Eco on Film
At this time, only one of Eco’s novels has made the transition to film.
Foucault's Pendulum by Kubrick
Eco revealed in 2005 that after the film adaptation of The Name of the Rose, he no longer wished his novels to be made into films. However, he later heard that Stanley Kubrick had expressed interest in filming Foucault's Pendulum shortly before his death, and wished, along with his readers, that Kubrick had tackled the project. Truly a magnificent might-have-been of literary and film history!
The Name of the Rose
1986, 130 minutes
Warner Home Video, 2004; DVD, $19.98. [Browse/Purchase]
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli
Produced by: Cristaldifilm / Les Films Ariane / Neue Constantin Film / Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF)
Sean Connery as William Baskerville
Christian Slater as Adso
F. Murray Abraham as Bernardo Gui
Michel Lonsdale as the Abbot
Feodor Chaliapin Jr. as Jorge of Burgos
To be fair, my first exposure to the work of Umberto Eco was through watching this film a movie with Sean Connery about a group of monks who fear the Antichrist is among them seemed too good to pass up. And, at the time, I thought it was a fairly good movie a clever mystery with a darkly realistic feel to it. The plot was unusual and very engaging, and the dialogue was well-scripted, sprinkled with some good conversations on religion, philosophy, and the nature of heresy. At times the atmosphere seemed to almost emanate a brooding sense of despair and menace, with only William and Adso bringing any sense of reason to the situation; and the whole claustrophobic labyrinth of the monastery was peopled by a very singular cast of characters. The monks were like nothing I had ever seen before; each monk a unique and often terrible creature, many possessed by a deformity of the body that mirrored a corruption of the spirit. No healthy and well-adjusted clerics cheerfully illuminating manuscripts with Brother Cadfael or Friar Tuck; these monks were depicted as almost broken or insane human beings, drawn to the monastic life primarily because the outside world would not accept them. Fugitives and philosphers, hunchbacks and heretics, their world was a self-contained universe boiling with hidden tensions, where heresy, homosexuality, and unquestioning devotion were all unspoken elements, the hidden laws of gravity that kept them in orbit around the oscure sun of their faith.
The only thing that struck me as being off-key was the ending of the movie; its finale seemed to imply a sense of cosmic justice that was absent from most of the beginning of the film. But still, I did enjoy it, and I certainly thought it was good enough to prompt me into purchasing the novel....
Second Thoughts (Spoiler alert!)
Reading the novel after seeing the movie was a literary experience I will never forget: the image of the plot and characters was already in my mind from the film, but reading the novel exploded them outwards into a shimmering landscape of unexpected richness. The book resounded with political discussion, theological debate, and an overwhelming immensity of detail that was largely lacking in the film. In addition, the actual labyrinth and library in the book the heart of the physical puzzle, the central maze, the actual mystery was several levels of complexity beyond anything that the movie had to offer. And reading on to the novels conclusion, I was astonished to find that an entirely different sequence of events occurs at the end, particularly with respect to the Girl and Bernard Gui, the Inquisitor. I realized that the film had drastically altered the story, tying everything up neatly to ensure that justice prevailed and the good guys always won. The only other novel that I felt was so incompletely captured by a movie was Frank Herberts Dune, which I had read many times before the film was released. In both instances, I felt like the movie was a mere snapshot of the novel, a vehicle that only skimmed the shallow surface of a very deep ocean deep in those paper labyrinths were countless beautiful things that were only barely reflected in the celluloid surf. In short, I was very disappointed, and my opinion of the film fell dramatically.
Well, after some time passed, I decided to watch the movie again. Knowing now as I did that the movie version was a pale and flawed adaptation, I tried to keep an open mind, and well . . . in retrospect the movie proved to be less of a disaster than I had thought, and I recaptured some of the wonder that I had obtained from seeing it the first time. Some things still bothered me, however especially at the end; but I feel objective enough to write a few sentences.
The movie has some very evident strengths and weaknesses. The primary weakness is that the screenwriters changed the ending so radically. I can understand the need to condense or omit many of the political and philosophical discussions; but this was a complete inversion of the original intent. It strikes me as a vulgar bowdlerization, a move made less for aesthetic reasons than financial ones. I suppose that the producers felt that the public could not handle the ending as Eco had intended; after all we do live in a day when Dimsdale and Prynne ride off into the sunset and Disneys Little Mermaid might as well walk after them. To quote Casaubon: Intolerable. Personally I have enough faith in the public that if something intelligent is offered to us, there will be enough intelligent people there to appreciate it. Perhaps the film would not have immediately won a broad audience; but in the long-run it would have stood as a serious artistic endeavor.
But putting that aside, I should remark that the movie did have quite a few positives, mostly in the direction, casting, and cinematography. Annaud is a very capable director (Quest for Fire, Seven Years in Tibet) and watching the movie makes it obvious that it was approached as a labor of love he spent three years on the project, and the production values and financial expenditure were quite high for a European film of that time. His choice of locale for the interiors (a 12th century Cistercian monastery in Germany) was excellent, and his vision with respect to recreating the time period through the medium of film almost matches Ecos on the page. The cinematography is likewise top notch, and the whole monastery is realized in shadows and candlelight, giving it somewhat the aspect of a dream, ever threatening to suddenly transform into a nightmare.
The casting was also a clear strength, and Sean Connery did a remarkable job as William of Baskerville. I admit hes not the lanky redhead from the novel, but he still brought a certain sense of presence to the role that I found lingering even when I reread the book. The very young Christian Slater makes a restrained and admirable Adso, and F. Murray Abraham brings a certain quality of archetypical menace to his role as Bernardo Gui, the Inquisitor. And one thing I never doubted was the casting of the monks. As I mentioned above, each one seemed to be like a creature born from the monasterys eternal dream, some as beautiful as angels and others wrapped in a cloak of deformity. Admittedly they were exaggerations from the characters as created by the author, but for the purpose of the movie they blended into the shadows of the monastery, inhabitants of an hallucinatory island at the borders of the Apocalypse. One reviewer remarked that they were like a gallery of gargoyle faces a wonderfully accurate observation.
As should be obvious to any reader with the patience to make it this far, I have mixed feelings about the film. This does not, however, stop me from recommending it if you have not seen it, by all means rent it. In the final analysis, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, if nothing more for the atmosphere it creates. The level of complexity and the purity of the story are, of course, another matter. (Even its creators call the film a palimpsest of Umberto Ecos novel in the credits.) If the novel is one of the inviolable treasures of your library, you may be disappointed; but if you are just looking for an unusual and atmospheric detective story with a hint of the arcane, you will find it most enjoyable.
The Name of the Rose IMDb Entry A complete directory of this film may be found at the Internet Film Database.
The Name of the Rose All-Movie Guide Entry Another complete directory of this film may be found at the All-Movie Guide.
Roger Eberts Review Roger Eberts review; posted on the Chicago Sun-Times Web site.
Washington Post Review #1 A review by Paul Attanasio.
Washinton Post Review #2 A review by Rita Kempley.
The Nostalgia Factory: Movie Poster You can purchase the movie poster on this site. Just use the search engine and type in Name of the Rose.
A Brief Reference to Foucaults Pendulum on TV
OK, I admit that this is being a bit anal retentive, and maybe even pointlessly obscure, but I couldnt resist putting it in. One of the better crafted situation comedies that American television has to offer is Frasier, a program about a neurotic radio psychiatrist and his overly intellectual brother. (Played by Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce, respectively.) Often the humor on the show is relatively high-brow, making allusions to the classical literature and music, and the show has gathered an audience that enjoys its witty and intelligent sense of humor. So heres the Eco reference:
On the pilot episode, and on several other episodes early in the first season, a hardcover copy of Foucaults Pendulum was prominently seen in Frasiers Seattle apartment.
Well, hey what were you expecting? I warned you at the beginning that this was pretty trivial!