Hollywood producers love the question “what if?”

When they asked what would happen if a man fell in love with his computer operating system, they came up with the critically acclaimed film “Her,” released last year. Somebody posed a “what if” about a terminally ill high school teacher becoming a meth kingpin to provide for his family and created the hit TV show “Breaking Bad.”

After British novelist and scriptwriter Neil Cross read the 2007 book “The Republic of Pirates” by Maine author Colin Woodard, he asked himself: What if Blackbeard the pirate had not died so young? What if he had led his rogue pirate nation on a path of pillage and plunder along the East Coast for another 15 years?

Good questions.

Good for Woodard, anyway, since the questions and their possible answers enticed Cross to make the new NBC TV series “Crossbones.” The series, starring John Malkovich as an older, white-bearded Blackbeard, premieres at 10 p.m. Friday. For now, it’s scheduled to run only into August.

Woodard, who is the state and national affairs writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, now gets to put a gold sticker on his book that says, “The inspiration for the NBC series ‘Crossbones.’ ” And that kind of network TV tie-in has been known to greatly increase book sales. He also got paid for the rights to his book, though he won’t say how much.


“Established authors getting their rights for film or TV optioned is a fairly common thing, but getting it made is not,” said Tris Coburn, a literary agent in Camden who was an editor at Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. “For most authors it’s not a lot of money; a typical deal would be a payment when it’s completed, maybe $100,000. The big part for the author is the new sales. I wouldn’t be surprised if (Woodard’s) book ended up on the best-sellers list.”

Even though Cross says the show will be different from Woodard’s book, he credits Woodard with laying a solid foundation and providing inspiration for the series.

“ ‘The Republic of Pirates’ is an excellent work of nonfiction, based on Colin Woodard’s deep knowledge of and love for the Golden Age of piracy,” wrote Cross in an email response to questions for this story. “ ‘Crossbones’ is an altogether different beast; it’s a TV show more concerned with big, rollicking entertainment than historical fact.”

The focus of Woodard’s book is a somewhat democratic nation of about 2,000 pirates based on New Providence island in the Bahamas between 1715 and 1718. The show is set some 10 to 15 years later, though still on an island housing a pirate state.

The pirate “republic” of the real Blackbeard’s time was different from pirate groups that came before, or after, Woodard said. They elected and deposed captains by a show of hands, divided spoils equally among all crew and gave only slightly more to ship captains.

“This group was different because they did not see themselves as outlaws, but as fighting a social revolt against the ruling classes of the empires of the day,” said Woodard, 44, who lives in Freeport. “They had their own pirate town. They had their own trade relationships. They bought and sold goods.”


Woodard said he first began exploring the “pirate republic” of the Bahamas as part of his research into the broader topic of America’s development between the eras of the Pilgrims and the American Revolution. He has written two other books pegged to that theme, “The Lobster Coast” and “American Nations.” While researching the pirates of Blackbeard’s group, he said, he decided they warranted their own book.

They are, Woodard and others argue, the group of pirates that most of today’s pirate pop culture is based on. They were folk heroes in their own time, and their legends continue to grow.

The Bahamas-based pirates of Woodard’s book are part of a mini-boom in pirate media today. The show “Black Sails” debuted in January on the Starz cable network and more closely resembles Woodard’s book than “Crossbones.” “Black Sails” is set on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas in 1715 but with no mention of Blackbeard. The show is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island.”

There’s also a video game out now, “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” set in the same place and time. Darby McDevitt, the game’s writer, said the idea to develop a game in the golden age of piracy evolved from planning a prequel to “Assassin’s Creed III,” which was set during the American Revolution. McDevitt read Woodard’s book during his research.

The book “definitely helped me hone in on the exact dates of our story and what characters and events we would use,” McDevitt wrote in an email. “But his book was not the initial inspiration.”

Woodard’s book is not the first to mention Blackbeard and his republic of pirates circa 1715, but it did help to refocus people’s attention on the pirates of that era, said Marcus Rediker, a professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote his own book on the era, called “Villains of All Nations.”


Cross said in his email that “Crossbones” is more about espionage than it is about the true history of the pirates. The main plot point is that British spy Thomas Lowe is sent to find the pirate nation and to kill Blackbeard. Lowe, played by Richard Coyle, is captured by Blackbeard. The two then engage in sharp-witted verbal sparring, though there’s quite a bit of sparring with swords as well.

Cross said his Blackbeard, as played by Malkovich, bears “no resemblance” to the real Blackbeard. Cross thinks of his Blackbeard as “a kind of universal genius, a madman and a renegade – and as such, a threat to the established imperial order.”

In early episodes of the show released by NBC to reporters, Malkovich’s Blackbeard comes across a lot like Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now,” reigning over a strange jungle stronghold in the middle of the Vietnam War. Malkovich plays Blackbeard as soft-spoken, intelligent, vicious and ideological. In fact, Malkovich’s Blackbeard can be heard in the first episode espousing the kind of social revolt rhetoric Woodard says made the real Blackbeard’s crews stand out from other pirates.

In one exchange, Blackbeard tells Lowe that on his pirate island he has cast out the Devil, and he considers the Devil to be responsible for “that depraved distinction between rich and poor, great and small, master and valet, governor and governed.” He also says he does not consider himself English any longer because he has no wish to be “governed, inspected, indoctrinated, preached at, taxed, stamped, judged, condemned or hanged.”

But since the show is set after Blackbeard died, the story can veer off into all sort of ports and harbors the real pirate never went to.

“I wanted to use Blackbeard as our central character because he was already a character steeped in legend. I wanted to compound that legend still further by asking myself: What if he faked that ignominious death in 1718?” Cross wrote. “What if – older and wiser, steeped in deep knowledge of the realities and philosophies of the world – he was living on some secret island, hatching nefarious plans?”


Woodard, after having the television rights to his book optioned in 2011, has not been involved in the show’s development. Until this month, he wasn’t sure what the connections between his book and the show would be, or why it was being set in the years after Blackbeard’s death.

He said the premise is probably well-suited to creating TV drama and the questions the show raises are intriguing.

“What sort of person might (Blackbeard) have become and what would he have surrounded himself with, all those years after the pirate’s ‘republic’ in Nassau was crushed?” Woodard said. “With Neil Cross and John Malkovich involved, it’s going to be a great deal of fun to see what they’ve come up with.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:


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