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Narrative Lessons from The Mosquito Coast

mosquito coast

Years later, my mother would tell me how it worried her, my childhood obsession with The Mosquito Coast, which my family owned on VHS and which I insisted on watching repeatedly. If I stayed home sick from school, this was the movie I requested. My mother would hit play on the VCR and leave me to spend a few hours staring transfixed at the screen—at the jungle and the waterways and the promise of a new world discovered wild and untouched.

My mother thought the movie was too adult, too nightmarish for her nine-year-old daughter. But she let me watch nonetheless, peeking into the room now and then for a hint of what had so captivated me. Harrison Ford played Allie Fox, a brilliant but untethered inventor who moves his wife and four children to a primitive settlement in Central America to escape the evils of American consumerism. They make a new home in a jungle characterized by wild creatures and “savages” and all forms of uncivilized danger. River Phoenix plays the eldest son, Charlie. It is through Charlie’s eyes that the story unfolds.

The film is based on Paul Theroux’s 1982 novel, which I would not read until adulthood. But it was clear even back then, from the opening scene, that the movie I loved came from a book. Against the backdrop of American farmland, Charlie narrates:

My father was an inventor, a genius with anything mechanical. Nine patents, six pending. He dropped out of Harvard to get an education, he said. I grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and that everything he said was true.

At nine years old, I didn’t yet know for sure that I wanted to be a writer, but the dark unraveling of the events in The Mosquito Coast made me pay attention, like I was filing something away for the future. It was an adventure tale about a regular American family packing up and running away to the jungle. It was a father-child story about power and ego. It was a story of survival, pride, and spectacular failure, and it was always Charlie—thoughtful, somber, good-hearted Charlie—who guided us through the story in his own voice. His father was the bigger character, the bright flash of genius and charm, but Charlie was the one who controlled the narrative.

Charlie’s voiceovers offer a reflective context for the crises the family faces as Allie descends into delusion. Allie builds an ingenious settlement in Jeronimo only to destroy it with his own invention, a massive ice-making machine. As the movie progresses and the family’s situation becomes desperate, Charlie views his father through an increasingly cynical lens until, at last, his hatred cannot be contained: “I hated his shoulders, his greasy hair, the slant of his spine. I imagined how it would be to stick a knife in it, just below his ragged collar.”

It took courage to admit those violent fantasies, I knew, even if only to yourself. Maybe that’s part of what drew me to The Mosquito Coast: the complexity of admiring and simultaneously despising someone you’re meant to blindly love.

*

As much as I was drawn to Charlie and how he chronicled his new world, I was still a nine-year-old girl who couldn’t entirely see herself reflected in this older boy. As with other movies I watched as a child, I found myself unconsciously searching for the girls—girls whose stories were usually told on a much smaller, narrower scale. These girls served as mere background for the male characters, but I sought them out anyway, hoping for a glimpse of something I might recognize as closer to my experience.

The Mosquito Coast did nothing to dispel my ingrained understanding that it was men and boys who were the central characters in a story, particularly an adventure story like this one. But I did have something to hold onto during my repeated viewings: Charlie’s five-year-old twin sisters, a pair of red-headed little girls who play a passive, but not coddled, part in their family’s journey.

The twins make only minor appearances in the film, but I couldn’t get enough of them. How young they were, how marvelously identical, how brave to face the jungle. Soon after reaching their new home of Jeronimo, one of the girls shrieks in distress; a leech has attached to her leg. This scene lasts only seconds, but I waited for it with anticipation every time I viewed the movie. The scream, the mother’s desperate rush to find her, the fact that a five-year-old was able to wander out of sight in the jungle in the first place—it stunned me. I could identify with those twins, could imagine myself into their place. I was at once terrified and enthralled at the prospect of entering such dangerous land unprotected, where a leech or baboons “as big as men” could upturn my whole world.

Like the twins, Allie’s wife, played by Helen Mirren, has a limited role in the film. The novel portrays this character as sometimes skeptical and often wise, but even in the book, she is granted no name. Instead, she is simply “Mother.” Early in the movie, on the morning Allie is packing up his family for Central America, Mother stands before a sink full of dirty breakfast dishes. “Leave those,” Allie tells her. “Leave them. We’re getting out of here!” She hesitates, but when she looks back at the steaming, cluttered sink, she smiles.

“She feels free,” my mother said during our first viewing of the film, which we watched as a family. “She’s happy to leave it all behind.”

In this way I understood that my mother, too, was drawn to the dark unknown. That some part of her wouldn’t mind abandoning conventionality, to take a boat deep into the jungle just to see what was there. To live a new kind of life.

*

Certain scenes from The Mosquito Coast remain with me today, scenes that my younger self watched over and over without tiring of them: How Allie tries to transport an ever-shrinking block of ice through the jungle, only to unwrap the banana leaves at last to find only water. The monstrous ice machine exploding into flames. The family escaping, dirty and scarred and traumatized, on a boat.

These are moments full of failure, danger, fear, and conflict. I think of my child-self watching these scenes, and I wonder what she was learning about story and character. At the time, I was just starting to realize that maybe stories had rules, a structure for how they were told—and even if I didn’t yet understand that structure, I was compelled by it. This was no less clear than at the end of the film, which cracked open my conception of how stories could be made.

As The Mosquito Coast nears its conclusion, Allie lies injured with a bullet wound. During my first viewing with my family, I wondered aloud if he would die, and my older brothers laughed at me. They said that was impossible because Allie was the main character, and main characters never died.

At first I took their words for truth, assuming they knew some unspoken storytelling rule that I didn’t. For half an instant this rule made sense to me in a comforting sort of way: When we tell a story, the protagonist has to remain safe in the end. I could see how such a rule might make the world of story orderly and sane.

But The Mosquito Coast would prove to be an education. Allie does indeed die, shattering my new understanding of storytelling before it had a chance to set in. And not only does Charlie lose his father, but he seems stronger for it.

“Once, I had believed in Father, and the world had seemed small and old,” Charlie narrates. “Now he was gone, and I wasn’t afraid to love him anymore, and the world seemed limitless.”

This final voiceover is set over the last image of the movie: the family’s boat moving downriver to the ocean. More than anything, it was this scene I loved. I was drawn to the quietness of the family’s escape, the grief and the acceptance, and how I knew Charlie’s story would continue even after the credits rolled. It was a tragedy I felt safe watching from the safety of my home, where my mother hovered nearby and where I could learn how stories came alive and how they came to an end.

I watched The Mosquito Coast again and again for this ending. I watched it for the jungle, the river, the twins, the risk and the rage. I watched it for the final image of the family’s boat heading out to sea. I watched it for all the possibilities in the world.