The book behind the blockbuster: C.S. Forester’s The African Queen

African Queen cover

The African Queen

C. S. Forester

Back Bay Books.   1984.  256 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by C.S. Forester:  None!!  But, there are more on the Guardian 1000 list so I will be reading them soon and reporting back.  If they are good as this one, what a treat that will be.  Forester was a famous and prolific author, noted for the Horatio Hornblower series and for his many screenplays.

Guardian 1000 Challenge:  War and Travel titles.

First of all, if you read this book (you should!) you must try as hard as you can to erase the images of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart from your mind.   Of course in all book-movie comparisons the typical complaint is that the movie misses so much of the internal dialogues and insights into the characters.  This is certainly true in comparing Forester’s masterpiece and the equally masterful and wonderful movie version made about 20 years later.  They are equally great, but in such different ways.

The book centers on the characters of Rose and Charlie — how they came to find themselves in 1914 Congo and how fate throws them together when the Germans wreck Rose’s missionary brother’s mission, and round up all the native parishioners.  Rose’s brother falls ill from fever and dies.  Charlie, a skilled mechanic and operator of the African Queen — a mail and supply flat boat operated by a Belgian mine company — helps Rose bury her brother and takes her on board the African Queen.  Rose, consumed with hatred for the Germans and determined to do her “bit for England” hatches a plan that involves taking the African Queen down river to a large lake which is patrolled by a German gunboat.   Charlie humors her for a bit, without any notion of following along:  the river is unnavigable due to rapids and confronting a German gunboat with the African Queen is insane.  The story of how Rose persuades Charlie to go along with her plan, its actual implementation and their growing relationship comprise what I would consider “Adventure” with a capital A.  Two unlikely heroes, daunting odds, physical danger and a readily identifiable enemy  — these are the classic elements of adventure.

So, I mentioned the differences between the book and the movie.  First of all, Forester’s Charlie and Rose are not Bogart and Hepburn.  They are not glamorous stars.  These are really ordinary people — Charlie is a lowly, unambitious mechanic who drinks a bit and speaks with an unintelligible Cockney accent.  Rose is an uptight, repressed woman who is well into the old maid stage of life.  Yet together they become so much more.  Through Rose’s encouragement, Charlie blossoms into a brave adventurer and a heck of a good engineer.   In the light of Charlie’s admiration and attention, Rose becomes a completely different woman.

Second, there is an appealing quality of earthy reality in the book that the movie just can’t replicate.  Rose and Charlie’s love affair is rather explicit for a book written in 1935.  You can actually smell the stink of the river mud and hear the ubiquitous whine of insects.  Both Charlie and Rose get malaria.  The rapids — which in the movie seem over fairly quickly — go on for days in the book and they are scary!!!  These people could die at any minute.  If I had any complaint with Forester is that I just wonder how realistic it was that Rose navigated the rapids…..but I don’t want to give anything more away.  The book’s ending is so much more ambiguous and satisfying than the movie, which in contrast wraps up the strings on the story neatly.

This was a great book.  Enjoy it, enjoy the movie — just keep them separate.

I love him, too. But he’s not really Charlie! Picture source:,_Bogart.jpg

4 thoughts on “The book behind the blockbuster: C.S. Forester’s The African Queen

  1. Enjoyed reading your review. Never really knew what The African Queen was about. I just knew the author. Now I would like to read it. Thanks for the list from the Guardian.

  2. Pingback: On Basilisk Station, David Weber (Baen Books, 1993) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  3. Pingback: A Challenging Year: 2012 Guardian 1000 Reading Progress | livritome

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