Tahiti and her islands have supplied inspiration for bestselling books since shortly after the first European explorers reported the islands' existence. The number of writers who have penned island stories reads like a who's who of letters: Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, W. Somerset Maugham, Pierre Loti, Jack London, Zane Grey, James A. Michener, Charles Nordhoff, and James Norman Hall. Several of their novels were turned into movies. Also, television programs have been produced here, including Survivor: Marquesas in 2002.
Artists have been here, too, the most famous being Paul Gauguin, who spent the final years of his life in French Polynesia and whose paintings are almost synonymous with French Polynesia.
Although local youths prefer Polynesian versions of reggae and hip-hop, traditional music is like that played in Hawaii -- a blend of the guitar, ukulele, and drums. Most hotels and many restaurants will engage a small band to play traditional music during happy hour and dinner.
Of all the arts, Tahiti is most famous for its hip-swinging traditional dance, the most suggestive performed in all of Polynesia except the nearby Cook Islands.
Rather than list the hundreds of books about Tahiti and French Polynesia, I have picked my favorites. A few out-of-print island classics have been reissued in paperback by Mutual Publishing, LLC, 125 Center St., Ste. 210, Honolulu, HI 96816 (tel. 808/732-1709; fax 808/734-4094; www.mutualpublishing.com).
General -- If you have time for only one book, read The Lure of Tahiti (1986). Editor A. Grove Day, himself an islands expert, includes 18 short stories, excerpts from other books, and essays. There is a little here from many of the writers mentioned below, plus selections from captains Cook, Bougainville, and Bligh.
The National Geographic Society's book, The Isles of the South Pacific (1971), by Maurice Shadbolt and Olaf Ruhen, and Ian Todd's Island Realm (1974) are somewhat out-of-date coffee-table books, but they have lovely color photographs. Living Corals (1979), by Douglas Faulkner and Richard Chesher, shows what you will see underwater.
History & Politics -- Several early English and French explorers published accounts of their exploits, but The Journals of Captain James Cook stand out as the most exhaustive and evenhanded. Edited by J. C. Beaglehole, they were published in three volumes (one for each voyage) in 1955, 1961, and 1967. A. Grenfell Price edited many of Cook's key passages and provides short transitional explanations in The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific (1971).
The explorers' visits and their consequences in Tahiti, Australia, and Antarctica are the subject of Alan Moorehead's excellent study The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific, 1767-1840 (1966), a colorful tome loaded with sketches and paintings of the time.
Three other very readable books trace Tahiti's post-discovery history. Robert Langdon's Tahiti: Island of Love (1979) takes the island's story up to 1977. David Howarth's Tahiti: A Paradise Lost (1985) covers more thoroughly the same early ground covered by Langdon, but stops with France's taking possession in 1842. The Rape of Tahiti (1983), by Edward Dodd, covers the island from prehistory to 1900.
Mad About Islands (1987), by A. Grove Day, follows the island exploits of literary figures Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and W. Somerset Maugham. Also included are Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, coauthors of the so-called Bounty Trilogy and other works about the islands. A Dream of Islands (1980), by Gavan Dawes, tells of the missionary John Williams as well as Melville, Stevenson, and the painter Paul Gauguin.
Peoples & Cultures -- The late Bengt Danielsson, a Swedish anthropologist who arrived in Tahiti on Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki raft in 1947 and spent the rest of his life there, painted a broad picture of Polynesian sexuality in Love in the South Seas (1986). Heyerdahl tells his tale and explains his theory of Polynesian migration (since debunked) in Kon Tiki (1950). In 1936, Heyerdahl and his wife lived for a year in the Marquesas; his book Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature (1975) provides an in-depth look at Marquesan life at the time. Robert Lee Eskridge spent a year on Mangareva; his charming book is titled, appropriately, Manga Reva (1931; reprinted by Mutual in 1986).
Fiction -- Starting with Herman Melville's Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) -- semifictional accounts of his adventures in the Marquesas and Tahiti, respectively -- the islands have spawned a wealth of fiction. (Though set in the South Pacific Ocean, Melville's 1851 classic, Moby-Dick, does not tell of the islands.)
After Melville came Julien Viaud, a French naval officer who fell in love with a Tahitian woman during a sojourn in Tahiti. Under the pen name Pierre Loti, he wrote The Marriage of Loti (1880; reprinted by KPI in 1986), a classic tale of lost love.
W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is a fictional account of the life of Paul Gauguin. Maugham changed the name to Charles Strickland and made the painter English instead of French. (Gauguin's own novel, Noa Noa, was published in English in 1928, long after his death.) Maugham also produced a volume of South Pacific short stories, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921; reprinted by Mutual in 1985). My favorite is "The Fall of Edward Bernard," about a Chicagoan who forsakes love and fortune at home for "beauty, truth, and goodness" in Tahiti.
Next on the scene were Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Together they wrote the most famous of all South Pacific novels, Mutiny on the Bounty (1932). They followed that enormous success with two other novels: Men Against the Sea (1934), based on Captain Bligh's epic longboat voyage after the mutiny, and Pitcairn's Island (1935), about Lt. Fletcher Christian's demise on the mutineers' remote hideaway. (For a nonfiction retelling of the great tale, see Caroline Alexander's The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty .)
Nordhoff and Hall later wrote The Hurricane (1936), a novel set in American Samoa that has been made into two movies filmed in French Polynesia. Hall also wrote short stories and essays, collected in The Forgotten One (1986).
The second-most famous South Pacific novel appeared just after World War II -- Tales of the South Pacific (1947), by James A. Michener. A U.S. Navy historian, Michener spent much of the war on Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turned the novel into the musical South Pacific, a huge Broadway hit; it was later made into the blockbuster movie.
Michener toured the islands a few years later and wrote Return to Paradise (1951), a collection of essays and short stories. He describes the islands as they were after World War II, but before tourists began to arrive via jet aircraft -- in other words, near the end of the region's backwater, beachcomber days.
The most famous of many movies about Tahiti are the two Mutiny on the Bounty films based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The 1935 version starred Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as a tyrannical Captain Bligh. (It was actually the second film based on the Bounty story; the first was an Australian production, starring Errol Flynn in his first movie role.) Although the 1935 version contained background shots of 40 Tahitian villages, most of the movie was filmed on Santa Catalina, off the California coast; neither Gable nor Laughton visited Tahiti. The 1962 remake with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in the Gable and Laughton roles, however, was actually filmed on Tahiti. It was the beginning of Brando's tragic real-life relationship with Tahiti. A 1984 version, The Bounty, not based on Nordhoff and Hall, was filmed in Opunohu Bay on Moorea and featured Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as a more sympathetic (and historically accurate) Bligh.
Another Nordhoff and Hall novel, The Hurricane (1936), was turned into two movies set in French Polynesia (the novel was about a hurricane striking American Samoa). The 1937 version starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall (a relative of the coauthor) was a hit, while the 1977 remake, starring Mia Farrow and filmed on Bora Bora, was a classical bomb.
Also bombing was 1994's Love Affair starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, and Katherine Hepburn. The best things about it are the scenes shot on the Aranui 2 and in Opunohu Bay on Moorea.
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