Thursday, March 05, 2009

See The Film - Read The Codex?

I know many people come to this subject area for the first time after exposure to it via some popular work which references an old manuscript as authority for its plot hook. The Da Vinci Code is an obvious (if dubious) example of this, hence my use of it in the blog sub-title. (launched the blog deliberately the week The Da Vinci Code film came out in cinemas.) So I thought it would be appropriate to consider what’s in the pipeline in terms of screen adaptations derived ultimately from pre-Gutenberg manuscripts. I’m including works without regard for their original bindery format, i.e. even if they were originally rolled-up scrolls rather than bound like a book - many Greco-Roman manuscripts only survive due to disintegrating original scrolls being copied out by mediaeval scribes into bound codex volumes. I'll also incorporate a link to any original codex version if one is readily available online.
I suppose we have to start with a Da Vinci Code update, and ask the question whatever happened to Dan Brown? Five years after he wrote The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s publishers are still waiting for his planned followup novel. Reportedly it is called The Solomon Key and concerns how the USA was really founded by Freemasons along lines that suited their secret plans for state control, having planted various clues in public art and architecture for reasons best known to themselves. However as the story doesn’t seem to involve ancient manuscripts much (Masonic founding legends of Hiram etc seem to be unsourced historiography), we can move on to more interesting developments.
There are still more popular works appearing about the Knights Templar. One that is imminent is the US TV miniseries version of Raymond Khoury’s novel The Last Templar, another contemporary-set thriller-with-flashbacks-to-Biblical/mediaeval times. Its plot hook is an ancient ‘insider’ journal (I will say no more) which resurfaces after two thousand years in readable condition, threatening to undermine Christian orthodox history by its revelations. (Amazingly durable material, that ancient papyrus, apparently!) The idea that any such works to do with the Templars and the holy-blood mythos are based on any such definitive ancient source is dubious at best. I’ve already written various items on the Templars, including a blog post elsewhere on new film-TV versions for their official “400th” last year, so don’t propose to go into this further here.
Several projects have been announced which sound of interest, but turn out to be more in the Hollywood action genre. Another version of the story of the former Roman gladiator Spartacus is being remade as a TV series for US pay-for-cable. (There was a 1960 epic feature version starring Kirk Douglas and a 2004 US TV miniseries, both from a 1951 novel by Howard Fast.) The new version is to be ‘a totally R-rated, hard, hard show... [with] decapitations, people being split in half,’ and will film entirely in a studio using the ‘green screen’ technique of backgrounds added in via CGI. This is the same approach to filming used in Beowulf and 300, the 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel on the Spartans’ heroic stand at Thermopylae.
Also in this category, I suspect, will be Bran Mak Morn. This is being made by a major British production company for 2010 from the stories by ‘Conan’ creator Robert E Howard about the supposed last warrior-king of the Picts. Howard’s Conan and Bran Mak Morn stories were built on his interest in his Celtic heritage, inspired by his reading a library book on the Picts. Sadly, the film won’t however be based on any ancient source – we don’t have one for the Picts beyond a basic king-list chronicle prefaced by a short account of their dynastic origins, plus a few Roman historians’ passing references.
Ditto for a long-awaited film about the famed ‘Lost Ninth Legion,’ which was supposedly annihilated by northern barbarians. (This is the 3rd such project announced, two earlier attempts to turn it into a gory action adventure epic having failed to get funding.) This one is from one of Britain’s most talented directors, Kevin Macdonald, but is being publicised as ‘a swords-and-sandals western,’ in which ‘the Romans speak with American accents.’ Again, there is no ancient source - in fact nothing is known beyond the fact the Ninth disappears from official records, and historians suggest it was more likely just redeployed overseas. Instead, it’s being adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 juvenile novel The Eagle Of The Ninth.
NBC is also planning a ‘green screen’ remake of Jason And The Argonauts, though how much of the original 3rd-C BCE Argonautica (by Apollonius of Rhodes, and perhaps others) will survive is unclear. If it’s for US TV, I suspect it will be a youth-oriented version like the last such (in 2000).
The Mel Gibson-produced project about Queen Boudicca as ‘a simple peasant girl’ may also fit the recent trend of prequel story setups to capture the youth market. It was seen last year in BBC One’s Merlin (teenage apprentice-wizard Merlin meets teenage trainee-knight Arthur and teenage scullery-maid Guinevere). The Mel Gibson project may have been delayed by ITV’s Boudica, starring ER's Alex Kingston and adapted by the top man for period adaptations, Andrew Davies (BBC’s Pride & Prejudice etc), which was condemned for its boorish and simplistic mud-n-blood depiction. (Historian and TV presenter Michael Wood: "off-the-wall period hokum ….the absurdity of script and direction only made bad history … The first few minutes said it all. Long-haired ancient Britons roaring like England football fans, knocking back beer, muddy faces daubed in woad, loose sexual morals ... you know the sort of thing. Not the remotest inkling of what an Iron Age society might really have been like.") Known in Hollywood as Braveheart-with-a-bra, the Gibson version seems to be finally set to film, with Gavin O'Connor directing, under the working title Warrior [ an earlier TV version was titled Warrior Queen] for 2010 release. It is however likely to be a gory Jacobean (perhaps we should now say Gibsonean) revenge melodrama, complete with scenes of savage flogging and rape, culminating in an orgy of mass violence and sexual mutilation of women who 'collaborated' with the Romans.
In a category by itself is Feelgood Fiction’s Four Knights, a kind of sequel-spinoff to Becket. I'll quote from its official synopsis, lest you think I’m caricaturing: ‘Western-style version of the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The assassins are a bawdy gang of adventurers constantly on the run from the authorities.’ You can sense the major Hollywood money and thinking behind this – a bit like ‘Young Guns’ except they use broadswords to kill authority figures who are ‘asking for it.’ (Director Paul McGuigan: ‘Being from Scotland, I don’t have this reverence for the history. I see it as a modern film. It’s a kind of road movie, because they are always fleeing and they are on the road all the time. It’s a medieval Wild Bunch, full of big characters and great action.’) In fact it seems to be partly based on a 1999 black-comedy stage play, Four Nights In Knaresborough, about the foursome holed up at an inn and depressed about having made a rather bad career move – i.e. murdering the head of the church in his cathedral during Xmas services. (If you want to read the original 12C eyewitness account of Becket being hacked to bits, it’s here .)
…. In the more-interesting-sounding projects category, two versions of King Lear have been announced. Sadly this competition has since scuppered the version that was to star Anthony Hopkins. The 2nd one is to star Al Pacino and be directed by Michael Radford. Lear of course is not just a Shakespeare play – like all his works, it’s based on earlier tales, in this case, one recounted in Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s 12C History Of The Kings Of Britain as an existing Celtic legend taken from an ancient ‘British’ (possibly meaning Breton-dialect) book. Shakespeare of course ‘took liberties’ with his direct source (usually Holinshed’s Chronicles), so you need to go back to studies of Geoffrey Of Monmouth, and how he adapted earlier versions for 12th-C nationalist propaganda purposes.
A feature version may be in the works to wrap up the unresolved plot strands of the award-winning HBO/BBC TV series Rome, which dramatised the dirty-politics underside of Rome’s transitional period from republic to virtual monarchy amidst civil war. The TV series ended abruptly story-wise when the 3rd series was cancelled in mid-term. The original kernel of it was a reference in Caesar’s Gallic Wars memoir to two ‘ordinary’ soldiers who recover the Legion’s captured brass eagle. The original plan was for 5 seasons, the last focussing on how the Roman authorities dealt with the troublesome rise of a certain ‘messiah’ in Palestine, but cancellation led to this subplot being abandoned and other plotlines combined into highlights. The primary source seems to have been Suetonius’s gossipy Lives Of The Caesars (download details below).
Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar and Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus in HBO/BBC's RomeAs the series ended with young Octavius defeating Anthony and Cleopatra and becoming Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, the feature will presumably overlap the timeframe of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, which is also being remade by writer-director Jim (My Left Foot) Sheridan. Hollywood has wanted ever since the 1976 BBC hit series to do its own feature version; last year a version to star Leonardo DiCaprio fell through after the backers fell out. Graves’s 1934 novel developed the idea, not found in the main source material, that stammering C-C-Claudius (r 41-54 AD) was a pose cultivated to protect an intelligent man from assassination, while he wrote a secret history of his time.
The real, 8-part history Claudius wrote is sadly lost, which would have given us a firsthand account of the Romans in Britain in AD43, for Claudius himself joined in the campaign. There is a chapter on Britain in the sequel, Claudius The God, but this is largely Graves’s own speculations along the lines of his The White Goddess. In the BBC version all we get is a few lines delivered in Rome by the captive British resistance leader Caractacus, and even these are not the ones originally reported. The new film may however include the invasion for a bit of spectacle. Graves elaborated his novels largely from Suetonius’s c121 AD Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, which Graves had translated himself, cross-referencing it with other information from the era. It is available in Penguin Classics paperback as well as downloadable from here and here .
Sony-Columbia Studios have commissioned a script from The Anabasis of Xenophon. (Anabasis means a journey up-country.) A manuscript dating back to 400 BC, Xenophon’s is the first detailed, eyewitness military-campaign account we have from history. It recounts another episode in the Greek-Persian wars, an epic march homeward across Persia by 10,000 Greek (including Spartan) and allied mercenary soldiers after they are betrayed and left leaderless on campaign. (Xenophon, an expert on horses, was a member of the ad hoc officers council who helped organise the retreat.) No doubt the studio can use CGI to paint in most of the huge armies involved, but the story itself remains a challenge, contradicting any traditional simplistic view one might have about what happens in a wartime survival situation.
The basic story has been the classic template for many an action film, where an elite group of pros head into enemy territory on a covert mission to burn out a remote base, etc. Having stirred up a hornet’s nest, they barely make it home after high-level betrayal and other setbacks, with superior enemy forces hot on their heels and difficult survival decisions all the way. But the original Long March homeward of The Ten Thousand is on a larger scale than seen thus far on screen. (Xenophon’s Anabasis , since the 19C a set text for pupils of advanced Greek, is available in English as a Penguin Classics paperback under the title The Persian Expedition, as well as a downloadable text, here). The project may have been prompted by two recent (2005) historical-cultural studies: Tim Rood’s The Sea! The Sea! The Shout Of The Ten Thousand In The Modern Imagination and The Long March: Xenophon And The Ten Thousand edited by Robin Lane Fox (a consultant to Oliver Stone on his ill-fated 2004 Alexander). The people behind it are not only successful Hollywood producers but keen historians who have co-authored historical books and documentaries, one having been co-producer on HBO’s Rome. So hopefully it won’t just be an animated graphic-novel gorefest like 300.
Speaking of which, Universal Studios is developing another script about the 300 Spartans i.e. their inspirational 480 BC heroic holding-the-pass last stand against 100,000 Persian invaders. (‘Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.’) It’s called Gates Of Fire, a souped-up version of the meaning of the place name, Thermopylae, the Hot Gates, and is based on a 1998 novel by historical-action author Steven Pressfield. The original manuscript source, from c.440 BC, is the ‘father of history’ himself, Herodotus, who became known to a wider public through references to him in The English Patient. (The scale of the war Herodotus describes remains so great historians have trouble accepting it as accurate.) Herodotus’s Histories is available in Penguin Classics paperback as well as downloadable text (Links on Wikipedia page here.)
Closer to home, the development that most interested me when I heard of it, is a set of 3, possibly 4, rival films about the Norman Conquest of 1066, which will be the first feature films ever made on the Battle Of Hastings. One is from British company Qwerty Films with no title set so far, and the focus here is on the earlier friendship and love lives of William (happily married) and Harold (‘a dashing figure who had numerous girlfriends’).
A 2nd is being produced by a Hollywood “indie” company called Killer Films, a $39.25 million (£25 million) epic titled William The Conqueror which will focus on the rise of Harold’s Norman nemesis, with Daniel Craig’s name being mooted as star.
A 3rd is a $75 million (£50 million) production titled simply 1066, co-written by director Robin Jacob and historical novelist (Harold The King) Helen Hollick. This is being shot in 70mm in Wales with former Oliver child star Mark Lester as King Harold, and focuses (with a 3 hr 45 min length) on the 50-year rise and fall of the Godwin dynasty.
Bayeux Tapestry - comic book history?The IMDB also lists another 1066 being made for Channel 4 by Justin Hardy, with a cast list that doesn’t include Harold or William. This would normally suggest a children’s drama serial (where the children are eyewitnesses to some great event), but the writer’s and director’s CVs suggest it may be instead a black-comedy worms’-eye view of history.
There is yet another film work-titled 1066, this one from Kudos Pictures [USA], aiming at a 2011 release. (This may be the same production earlier credited to Shine, which makes BBC’s formulaic youth dramas Spooks and Merlin.) Early announcements indicated this was to be another former-buddies-fall-in-love-and-then-fall-out-over political differences story. (Shades of the 1960s play and Richard Burton/Peter O’Toole film Becket, which also turned the ultra-wealthy Norman churchman into a Saxon underdog.) However this version is being scripted by William Nicholson, whose sensitive work adapting Shadowlands (on CS Lewis and Joy Gresham) got him the job of developing Gladiator into something more than warmed-over chunks of Ben Hur, Spartacus and The Fall Of The Roman Empire. He did this by giving the hero a longing for death, and I’ve been hoping that this version will present the hitherto-obscure sad tale I would personally like to see.
The most famous account of 1066 is of course that prototype of all comic books and graphic novels, the Bayeux Tapestry. But there are also near-contemporary manuscript accounts which are regarded as more definitive than the public propaganda art of the tapestry. The Tapestry’s best-known detail, the arrow-in-the-eye, is in fact contradicted by these codex accounts. (The fatal arrow is not in the earliest illustrated manuscript copies, and seems to have been added later, during some re-stitching.)
Two years ago, I put together a blog post (since linked to by a TV channel) concerning another mediaeval manuscript account of Harold’s death – not in 1066, but years later. The 13th-C Vita Haroldi (Life Of Harold) tells of his surviving the Battle Of Hastings, left so facially disfigured and traumatised that he spends the rest of his days as an anonymous pilgrim. This is not the usual folktale survival-scenario where the hero (Arthur or whoever) goes off to well-deserved rest in a cave, awaiting the clarion call to return in his country’s hour of need. It is a very sad and all too human story, without any of the usual miraculous or ‘inspirational’ aspects we get from these legends.
The original 1066 production poster had an intriguing tagline that seemed to hint it was partly based on the controversial 13th-C. Vita Haroldi wherein Harold survived Hastings with terrible facial wounds, being tended by a “Saracen woman” for two years before becoming a masked hermit. The film’s original poster tagline read “I am Harold Godwinson, the last king of England.” This is slightly odd semantically, and I wondered if it came from the payoff line in the Vita Haroldi, where the masked hermit makes a deathbed confession to a priest using similar words. That the cast list also shows a “Saracen Woman” and the film’s press-release final comment is “There is more to the story than told in school history books” seemed to support this. However, on the film’s website poster image, the line has now been changed to “I am Harold Godwinson, chosen king of England.”
Personally, I fear Harold will now get an arrow in his eye three times over (what sleazier Hollywood producers call ‘the money shot’), in a big CGI-boosted Lord of The Rings style battle with a gory and eye-smarting finale. If anyone wants to read the alternative version - a summary of the original early-mediaeval account suggesting Harold survived, disfigured, as a wandering pilgrim - my earlier blog post is here: The Man In The Cloth Mask .