Have you ever wondered why a heroine makes the romantic choice she does, because you would have chosen someone else? That difference of opinion has often happened to me over the years, but never more than in the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Seated in the theater, my hands in a popcorn bucket and eyeballs glued to the screen, I knew if I had been lucky enough to be in Elizabeth’s shoes, I would have picked not the dashing and romantic Will Turner, but the witty and reliable James Norrington!
Don’t get me wrong. I like Will. He’s a decent man with a lot of moral fiber. But the Navy boy won me over the first time he smirked, “A short drop and a sudden stop.” I admire a snide sense of humor. Sarcasm is, after all, my preferred communication of choice. He also looks fine in a uniform. More importantly, however, I find Norrington honorable and intelligent. He’s no fool. Even when he falls from grace in the second film, he goes on to redeem himself in the third by sacrificing his life so Elizabeth can escape. I cried. I felt he deserved better in the end than to die alone.
Usually when writing a love triangle, the writer takes the easy way out, which is to make the heroine’s fiancé awful so it justifies her emotional or physical infidelity (a perfect example of this is Titanic). Pirates subverts this trope by making Norrington a decent man. Once he realizes her true feelings for Will, he releases Elizabeth from their engagement—and even allows Jack Sparrow a “head start” to escape the noose out of a sense of justice. He loses in the romance department only because Elizabeth doesn’t love him, not because he’s a villain. It was a bold choice from the studio. I like it, because even though I would have chosen him myself, it makes for a far richer story.
When I was young, I felt Elizabeth made the wrong choice, but age has given me wisdom. Elizabeth has a spirited and passionate nature that demands an intense connection to her partner, so it’s not unusual she would pick the more dashing Will Turner over the stoic Norrington. She and Will are alike, both reckless. Norrington is careful, does not trust Jack Sparrow, and prefers to go into a dangerous situation with a plan. If Elizabeth and Will represent free spirits, Norrington represents the British empire, with his mantra of “keep calm and carry on.” Even when his losses turn him into an angry, bitter drunkard determined to resume his former status, he’s still a likable character.
Disney also took risks in how they presented their heroine, who makes dubious moral choices in keeping with the theme of piracy. Elizabeth can be manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, power-grabbing, and even cruel—such as when she promises to marry Norrington if he will help her save Will Turner. She uses him, much as she uses Jack Sparrow when she feeds him to the kraken to save her own skin. Norrington is too much of a gentleman to call her out on it, though he does not fall for it a second time.
I knew Norrington would lose the girl from the start, but that did not stop me from empathizing with him and wishing, just once, to see a heroine make the choice I would make. Over decades of watching love triangles unfold, I feel sorry for the men who do not get the girl because they are “safe” and she wants an intense romantic experience. I believe that while physical attraction is important, a relationship has to stand on commitment and fidelity just as much as fun and sex. Jane Austen must have shared my view, since she shows the perils of chasing after sexual attraction alone in Sense & Sensibility, where a dashing philanderer leads Marianne astray from the faithful Charles Brandon until he breaks her heart. Brandon picks up the pieces and proves himself honorable. The story ends with Marianne married to a man the reader knows will never forsake her, a much quieter and longer lasting form of love.
I cannot resent Elizabeth too much, because she would not be happy with Norrington, but I cannot help wishing Norrington could have his own happy ending.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.