lessons to be learned from this are golden.


So, I have decided to share those wisdoms with you all, split up into two posts. Two main ways Hornblower managed to be better in movie format.


I’m always the character person, so let’s get started here with the first point: Characterization.


  1. Have a consistent cast


In the books . . . I’ll give them this; they stick very close to the series name. Horatio is pretty much the only consistent character that you have much time to get attached to.


A few books in, there is Lieutenant Bush, who’s also great and we get a little bit of time with him. Captain Pellew shows up a couple of times. And Maria is . . . there. But she’s honestly a brat, so I’m not really going to count that as much of a positive?


But for the main part, midshipmen, lieutenants and captains cycle through the books so fast it makes your head spin trying to keep up with all these faceless characters that never show up again. Honestly, that’s probably closer to what life in the navy would have been like? But it’s still a huge killer for getting attached to the characters.


In the show, we actually have a nice, well-rounded cast of characters that, for the most part, sticks around (-glances over at the Case of the Disappearing Oldroyd-) and shows a lot of development alongside Horatio.


Instead of the endless cycle of crew members, the Hornblower show kept a select few and showed us what happened to them. We had Styles and Matthews, ever the old friends on deck. We had Archie, Pellew, and later on, we had Bush.


The story of The Even Chance wasn’t my favorite in the books, but really shone in the show with the extra character investment. Simpson’s a jerk, yeah. But in the adaptation, we’re not just worried for Horatio. There’s his second, Clayton, to worry about. And the mental effect Simpson’s presence is having on poor Archie definitely ups the tension.


Sure, the story of The Fire Ships was great in the books. We’re worried about Horatio and hoping he gets that promotion to Lieutenant and that he’ll work out the whole command thing. Awesome goal.


But how much more are we pulled into the show when they add the extra investment of being worried for poor, sick Finch? When we get to see the human, self-sacrificing side of the story’s antagonist, Bunting, in that friendship with Finch?


Horatio is undoubtedly the star of the show, but it’s impossible not to love the characters surrounding him. They’re all individual, awesome people and have their own stories and motivations that they stick around long enough to show us.


Really, having a well-developed main character is very important. And the books did that well. They focused a lot on Horatio and showing us the very depths of his soul. But there’s only so much reader investment that can be given through one single character tie.


Supporting cast can work wonders for this. If your reader has more characters that they actually like, it gives that many more reasons to not put down your story.


Don’t make it a total “well duh” question as to who’s their favorite character. If the main character is the only one even showing depth, you’re wasting a lot of potential. Develop your allies and side characters. Try and get your readers to have different favorite characters.


  1. Show character relationships


Almost a sub-point of the above statement, but imma go rant on it anyway.


It’s kind of a fact that in real life, you show different aspects of yourself in your relationships with other people.


In writing, it’s a bit counterintuitive.


“But won’t we find out more about Horatio if we just focus on Horatio?”


Nope, actually you won’t. You’ll find out quite a bit about Horatio by practically living in his head for books on end. But seriously, there are only three relationships really established in the books.


He’s buddies with Bush. Captain Pellew sorta likes him. And he married Maria after she practically guilt-tripped him into doing it.


Those aren’t really the sort of deep relationships that show the varying personality facets of the characters involved.


In the show, however. Ho boy, where to start with the character relationships.


-cue all the examples-


Horatio’s relationship with all the different crew members he’s put in charge of show his leadership skills an how much he’ll sacrifice for those who depend on him. He takes responsibility for their actions as if they were his own, sometimes even to the point of taking punishment for his men. He’s not afraid to shout them down when they need it, even though he’s naturally a quiet guy, and we see the limits of his patience with a few of the more trying men he’s put in charge of.


His friendship with Archie Kennedy is one of my favorites, honestly. The two of them are very different, Horatio with his stiff, unemotional way of doing things, and Archie with his extroverted, people-oriented outlook on everything. Horatio’s levelheadness and Archie’s ‘’proneness to panic” in his own words.


Still, from the second Horatio gets aboard the Justinian, Archie adopts Horatio and is always there right beside him. They’re almost total opposites as friends, but that’s mostly what makes it so beautiful. Archie getting Horatio to lighten up and laugh at himself sometimes, and Horatio reining in Archie from getting to crazy or going out of line, plus calming him down when things get too frantic.


Bonus points for the show here. You know what? Archie didn’t even exist in the books. He’s a composite of two characters that show up briefly in the books, taking the name of Midshipman Kennedy (who only showed up for a page and basically made a funny face before leaving) and another crew member who had Archie’s epilepsy problem.


The fact that the show basically pulled a character out of thin air and was able to do as much with him as they did is nothing short of amazing to me.


I can’t say too much without spoilers, but he adds SO MUCH TO THE STORY SERIOUSLY. (Yeah. I like Archie. XD)


The friendship he has with Bush is a little more lowkey, since Bush and Horatio are more similar to each other. So we see sort of the middle ground when Horatio relaxes his reserved front a little bit when he’s talking to Bush. Plus they make a kickbutt team when they’re fighting the French or Spanish together,


Captain Pellew probably holds the longest standing relationship with Horatio through the series. And the upgrade from book to movie was incredible. From the generally benevolent captain of the books came a beautiful father figure/mentor for Horatio.


Seriously, Pellew isn’t the affectionate type and he literally starts out by telling Horatio that he’s walking on thin ice to get his approval at all, but it just . . . it grows and blossoms into something incredibly beautiful as the show progresses. Someone Horatio can look up to and generally come to for advice even as he’s moving up through the ranks. Pellew believes in Horatio even when Horatio doesn’t, honestly. And it’s a wonderful thing to see.


Maria isn’t my favorite, but they worked her a lot better in this. She’s a huge romantic idealist, while Horatio is . . . not. Horatio’s very awkward with any sort of romance or relationship moving that way (to the point of throwing up from nerves on the day of his wedding, the poor guy), so it’s really sort of cute seeing him and Maria stumbling along the path of love together. It’s definitely not a romance without its bumps, but it’s very interesting and human.


And really, without all those characters I just mentioned, we’d never see those other sides to the protagonist. And the protagonist wouldn’t have the chance to bring out another side to the minor characters.


Building your main character’s relationships is incredibly important and pays off huge in the end.


  1. Have human villains


Tension is certainly present in the books, but there’s a distinct trend in villains that could be much better. Almost all antagonistic forces are faceless.


There’s a storm. They run out of food. A French ship attacks. The Spanish decide to kick them out of the harbor. There’s a brush with the plague.


Definitely tension-building things, and again, probably pretty true-to-life as far as what would go on in the navy. But none of it is really personal to Horatio. There isn’t anything particular at stake for him apart from his own skin. He doesn’t have a grudge against whatever hurricane happens to come up and whack the Indefatigable.


It really improves the story if they actually have someone to hate. Someone who personally has something against Horatio.


We consciously make a choice to side with Horatio to go against the villain of the moment, not just “okay, well Horatio’s here and I guess we’re rooting for him since there’s not really any other option.”


Give us someone to love, and someone to hate.


Simpson, for example. Practically nothing of his personality was changed from his brief debut in the books, but he was brought to his full potential. This is someone who seriously hates Horatio. But in the books he passed through, beat our hero up a little, and then vanished without a trace. In the show, he proved his mettle as full-on antagonist material and literally had my whole family seething at the screen with how horrible he was.


Captain Sawyer was another example of someone brought to his full potential. He’s seriously insane. He’s terrifying. And when he’s actually given more time to exert his power over the main characters and not simply pooh-poohed by the rest of the crew as “that poor, batty captain of ours” before being gently set to the side, he can be brought up to his full, villainous height. (Though, unlike Simpson, he’s not evil the whole way through and the ending of his arc was amazingly done.)


Lieutenant Buckland. Not . . . quite a full-blown villain? But he had a few notably masterful tweaks made to his character in the transition from book to movie. In the book, he made me want to cry, seriously.


The poor guy just gets the butt end of everything that happens. The last we see of him, he basically gets his whole life ruined because he took an ill-timed nap after staying awake for over 24 hours, then basically turns into an alcoholic. Yaaay, great place to leave that character off.


In an attempt to avoid too many spoilers, the show changes just enough to make him deserve what he gets. He goes small-time villain, but he’s not nearly as despicable as the others that show up. He’s more the type that makes you wonder: “man, would I have done the same thing in that place?” (And, a quick nod to Buckland being the one that originally inspired me to go deep into the study that made this post.)


As much as man vs. nature conflicts can work and have their strengths, well-crafted, flesh-and-bone villains pay off big time.



(Disclaimer: I’m still struggling to be able to write something as a bad writing example while not bashing too hard. I really do like the books and they have their place in history as classic literature. There are just so many ways the show was able to make it better and more relatable. This is an example for writing, not a shame-session on the books.)


Well, hope you guys were able to learn some stuff from my rambles and I’ll see you next time.

Come back for the conclusion next week!

So do you watch Hornblower? Can you think of any movies that did it better than the books?

Talk to me in the comments, mates,


9 thoughts on “Hornblower: The movies that were better than the books & how they did it {Part 1}

  1. I love the Hornblower show, though I’ve not read the books. I want to watch them again sometime. If I ever get time… Bush and Kennedy and Pellew are some of my favorite characters.

    1. Yesss they’re so amazing and definitely merit a rewatch. ❤ (Tho 'The Wrong War' wasn't really my fave? We were kinda seeing everyone at their worst.)
      Bush and Kennedy and Pellew and just AUGH EVERYONE.

  2. I knew this would be a great post as soon as I saw the title. 😀
    Wonderful points. Especially all of them. ;P Consistent cast, character relationships, human villains…everything you said. Yup. (And ESPECIALLY especially the first two.)
    I’ve only read the first book, but that was enough to recognize all the points. Those movies are amazing.

    *peeks between fingers* Aaaand since you undoubtedly have an opinion, what type do you consider Archie? I thought for the longest time he was an ENFP—albeit pretty messed up—but sometimes he really seems like ENFJ too.

    As for movies that did it better than the books, BBC’s North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell comes pretty close, though the book is amazing too.
    BBC period dramas (and maybe…British productions as a rule?) generally do wonderfully making the movies as good as or better than the book. It’s the best thing. Why I NEED them to make a movie of Les Miserables.

    *shuffles out*

  3. As an avid Hornblower fan, this is probably the greatest thing I’ve read all week. Combine HORNBLOWER with WRITING with ARCHIE KENNEDY and turn it into a lovely long post full of all the things I like to discuss, and magic happens.

  4. I love the Hornblower Movies. Absolutely fantastic. I also sorta like the A&E Scarlet Pimpernel Movies almost better than the books because the Marguerite story line in the movies is so intriguing? Marguerite is more of an adult in the movies than in the books, I guess. She’s much more capable of taking responsibility for her own actions in the movies, in my opinion.

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