Allow me to take you back to the summer of 2006.
Pirates of the Caribbean; Dead Man’s Chest, had just been released, opening to record breaking box office numbers for its time. It was all anyone was talking about, especially where my family was concerned. We were all Disney fans, and there were three children in the family the proper age to fully appreciate the tone of the film. A typical childhood game amongst me and my two male cousins was one we lovingly called, “Whoever You Want To Be,” wherein we did exactly that; behave as any character from any medium, thus, “whoever you wanted to be.” Inevitably, however, one of us would gain control of the game, somehow dictating to the others what movie, TV show, or video game we were reenacting (true, going against the spirit of the game, but making it no less fun when all was said and done!).
I had a trampoline in my backyard. The three of us decided to play “Whoever You Want To Be” atop it, but my elder cousin quickly made the decision that the subject of our game was to be Pirates, and why wouldn’t it be? They were hilarious, swashbuckling adventurers that grabbed our imaginations! However, I knew how this game was going to ultimately play out: I was the only girl out of the three of us. I was fed up always been stuck playing Padme, Leia, or any assortment of various princesses. These roles were boring! I did nothing but get saved by whichever boy was playing my hero!
So as soon as the roles of Will Turner and Jack Sparrow were instantly swooped up by my cousins, I put my foot down…or, up, I suppose, as we were on a trampoline… Elizabeth Swann, although getting a few neat action scenes in the second installment, was just another girl role I was to be saddled with.
That was when I took control of the game. “Fine,” I remember saying. “You can be Will and Jack, but we’re doing the Wheel Scene, and I’m going to be Norrington.”
And that’s how a ten year-old girl became obsessed with the secondary villain of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
Now, exactly a decade later, James Norrington remains my favorite character of the Pirates franchise, as well as one of my favorite movie characters of all time. In this post, I wish to outline how and why my interactions with this character went from just a means by which I could break from stereotypical damsel roles as a pre-teen to a solid appreciation of an antihero whose story arc is relatable, complicated, and heartbreaking.
(Lieutenant/Commodore/Mr./Admiral) James Norrington…
- Undergoes the most dramatic story arc above all other characters in the franchise.
The characters of all four films have unique and diverse qualities which make them each individually stand out. All good characters have an intriguing arc to their storylines, usually ending with them learning a lesson or changing their ways. In the case of the Pirates films, if a character remains flat, with little to no discernable changes, they are either villains, minor characters, or Jack Sparrow.
Think about it: Although he’s morally ambiguous, Jack performs enough lovable, hilarious, and relatable actions that leave fans rooting for him. However, he doesn’t undergo any real change as the story progresses. This is not the case for the characters of Will and Elizabeth. The original trilogy provides a coming-of-age narrative for them both as they each discover their indivdual strengths, as well as their love for one another.
James, however, undergoes the most dramatic changes in his characterization. He serves several purposes in the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl (2003): He’s the secondary villain to Captain Barbossa, an obstacle between the love of Will and Elizabeth, and an antagonist who’s main motivation is to see the demise of our hero, Jack. In Dead Man’s Chest (2006), audiences only discover in the film’s second act what ultimately befell the former Commodore; he has dwindled into obscurity, just another scruffy, dishelved pirate who is devoid of hope and is oddly accepting of his disgraced state. This is the case until we start to see that familiar fire of ambition ignite once again as soon as he becomes aware of a means by which he can get his former title and reputation back. He then immediately leaps into action (or, in this case, casually sword fights atop a rogue mill wheel and rolls into action), deceiving and betraying Will, Jack, and Elizabeth by stealing the heart of Davy Jones for himself and pledging allegiance to the villainous side. In the third film, At World’s End (2007), we see far less of James, learning that he has been promoted as an Admiral, but yet is not the same sassy, straightlaced nobleman from the first film. His time living with the other half has changed him, and this becomes increasingly apparent as he is forced into carrying out Lord Beckett’s plans in the War Against Piracy. He has a chilly reunion with Elizabeth, and finally comes to the realization that he has picked the wrong side. He frees Elizabeth and her crew, and his fate is sealed with one final kiss with his unrequited love as he sacrifices his life to save her. Even in his final breaths, he attempts to kill Davy Jones, yet is futile. Despite being a supporting character, audiences see James rapidly progress from a secondary villain to a tragic hero over the course of the first three installments.
- Has six deleted scenes over the course of the three movies, one in Curse of the Black Pearl, five in Dead Man’s Chest (including an alternate ending), and one in At World’s End, all of which reveal hidden secrets about his character.
The deleted scene in the first film shows James as having a merciful side and a strong sense of duty. He even offers Elizabeth a chance to call off their engagement altogether free from judgement, as can be seen in the clip below:
In an audio commentary on Curse of the Black Pearl between Keira Knightley (who plays Elizabeth Swann) and Jack Davenport (who plays Norrington), Knightley stated that the scene was cut because it made Norrington appear “too nice.” I can only imagine that this is a similar reason why the majority of the scenes in Dead Man’s Chest were cut as well. The clip below is one of the five deleted scenes that were cut featuring Norrington, where Jack shows a shocking amount of mean-spiritedness:
Another of the four deleted scenes piggybacks off of this one, where James finds the hanging skeleton of the priest Elizabeth describes hanging in the church tower. Yet another cut scene occurs right at the onset of the sword fight between Jack, Will and James that leads to the aforementioned mill wheel fight. The three men’s blades are locked together. In this position, Jack tries to team up with Will against James, saying, “We cannot let him get the chest, mate, trust me on this. You can mistrust me less than you can mistrust him, trust me!” The final deleted scene, described with screen shots via Pirates of the Caribbean Wiki, depicts a scene called, “Manual Labor,” where Jack nearly stands on James’s hands as he does menial work swabbing The Pearl’s deck, stating, “A bit of manual labor is good for you, former Commodore. Builds character.” He refuses to move until James shines his boots.
These deleted scenes depict Norrington in his recently disgraced state, even going so far as to reveal to Elizabeth (and therefore, the audience) through the allegory of the mad priest just how isolated he feels. This character is at his lowest, and yet the common theme in all of the scenes is that Jack is constantly belittling and demeaning the already emotionally broken James. If these scenes were to remain in the final film, what message would that send to younger viewers? If Jack is supposed to be our hero, would that then make it alright for those who looked up to him to follow in his footsteps and tear down those we perceive to be weaker than us? Jack then becomes less of a hero and more of a bully, and although Norrington’s screen time is greatly diminished by these cuts, I am so grateful that they ultimately happened.
- Quickly (and rather unexpectedly) became a fan-favorite.
Norrington was meant to only ever appear in Curse of the Black Pearl, but according to an interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer (which I sadly couldn’t find, and that annoys me greatly), fan reactions were too positive to keep him from joining the sequels.
I actually can attest to witnessing the Norrington love firsthand. One of my most vivid memories from watching both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End in theaters were audible gasps from the audience in two key moments; in Dead Man’s Chest, when Davenport’s iconic voice growls into the first scene indicating his unexpected return to the franchise, and in At World’s End, when the character is killed. His death sparked outrage among many fans, inspiring an online support group (now defunct, as it’s nearly ten years old), and a petition for Disney to reverse his death (also currently defunct).
Many fans were wise, however: they knew that because James had died at sea, there was a chance that Will Turner, now the new Davy Jones, could find and recover his soul in the Locker. There was a chance everyone’s favorite bewigged anti-hero could return as an immortal being, this time placed in the interesting dynamic having to serve beneath Will’s leadership, the man he largely considered inferior to him during his living days. So overwhelming was this response, several rumors circulated about what precisely what the fifth installment of the franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean; Dead Men Tell No Tales would be about, and IMDB.com perpetuated rumors by stating the following in a Trivia Fact that remains on their page as of the time this blog was posted:
“This will be the first Pirates of the Caribbean film to have Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Geoffrey Rush (Captain Barbossa), & Jack Davenport (James Norrington) teaming up together.”
Sadly, however, this storyline does not appear to be the most recent draft of the script that Disney Studios ended up with. No evidence exists to suggest that Davenport was anywhere near the filming locations of Dead Men Tell No Tales, and from what little plot details have been released up to this point, the storyline sounds as though it has moved on from this initial concept. If Norrington will appear in the film, the only hope fans have is that he perhaps makes a cameo onboard The Flying Dutchman.
But why would a secondary character warrant such passionate admiration from fans?
- Empathy. We’ve been there, bud. We’ve had our hearts ripped out by an unrequited love. We’ve lost sight of our dreams. Sometimes, we’ve even associated ourselves with the wrong people to get what we want. Although some might think he’s found “the dark side of ambition,” Norrington makes it clear that he prefers “to see it as the promise of redemption.” #Same.
- High levels of sass mixed with a teaspoon of dry British wit: Ugh, Norrington’s sassiness is off the charts! One of his key attributes is that he serves as a foil to Jack Sparrow, having to remain stoic and unwavering in the face of the infamous pirate’s bizarre antics. Davenport spoke in an interview for the release of Curse of the Black Pearl about his character’s purpose, stating:
“I’m trying to not keep it all on one note. It’s easy to fall into that trap with this kind of thing because by definition, especially in my stuff with Johnny [Depp], I’m kind of the straight man in those scenes. It’s very easy to find yourself doing the same thing all the time, but the story allows me not to do that. […] It remains to be seen whether or not I’ll suddenly become England’s next sneering villain. I hope not!”
Little did Davenport know at the time that his character would go on to have many more dynamic shifts, thereby increasing opportunities to show how opposite he is to some of the more outrageous characters and using a plethora of sassy zingers to regain power in every scene.
- Once we grow to like his character, we want to see him win: Going on this journey of seeing him at his very best and very worst makes us root for his redemption – a redemption that he never receives. We want to see him escape the East India Trading Company. We want to see him ditch that wig, become a pirate again, fight against Beckett, and ultimatly find his long-awaited happiness. The tragedy that befalls him is bewildering and upsetting to us because we know that this character we have grown to respect will never get a happy ending.
- He’s played by Jack Davenport, folks! The man is one heck of a guy,
and deserves far more promient roles than he’s getting. I’m talking to you, Kingsman: The Secret Service,According to Michael Singer in his book Bring Me That Horizon: The Making of Pirates of the Caribbean (a book which I loved so much at the age of twelve that it currently has pages falling out of it), Davenport was always known to consistently be in good spirits and keep morale up on set. He is one of my nine favorite actors, and I will go into specifics on why he’s so awesome in a later blog post (…I can feel your unfettered enthusiam already!!).
In final thought, I think I’ve made it pretty clear from previous blog posts (found here and here, namely) that if there’s one fandom that I would call my foremost love, it would undoubtedly go to Pirates of the Caribbean. I only decided to write this love letter to my favorite character in the series upon completing a marathon of the first four films, wherein I examined why I held so much appreciation for this character, and it all began as a ten year-old girl playing make-believe on a trampoline.
Thanks for joining me on my first in what will most likely become a long series of posts imploring you to “Appreciate This as Much as I Do!”
Header image from freeimages.com, gifs from Giphy