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Ambiguous Plot Choices: Which Way Was Jack’s Compass Pointing?

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

Jack's magic compass.

Introduction

One of the smartest things that a screenwriter can do in a script is to leave certain plot points open-ended for the audience to discuss and decipher. World building doesn’t mean spelling out every little detail. Even the most fantastic stories can be grounded by these messy details. They don’t need to be answered in order to wrap up the plot but are left open to individual interpretation.

One movie question that has always intrigued me is in the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. While it seems like a simple adventure story, the first three films in the franchise have a lot to say about morality, power, and social structures.

Can a pirate still be a good person?

Can one group of people decide what is right and what is wrong for all?

Can one person save the world?

Is love possible when two beings are separated by social classes…or magic curses?

At the end of each film, the main characters are faced with strong moral choices. Some characters established as “good people” choose the wrong path while some “bad people” choose the right path and vice versa.

Jack's moment of truth.

great-movie-writing-which-way-was-jacks-compass-pointing

The Scene

The most interesting character choice in the entire franchise, though, comes at the end of Dead Man’s Chest. While the Kraken is attacking The Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow decides to abandon ship in the one remaining lifeboat and leave the others to deal with the monster. As he rows to a nearby island, he stops midway to check his compass, a magic tool that tells him what he wants the most.

Throughout the film, the compass is unreliable, spinning out of control, not knowing what direction to take. In this case, though, it’s safe to assume that the compass is pointing either to the island where he will be safe or back to the Black Pearl, signaling his desire to go back and rescue his friends. However, the audience never sees what Jack sees. Instead, the scene ends on a close up of Jack’s confused face as the music swells, signaling that the compass is showing him something surprising.

So, what does it say? Well, I have a few theories.

The Kraken attacking The Black Pearl.

Theory 1: The Compass Is Pointing Towards the Pearl

It makes sense that Jack would trust his compass to tell him what to do. He has been doing that since the first film, even though the audience didn’t realize it at the time. It is not until this movie that we learn that the compass doesn’t point north. Instead, it points to the thing that the person holding it wants most.

So, the answer is simple…the compass pointed toward the ship so he goes back to the ship. He looks confused because the compass is telling him what Elizabeth told him, that he’s a good man. So, he’s going to go back and do the right thing. Besides, he’s gotten out of worse jams. He will get out of this one by thinking on his feet and not allowing his friends to die just because the Kraken is after him.

Jack's compass.

Theory 2: The Compass Is Pointing Towards Land

What if what Jack wanted the most was to get to safety? Humans have a fight or flight response. We fight when we are cornered. We run when we have an out. He had a free lifeboat, and everyone else was distracted. So, he took his chance and left. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel guilty, though. So, halfway to shore, he opens his compass to see if what he really wants to go back, but it isn’t. The compass is pointing towards land, to safety.

But people don’t always act based on desire. Sometimes we do the opposite of what we want because it is either the right thing to do, or our guilt gets the better of us. Jack could want to go to land more than anything. He’s been terrified of the Kraken throughout the entire movie, but maybe he’s even more terrified of losing his friends. So, he goes back while he still has a chance to save them.

Jack returns.

Theory 3: The Compass Is Still Spinning Uncontrollably

Jack’s problem throughout the movie is that he doesn’t know what he wants. So, the compass doesn’t work for him. It spins out of control and can’t give him the answers he needs. That’s why he uses Elizabeth’s desire to find Will as a map to lead them to Davy Jones’ heart, where he can regain control over his life and call off the Kraken. He’s still at a crossroads in that lifeboat so why would the compass have a definitive answer for him now? Maybe it’s still spinning out of control, and he doesn’t have anyone else around to use the compass for him. So, it’s time that he makes his own decisions.

Conclusion

Clearly, the writers don’t have an answer to this question. If they did, the direction of the compass would have been presented onscreen. In the end, it doesn’t matter plot-wise because Jack does go back to the ship where he saves the day and then is subsequently eaten by the Kraken and sent to Davy Jones’ locker. This then sets up the plot of the third film.

And does it matter character-wise? Jack has always been a wild card, doing the right thing one minute and then the wrong thing the next. But the way that this decision is presented makes it probably the most important decision that Jack makes in the franchise. It is the decision that results in saving every main character but himself. It shows how much he cares for the others, especially Elizabeth, and how his actions truly are spontaneous and don’t always work out, especially when he is not out to save himself.

This is pretty deep stuff for a family adventure film. What’s even more interesting is that it never comes up again. No one asks Jack why he comes back. Jack never reveals that he used his compass before making the decision to come back. It remains a cinematic mystery that is interesting in discussing character development and filmmaking in general. In an age when every action seems to need to be explained in a story, it’s refreshing to see that, like in life, sometimes our questions are never answered.

What is your theory about Jack’s compass in this scene? Leave your answers in the comments below.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why did Jack's compass appear to be pointing to Elizabeth?

Answer: Do you mean earlier in the movie? The needle does point to several different characters throughout the movie, but in the climactic scene, the audience doesn't see where it lands, if it does at all.

Comments

Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on March 15, 2020:

Thanks so much. That's a really valid theory and helps to add to the ambiguity of the scene. Maybe it's the moment that Jack finally learns to think for himself which is the most noble of all possible decisions. The audience knows that Jack is a hero, and at that point in the story, he's proving it to himself. Thanks again for the comment, and I'll be sure to check out your podcast!

Scott Artis - Black Pearl Show on March 15, 2020:

Great article and thoughts behind the compass/decision! I found your website after prepping for an episode (episode 114 of season 2, available March 16, 2020) of the Black Pearl Show podcast - where we discuss each movie in the franchise minute by minute. This episode includes Jack's compass scene.

I was wrapping up my notes when I decided to Google the topic and found myself here and with many of the same thoughts you shared. I had always guessed it pointed to the Black Pearl...that is until I really gave it some thought.

For me, I came to (want to) believe the compass just might be still spinning, which provides a bit of a swashbuckler romantic feel because it reflects the idea that the answer lies in himself to truly decide who Jack Sparrow wants to be. Jack is therefore not driven by what a compass tells him to be but who he strives to be. It's a theme we have seen throughout the movies - Will and Elizabeth are not letting social status determine who they will become, Barbossa takes a similar journey, etc. Destiny is not predetermined but what you make of it. It plays well with giving Jack the greatest character arc/growth impact.

BTW, we shared your poll results on the show and mentioned your article/website.