The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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67 thoughts on “The African Queen by CS Forester

    • I find that Hollywood does quite often improve this adventure type of story – they seem to have a better grasp on what makes for a thrilling ending! I don’t know why Forester decided to end the book the way he did – such a let-down.

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  1. As I was reading your post, FictionFan, I kept thinking ‘Sounds like the film is better.’ I don’t usually feel that way, but I did this time. I’m with you, too, about a story’s ending. A flat ending is so disappointing. It can completely change my view of a book. Besides, Bogey and Hepburn…I mean, what consummate actors!

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    • Yes, while I usually prefer the book, I must say I think Hollywood quite often does a better job with this type of adventure novel – they seem to understand the need for a thriller ending and they tend to get the pacing right. Plus the star factor definitely helps!

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  2. My siblings and I must have watched The African Queen a hundred times on the television, over the course of 15 years or so. We never tired of it. It’s another example of accomplished novelists doing the screenplay in Hollywood, and creating a gem. The screenplay was adapted by James Agee (1958 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), Peter Viertel (six or more novels, including White Hunter, Black Heart), John Collier (Brit who wrote short stories, novels, etc.) and John Huston (the director extraordinaire gets screenwriting credit). Who cares if America was nowhere near Africa in that first war, when you have Bogie to play the lead opposite Hepburn, and John Huston to direct? Those were the days.

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    • I’ve seen it dozens of times too, and have put myself in the mood for yet another rewatch now! I do think Hollywood often improved this type of straight adventure story – I’ve read a few books now of films I loved and often find the film version has a better ending and better pacing. Plus the star factor helps! Gosh, that’s some list of writing credits – no wonder it was great! Hahaha, I have no objection to Hollywood distorting history for patriotic purposes – I just wish people didn’t use it as their sole source of information… 😉

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  3. So sorry to hear about the lackluster ending of this one. I haven’t read it, but now that you’ve pointed this out, I shall stick to the film instead! Perhaps Forester wasn’t aware of the writers’ rule against letting the cavalry win the day, rather than the main characters, ha!

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    • Ha, yes, exactly! I couldn’t believe that he just stuck the two main characters off to the side like that – grrr! The film however is great – I’m in the mood for yet another rewatch now… 😀

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  4. what a shame about the ending, I wonder why he did it? Interesting that they cast an older women in the film (maybe they just really wanted KH) and the riverscapes sound worth reading it for

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    • I can’t imagine why he did it – it was such an anti-climax after all the good work he did getting his characters through their journey! I suspect they did just want Hepburn for the star factor and though she’s really quite miscast for the book character, she’s still brilliant in it, so I guess they made the right choice.

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  5. As long as your experience of the book hasn’t put you off the film. The book ending sounds very strange, the screen writers clearly knew what they were doing.

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    • I actually am in the mood for a rewatch of the film now, to see what exactly they did that made it work so much better. I do think Hollywood often improves this type of straight adventure story – they seem much better at getting the pacing right and understanding the need for a satisfying ending.

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  6. I remember seeing the film many years ago, but not a lot about it. Based on your review, maybe I’d be better off seeing the film again rather than reading the novel. 😉

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    • I’ve watched the film dozens of times over the years and have put myself in the mood to watch it again now. Definitely better than the book on this occasion, though 90% of the book is good too – all except that ending!

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    • He is, but I haven’t tried any of them. I’ve only read this and a sort of psychological thriller which I found very bleak. I like his writing style but somehow it’s his stories that don’t quite work for me. I might try a Hornblower one day though…

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      • The Hornblower novels belong to my all-time-favourite books. I read and re-read them as a teenager almost constantly. My favourite one is the one where Hornblower flees from France — after finishing school, I did a roadtrip with a friend along his route across the country… 🙂

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        • I don’t know why I’ve never read any of the Hornblower books – I love that kind of adventure story! Must add one or two to the TBR. What fun following his route! I love making connections between books and places I’ve visited. 😀

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    • I haven’t tried any of the Hornblower books but despite my disappointment with the ending of this one, I do like his writing style, so I might read one of them at some point. The river voyage part of this was excellent. The film however is great – well worth watching! 😀

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  7. I wondered how this book would be. I was only familiar with the film. I guess I’m not entirely surprised that you were lukewarm about the book. Interesting that Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of the character was different than the book’s portrayal.

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    • I thought Hepburn did very well but she’s definitely older than the Rose in the book, and it kinda makes the feel of it different somehow. Plus the film left the sex scenes to our imagination thankfully! 😉

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  8. I’m sort of surprised I’ve never heard of this book or its movie counterpart, although I have heard of (Audrey?) Hepburn haha

    That ending does sound odd, although maybe it was included because it felt more…patriotic? Or maybe it was a trend at the time of publishing?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry about the delay in replying, Karissa – for some reason WP has been dumping some of your comments in spam, along with comments from other people, so it’s not just you they’re picking on! 😉

      Yes, although I enjoyed the book overall, on this case the movie is definitely better! How could it not be with Hepburn and Bogart as the stars? 😀

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