Justin Theroux, Neil Cross on Adapting ‘The Mosquito Coast’ for Modern Times

Danielle Turchiano
·7-min read

A genius inventor who found a way to make ice from fire lives off the grid with his wife and two homeschooled children. They don’t have a television, they don’t have cell phones, they scavenge the dump for discarded items they can use, trade or sell because he is concerned about the rampant rate of American consumerism and the waste it generates. On the one hand, this is an eccentric but perhaps idealistic way to live. But on the other, it’s dangerous — even before the family has to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice because the feds have finally picked up on their (non-digital) trail.

This is the story of Allie Fox (Justin Theroux) and his family: wife Margot (Melissa George), daughter Dina (Logan Polish) and son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) in the Apple TV Plus drama “The Mosquito Coast,” which Neil Cross adapted from Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel of the same name.

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“It’s a fine line between a father figure and a cult figure,” Theroux, who also executive produces, says of this new role. “In talking to Paul extensively about the character before doing it [I learned that] when he was writing the book he was very curious about Jim Jones [and] the Jonestown massacre. I’m not saying [Allie] is Jim Jones. But he said, ‘What I was interested in was the life before the massacre, which was, how does this preacher, who had a benevolent following and flock that was very inclusive and eventually grew — how does that become so ingrown that people can, at some point, swallow cyanide in a mass suicide?’ This is a much smaller scale version of that and a much more benevolent version of it, but make no mistake, it smacks of the cult of family, and at what point are you masterminding their own demise, and will they figure that out?”

The novel, which is told from Charlie’s point of view, follows the family as Allie moves them out of the U.S. to escape the consumer culture as well as a war he believes is imminent, to their ultimate destination is the titular Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The first season of Cross’ adaptation, which consists of seven episodes, is treated as something of a prequel to the events of the book, with Allie focused on getting his family to Mexico first. Rather than making it a period piece, it is set in present day.

Cross admits he never considered keeping the show set in the time period of the book. That’s mostly because the 1986 film adaptation from Peter Weir was “probably the definitive version of that Allie Fox,” he said. “I didn’t see that any good could come of trying to Xerox something which was already as good as it was going to be. I’m more interested in the here and now.”

The series makes a number of other fundamental changes to the original story, such as giving the character of Margot — who was only known as Allie’s wife and Charlie’s mother in the novel — more agency, starting with her name.

In the first episode, Cross notes, the audience meets Allie but only begins “the process of revealing Margot. We find out a little more about who this woman is and indeed what she’s capable of in each episode.”

“The novel satirizes what is Allie’s blind unknowing colonialism and a satire on his own racism, and that stuff does not, cannot translate to the screen,” he continues. “In the novel, Allie Fox bestrides his small world like a colossus and dominates it entirely. That Allie Fox is an avatar really of that Whole Earth Catalog generation of libertarian hippies who came up with the revolutionaries in the late ’60s, and for their troubles they were rewarded with the extended war in Vietnam and Nixon and the oil shock and the loss of American manufacturing jobs to foreign climes, and existed in the great looming shadow of Reaganomics in the 1980s. And those circumstances don’t pertain any longer. So, the single biggest job that I had to do was think, ‘OK if we’re taking that guy Allie Fox out of his original historical context and putting him in the now, who would that guy be now — and who on Earth is going to marry that man?'”

The answer is a woman who is a true partner for Allie, Theroux says. Although the couple’s backstory — including why they feel they have to be on the run — is unknown to the audience at the start of the show, Justin Theroux and George had the answers. This helped them formulate their on-screen relationship and find a way to depict that their decisions were mutual, rather than Allie steamrolling everyone, as in the novel.

And so too do Allie and Margot’s children have to make tough calls and showcase what they are truly capable of as episodes unfold. Dina starts off a seemingly typical teenager who has a boyfriend and is hiding a cell phone from her father so she can communicate with him. Charlie, on the other hand, is younger and seems to idolize his father more. They both will have to decide for themselves how far they’ll go to stay with their parents and keep the family unit safe when they are on the run.

“Frankly, the children, oftentimes, are making the most adult decisions and are the most clear-eyed,” says Theroux. The irony, he points out, is that although Dina is the one who is more “disenchanted” with Allie, she “is probably the most like him.”

What both Cross and Theroux say they wanted to fiercely protect and carry through from book page to script page to screen was the character of Allie, his ideology and his “sense of adventure and wanderlust that he has to go strike out and find his Shangri-La for his family,” says Theroux.

Theroux calls his character an antihero and notes that he is “by turns charismatic and also infuriating.” Although everything he is doing for his family is out of love for them — and his sense of disappointment in America — he’s only “an optimist who’s improvising.” He doesn’t resort to violent methods, he doesn’t lie, and he always “makes good on his promises” — even if “it’s not necessarily how he pitches it, it’s not how they imagined it, it’s not how he imagined it either, but the facts in a court of law — success.” Still, a lot of his actions put himself and his family in harm’s way, even if unintentionally.

“We are able to chart the progress, and arguably decay, of Allie’s emotional and mental state,” Cross says of the series.

Over the course of the first seven episodes, as the Fox family journeys to and through Mexico, there is still the question of where they may end up. Allie does tell them he wants them to get on a boat. But just how long it takes for them to reach the titular Mosquito Coast — if they even do in this version of the story — remains to be seen, should the series get renewed for subsequent seasons.

“The thing that I look forward to, and I hope we get to some version of, is him finding the Shangri-La,” Theroux says of Allie. “The things I like most in the movie are when they have that essentially a sort of Robinson Crusoe-style living situation where you can walk out in the morning and pick a mango off a tree and there’s lunch. I do want them to have a respite at some point where they enjoy themselves and reconnect as a family. But it’s going to be difficult.”

“The Mosquito Coast” premieres April 30 on Apple TV Plus.

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