The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy is one of my favourite film series of all time.
Yeah, I said trilogy. Gore Verbinski directed the first three, and afterwards said the plot had been wholly resolved: if there were ever any more films, they would have to “focus on the further adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow”. And they did.
And we don’t speak about them.
But the director’s words are very important: the further adventures of Jack. By the end, even he admitted that Jack was the most important character. The one people recognised, the one people loved most and the one who would draw audiences back. A Pirates of the Caribbean film without Jack Sparrow wouldn’t be a Pirates of the Caribbean film.
We’ve all come to love Johnny Depp’s mind-blowing performance as Jack Sparrow. But it wasn’t how Jack was supposed to look.
The Original Jack Sparrow
The problem was a clash of personalities.
The original scriptwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, saw Jack as fulfilling a kind of ‘comic relief’ role – a bumbling, uncomplicated character swept along with the plot who existed to make jokes. The producers, meanwhile, saw him as a badass hero figure, having a relationship with Will Turner much like the one Han Solo has with Luke in Star Wars.
This is what made me realise how close to disaster the first film was. When it was made, pirate films were not cool, and I don’t think Disney actively set out to revitalise the genre. After all, the film was only made so the Disney ride had a reason to exist. It was supposed to be your average pirate film, with swashbuckling and uncomplicated villains and cliches galore.
I rewatched the first film after I learned the truth about Jack Sparrow and imagined a young Harrison Ford delivering the lines instead. Sure enough, nearly every Jack Sparrow line in the film would fit perfectly into that hero’s mouth. And it would have been awful.
Why? Well, let me tell you about archetypes.
Archetypes: The Rogue vs the Trickster
Archetypes aren’t an exact science. There’s no definitive list of archetypes and their definitions will vary depending on who you ask. I’ve seen them described elsewhere as ‘iconic characters.’ Like Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn, they’re characters who spring fully-formed onto the page, they often don’t have a character arc, and we like them because they entertain or impress us, rather than making us empathise with them like a so-called ‘normal’ character.
In Pirates of the Caribbean, Will Turner was the normal man, the one with a character arc: he is completely different at the end than he was at the beginning. Jack? He’s exactly the same. He hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut, he hasn’t kicked his rum addiction, he doesn’t have a newfound respect for the Royal Navy. He’s Jack, and he’ll carry on the same way as he did.
Now, the original scriptwriters saw him as a kind of Joker figure: similar to the Trickster, but a lot less complicated. Think Fred and George Weasley in Harry Potter. He was the eponymous fool, the idiot who always cracks jokes and who is often guided by no real motivation other than subverting authority.
Their vision was thrown away. The producers instead saw him as a Rogue in the same way as Han Solo: the lone figure, the outsider, lawless and brash and always acting in their own interest. On paper Jack’s plot makes him look a lot like a Rogue: you can imagine him as a hyper-masculine, typical pirate guy who stabs Will in the back later on because all he wants is his ship back so he can go on being a rogue. Blah. Bad movie.
And then in walked Johnny Depp. After researching real-life pirates, Depp came to the conclusion that they were like modern-day rock stars: insecure, obsessed with fame rather than gold and with endless quirks and eccentricities. He came in with a Keith Richards impression – and Gore Verbinski went with it, despite it being the opposite of his vision. Disney had some qualms about it – they didn’t like his grubby look, his bad teeth and whatnot – but they were ignored. And Depp turned Jack Sparrow into the Trickster.
Jack Sparrow as the Trickster works, though I think you’ll struggle to find anyone who really knows why. His motivation is unknowable, and even seems to change from scene to scene. We’re torn by the mystery of whether or not Jack is a good guy or whether he’s simply manipulating people to his own ends. And he’s endlessly entertaining on screen.
Jack’s unknown goal adds some tension and interest to what would otherwise be a pretty standard plot. As Verbinski says, he sort of bounces through the story, nudging other characters and affecting their paths in strange ways.
For me, though, it goes a bit deeper than that. I feel like, when an archetypical character is done well, they jump off the screen, becoming bigger than the film or book they’re in. Jack feels deeper than the rest of the film: he feels like he’s been around since before 2002.
He embodies the Trickster so well that he sort of becomes part of that archetype. It helps that there is some metaphorical weight behind his actions, too: traditionally, the Trickster is the one who opposes, tricks and subverts authority wherever he goes, and that’s Jacks’ specialty. Whether he’s stealing the Inteceptor from the Navy, turning Barbossa’s crew against him or tearing off Elizabeth’s corset (symbolising oppressive society) and allowing her to ‘breathe’, he’s always there to take down the established order. And think about one of his main tools, the compass: it doesn’t point north. His direction is unknowable.
I may be getting a bit too literary for your tastes, and if so that’s fine – you don’t have to buy it. But Depp’s protrayal of Jack is probably the best Trickster archetype we’ve seen in film in years – and it turned what would have been another mediocre pirate flick into something truly great.
That’s why he takes the spotlight in the films that followed.