The Mosquito Coast: a Novel Movie

Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image or text links to go to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!

The Mosquito Coast, a 1986 movie, is based on the award-winning 1981 novel by Paul Theroux. Homeschool dad David Guterson (author of Snow Falling on Cedars) wrote that reading The Mosquito Coast actually made him take a good hard look at his reasons for wanting to homeschool his children, and the possible pitfalls of having total control over their education. Not to worry, however, as the homeschooling family depicted in this story is far removed from the mainstream. In fact, they have a lot more in common with the homeschooling family in Captain Fantastic.

Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is a self-taught inventor and handyman with a brilliant mind when it comes to anything mechanical. He’s an eccentric genius who dropped out of Harvard so he could “get an education” – and he’s a stubborn, opinionated individualist. He and his wife homeschool their children under the radar, purposely avoiding any kind of interaction with authorities. Fox is paranoid and disillusioned with the whole system – not just schools or government, but American culture and society in general.

Allie Fox: The people in New York … they’ll kill you for a quarter. You don’t dare take a walk for fear of someone sticking a knife in your ribs. Think about it. If you stay home, they come in through the windows! Ten year old homicidal maniacs on every street corner. They go to school! Hah! They go to school!

There are a lot of allusions in this story. For example, Fox has just invented a machine that freezes water into ice using kerosene (a reference to Robert Frost’s poem, “some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice”), and names his device Fat Boy (referring to the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima).

Fox doesn’t like the way America is going – he is fed up with crime, consumerism, and conformity. He believes that stupid, greedy people will destroy the country and also that war will break out. So he takes his wife (Helen Mirren), two sons, and twin daughters away from their home in rural Massachusetts and transports them to the Honduran jungle. There, he plans a grand experiment to build a larger version of his ice making machine, while simultaneously building a new civilization because he thinks he can do it better. His 14-year-old son Charlie (the late River Phoenix) narrates the story.

Charlie Fox: “My father often talked of things being revealed – that was true invention, he said. Revealing something’s use, and magnifying it; discovering its imperfections, improving it, and putting it to work for you. God had left the world incomplete, he said, and it was man’s job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it, and to finish it. I think that was why he hated missionaries so much – because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens. For father, there were no burdens that couldn’t be fitted with a set of wheels, or rudders, or a system of pulleys.”

The family settles in a remote clearing called Jeronimo and they begin to transform the wilderness. Fox leads the natives as crops are planted, houses are built, and a huge ice machine is constructed. (“Ice … is civilization.”) Fox’s adventurous pursuit of his own personal American dream in the middle of Central America – complete with his remarks about a New World there for the taking, and even a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for his family – hints at colonialism and imperialism.

But Fox’s grandiose plans soon start to go awry, in kind of a Swiss Family Robinson meets Heart of Darkness theme. First, though his idea is to bring his home-built refrigerator and other inventions to the indigenous people to improve their lives – he sees himself as the “great man” to help the poor savages in the jungle – what really happens is that his children discover that the locals already know the best way to live in their own habitat.

Then the Reverend Spellgood pays the Foxes an unexpected visit, but Fox and the missionary clash due to their opposing religious views. And despite Fox thinking they had left all the criminals behind in America, armed rebel outlaws manage to find them in their jungle paradise. Fox’s utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions end up jeopardizing his family. Too proud to realize that he made a mistake, and refusing to admit defeat, in the end he is destroyed by his own stubborn egotism.

This has got to be one of Harrison Ford’s best and most underrated performances. He does a fantastic job as the mad inventor with his nonstop crazy ramblings, masterfully depicting Fox as he becomes increasingly erratic and aggressive. And while the movie’s depiction of homeschooling isn’t very flattering, it’s obviously because of flaws in the characters – not their choice of education.

The Mosquito Coast, rated PG, is one movie that stays close to its literary counterpart, as the two are strikingly similar. Entire conversations are lifted from the text, and there isn’t a single line that doesn’t have an equivalent passage in the novel. If you want to add the novel and/or the movie to your literature and film class, click here for some teacher’s notes and discussion questions.

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