The Name of the Rose (1986) from Tuna, Keith, and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
comments in white, a reader's response in aqua, Scoop's response in
The Name of the Rose (1986) was a critical flop in the US, and was also a box office flop in the US. It was, however, a smash hit in Europe, and most of the rest of the world, and garnered many awards in Europe. Why? It is a European sort of film. The pace is leisurely, the tone is dark, the locations perfect, and the story is complex, and is not spoon fed to the viewer.
|Sean Connery stars as Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan who has come to a Benedictine monastery in Italy from a debate among Benedictines, Franciscans and Papal delegates as to whether the clergy should take vows of poverty or not. The Franciscans favor helping the poor, the rest believe in helping themselves. As the year is 1347, we are literally taken to the Dark Ages, and one of the darkest periods in Catholicism. The Inquisition is in full swing, and most books are kept in hiding by Monasteries because they conflict with Catholic doctrine. Connery, we later learn, has a history with the Grand Inquisitor, and is the Sherlock Holmes of the religious set, being both brilliant, and more enlightened than his peers.||
|When he arrives at the
monastery (actually Kloster Erbach in Germany), there has been a
mysterious death which is being attributed to the devil. William of
Baskerville (his name one of many nods to Conan Doyle) is called
upon the solve the mystery. With him is a young protégé (a very
young and subdued Christian Slater), who
is the narrator of the story, and plays Watson to his Sherlock. I am
going to strongly recommend this film, so don't wish to give away any
plot details. The mystery story line alone would sustain this film,
and has plenty of twists and turns, but there are also many
intertwined themes, mostly about excesses of the church, including
homosexuality, surreptitious sex with a local peasant girl in exchange
for food, murder, heresy, burning at the stake, hoarding knowledge,
and economic oppression of the common folk.
The film is very moody, and is darkly lit, which successfully creates an ersatz "dark ages". There was not a flat performance anywhere in this film, the costumes were appropriate, the locations perfect, and the art direction top notch. The film didn't just explain the Dark Ages, it took us there.
This response from Keith, a long-time reader:
I have to lodge a
rare disagreement with you concerning the movie The Name of the Rose.
Here's the problem with the movie, in brief: they took a very
complex book by Umberto Eco and manipulated the plot to become far
more of a Hollywood-type thriller. Just look at the ending --
the girl played by Valentina Vargas dies in the book, which is
certainly much more in tune with the Middle Ages than her miraculous
escape in the movie. The towns people oddly rebel and kill the
papal emissary (F Murray Abraham) in the movie -- in the book, the denouement
is much more realistic -- the emissary is a more complex character,
not the mustache-twirling bad guy of the movie, and the resolution is
decidedly mixed. It's always struck me as ironic, therefore,
that they took a near-perfect work of literature, added
"improvements" to increase the marketability, and wound up
with a failure of a movie.
Frankly, I think you guys are both right, but appear to disagree because you are jumbling together several arguments that need to be separated:
1. is the movie commercial?
2. is the movie any good?
3. is the movie a proper transformation from the book?
They need to be separated for several reasons. Number two is independent of the others, while one and three are negatively correlated in that success at one would surely guarantee failure at the other. The better an adaptation of this book, the more money one would lose. That doesn't mean the book isn't good. It simply means it is non-commercial. There is no sense trying to please the small number of people who have read the book in English. (Small by the standards of films, that is)
To the first question, the answer is measurable, and is clearly "no", certainly not in the United States. Who the hell is going to plop down their money to see a film like this? No matter what kind of adaptation you make of Ulysses or The Name of the Rose, unless you throw away the spirit of the source material, you are going to have a difficult time getting people to see it. These are books intended to be read by the elite of the elite, books written by and for lovers of literature as art. That is a miniscule percentage of the population. There is probably no version of the film which could be commercially viable and simultaneously please the literati.
To the second question, there is no clear and obviously quantifiable answer. My opinion is "yes", it is one of my favorite movies. I love the mystery, I love the characterizations by Connery and Slater, I love the Felliniesque pantheon of mediaeval monks. I don't like the cartoon portrayal by F. Murray Abraham and the screenwriter, who conspired to make Gui not a three dimensional representative of a conflicting world-view, but rather a monster cut from the same cloth as the official Vincent Price Conqueror Worm witch-hunter kinda guy. But I lived with that lack of subtlety as a necessary compromise and compression necessary to translate the book into something visceral enough to work on the screen with a wider audience.
To the third question, did they do a good job on the transformation? This one is complex, isn't it, since it hinges on a sub-question. Are you going to try to make a faithful adaptation of the book to create a work of cinematic art? Surely you realize that this project would require a six hour movie, would cost a fortune, and would appeal to a miniscule portion of the potential movie-going audience. Are you going to make a commercially viable movie? In that case, you are going to arouse the ire of the literati who worship this book. I'm going to piss off a lot of you with this series of pronouncements, but here's the reality, as I see it.
Annaud tried to do pretty much what any of us would have done, given a financial expectation from the backers. He made a film which is a kind of a more accessible reduction of the book. What else could he do? Was he supposed to just throw the investor's money away? I think he made a good film which is not a perfect representation of the book, but which makes some thoughtful elements of the book accessible to an audience that would not normally have been able to appreciate it. While the movie bombed at first-run theaters in the USA, it was and has continued to be a solid winner in the rental market, and has thus found a reasonably wide audience.
The only problem that I see is that Annaud did not choose to make either a great work of art or a money-making mass audience film. He tried to compromise, succeeded partially and failed partially at both. But it is still a good film, and I thank Annaud for making such a splendid work. Do you know why? Because I saw the film first, just had to know more, and that prompted me to read the greatest book I have ever read. Damn, if that isn't a reason to thank a filmmaker, what is?
I am thankful to Connery for appearing in the film, thus assuring some business from his legion of fans, and saving it from the complete obscurity it would have achieved without him. And I think William of Baskerville (Hound, James Hound) is probably his most interesting portrayal, although he'll always be the REAL James Bond to me as well.
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