I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
Poornima writes in:My husband recently stumbled across an HBO series called Deadwood in the library. It’s a television series set in the Black Hills (Sioux Country – Dakotas and Wyoming) around 1876 and features a whole assortment of historically famous/notorious characters including Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.I was wondering if you or your readers could direct us to some good historical fiction set in the period that captures the essence of Deadwood and the frontier spirit. It’s quite a fascinating aspect of American history.Your interest in historical fiction in the same line as HBO’s Deadwood brings Larry McMurtry to mind first. I’d be very surprised if David Milch, Deadwood’s creator, hadn’t read McMurtry. McMurtry’s historical fiction about the American West – Lonesome Dove, Anything for Billy, The Streets of Laredo – is wonderful, and besides sharing Deadwood’s historical milieu, it also shares its tone, that wonderful mix of emotional intensity, brutality, tenderness and humor.The book of McMurtry’s that has the most explicit overlap with Deadwood is Buffalo Girls. This novel intertwines the stories of several different figures whose lives coincide with the winding down of the Wild West. Calamity Jane – so wonderfully portrayed by Robin Weigert in Deadwood – is one of these characters. McMurtry’s stuff is historically responsible but it is also, as was Deadwood, clearly enchanted with the old West and interested in its mythic, larger-than-life personalities. Anything For Billy, which takes Billy the Kid as its protagonist, tells his life from the perspective of an Eastern businessman/writer of dime-novels.Willa Cather’s novels too might be of interest. Quite a lot of them are also set at moments of shift from wildness and lawlessness to “civilization” in various parts of North America. Death Comes to the Archbishop, one of my favorites, describes the settling of what is now New Mexico by French Catholic missionaries. Cather also offers fictionalized legends of the American West – Kit Carson figures in Death, for example. I also really like Shadows on the Rock, which is about the settling of Quebec. Cather’s work is a bit more lyrical and literary than McMurtry’s but, depending on your mood, they can be more satisfying for this.I also have two cinematic recommendations: One is an indie Western called The Ballad of Little Jo. It tells the story of a wealthy nineteenth-century society woman who flees the East and her family, disguises herself as a man and lives as a cowboy in the West. That’s if you’re interested in other artistic depictions of women in the West.A final recommendation is HBO’s Rome. I know that historically this is rather far afield but, apparently, David Milch originally imagined what became Deadwood as set in Rome at the time of Caesar. Such a show, however – Rome – was already in production when he pitched his idea and so he shifted the setting to nineteenth century Dakota territory. Though not Deadwood’s equal (I think Deadwood possibly the finest television show ever made), Rome shares something of Deadwood’s interest in lawlessness, or a different version of law – a more Hobbesian vision of human society in which power and aggression and ambition have more of a role to play.Also recommended by The Millions for fans of Deadwood:The Ox Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg ClarkMost of the books by Cormac McCarthyWelcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow (mood: brutal)Charles Portis’ wonderful True Grit (mood: deadpan)Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (mood: dreamlike)Oakley Hall’s Warlock
Last week was a week for festivity and observance. On the second day, I attended a Seder, with 14 pounds of beef brisket. On the fifth day, I saw Noah, with Russell Crowe looking like 14 pounds of brisket in a distressed denim bag. On the sixth day, I wrestled with Robert Alter’s Five Books of Moses and ate mini spanakopitas. On the seventh day, I rested; while others feasted on paschal ham, I watched Black Swan in bed with the curtains drawn. And it was good, all of it.
I have been looking forward to Noah. I love epics, I love Russell Crowe, and I’m willing to admit that my taste in cinema is basically that of an 11-year-old girl (“Harriet thought the movie was a gas. Zeus was very angry all the time and made a lot of temples fall over every time something displeased him”). I also love weird things, and the very fact that Darren Aronofsky was at the helm of a Biblical epic was sufficiently weird to thrill me. David Denby, patriarch of film critics, called Aronofsky’s Black Swan “a luridly beautiful farrago,” and about Noah, forsaking all synonyms, he spake thus: “an epic farrago.” This was reason enough to spend $30 on movie tickets and Sour S’ghetti — in addition to the above, I also happen to love a good farrago.
Epics can be purveyors of wonder and disappointment in proportion with their outlandish budgets, and there’s a mysterious measure — like something Biblical no longer in use — of magic that makes one epic pleasing while it maketh the other to blow. This is why I love Gladiator and find Troy, which I managed to see four times in the movie theater, a sandy, sterile flop. I don’t know what I was expecting of Noah, exactly. It wasn’t the corny gold font of the credits (“Ten Commandments,” my viewing mates called it) or its robin’s egg sky like unto that of a 1970s nature film. I didn’t expect the giant rock angels, like Ents created for The Neverending Story, and I expected even less to be finally moved by them, to feel the agony of trapped light in mangled stone bodies. I didn’t expect Russell Crowe to look so old, nor did I expect to cry at the sight of his leonine grey head lavishing kisses on babies cradled by Hermione Granger. And yet all of these things came to pass.
Like someone examining the carcass on an abandoned holiday table, Darren Aronofsky is good at finding new meat in seemingly sparse and picked-over stories. Because here’s the thing about the Real Story of Noah: it’s short, boring, and incomprehensible. Everyone is hundreds of years old. Enoch begets Mehujael, who begets Mathusael, who begets Lamech, who begets Jabal and Jubal. And yet, at the same time in some parallel but separate family tree, a different Enoch begets Methuselah, who begets Lamech, who begets Noah. Reading even Robert Alter’s wonderful translation, I found these dueling genealogies so maddening that it hardened my heart against Genesis 6:1 to 10:32.
It is ever thus for me and the Testaments, old and new. I come from the Christian tradition, in my pallid, heterodox little way, but for me the drama of the stories, the occasionally overwhelmingly beautiful language and imagery of the sacred texts always comes up against, not only the begats, but what James Wood calls “the stony reticence” of Biblical style, where, for example, “Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information.” I love God’s breath on the surface of the waters, but then there are five different Enochs and so many quotas of bricks, so many bales of straw, and nary a good chunk of fulsome exposition about the things that one feels really matter. I’m a “In the beginning was the Word” type; I need Robert Alter, or James Wood, to glean for me the surprising charms of Old Testament mode. And evidently I needed Darren Aronofsky, because, brought up as I was in the Tomie dePaola, cute-animals-on-boats school of Biblical exegesis, I had never really thought about what Noah was asked to do.
And so what if he was never asked, as in the film, to smite down babies issued from previously barren wombs? Genesis has miracles! Genesis has people making unreasonable sacrifices at God’s behest, or his perceived behest (people still argue about this). Some viewers have been awfully pedantic about the Biblical inaccuracy of Noah, but what’s silly is thinking about Noah all on its own. You need the context of Genesis proper, which, as Alter points out in his invaluable introduction to his translation, “has set the terms, not scientifically but symbolically, for much of the way we have thought about human nature and culture ever since.” The context of “ever since” doesn’t hurt either. For all that you can find Noah‘s outfits or its rock monsters or its Anthony Hopkins ludicrous, there’s really nothing wrong with its message, from my veteran youth grouper perspective — the gnarliness of the Old Testament is blended with the warm fuzzies of the New. God is unreasonable. Man is unreasonable. Bad things are going to happen. Good things, too. Love one another, as he purports to love you. Moreover, the particulars are necessarily informed by the problems of our day, which have to do with our ravaged environment, and which promise to achieve Biblical proportions.
The best stories are ones we’ve heard before, in some form. I also get bogged down around the last third of Swan Lake, another story with somewhat shrouded (if more recent) origins that has received the Aronofsky treatment. I love the music and I love ballet, and yet it’s very long. But where I am lazy, Darren Aronofsky is imaginative; he respects these laconic but meaningful stories enough to think more about them, and he is not deterred by their inconsistencies or their longueurs. At the same time, he is sacrilegious enough to make weird new things out of them, things that work for some and fail for others. Why should Swan Lake carry within itself the possibility of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in flagrante, in a dingy bedroom filled with stuffed animals? And yet, for me, it worked. And for me, his take on Noah as a vegan environmentalist, irksome to the most literal- and bloody-minded Christianists, worked. His goofy effects, irksome to some of the heathen viewers, worked. Me, I would have welcomed more, more disco Instagram colors, more stop-motion nature footage, more animals. I love a good farrago, and Darren Aronofsky never phones his in.
I saw an incredible movie on Friday night, The Triplets of Belleville. It’s a very odd French, animated film. Barely two words are spoken the entire film; instead it is all raucous song and a canvas that is blissfully full of movement and energy. It was a joy to watch. Here’s the trailer.More WoodyAs was discussed in the comments of my recent “bookfinding” post, it turns out that all three of Woody Allen’s humor collections are available in a single volume entitled Complete Prose of Woody Allen. Or they were available, anyway. This one appears to be out of print, although used copies are for sale. Meanwhile, Ms. Millions has been attempting to read Without Feathers and has been unable to get very far because she can’t stop laughing. Every time I look over she’s silently guffawing, too winded to hold the book in front of her face. It reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about the world’s deadliest joke.
For fans of Deadwood, the mere name Ian McShane might be enough to tempt you to watch Kings, NBC’s new midseason drama (Sundays 8pm Eastern). But that’s hardly where the attractions end. The show is visually stylish, reminiscent of the 90s Ethan Hawke Hamlet and of Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus in that it offers a mixed historical and cultural vibe: urban, corporate, downtown Manhattan meets the dark paneling, pageantry, and aristocratic dynastic feuding of Tudor-Stuart England, complete with state-sponsored murder of public figures who won’t toe the company line (and I mean that literally – this new quasi-American aristocracy headed by Ian McShane as King Silas Benjamin is backed secretly by corporate funding from the king’s brother-in-law). If you ever wanted to watch Rome, The O.C., Deadwood, and Wall Street simultaneously – while reading Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, this show’s for you.And the production value is high, especially for network: Fans of (the underappreciated) Constantine and I Am Legend, take note that Frances Lawrence is the director (at least of these early episodes). From the opening shot of the young King David-to-be (though he doesn’t know it yet), backlit and surrounded by bits of shining dandelion down while playing with his dog on the family farm to the pilot’s final shot of this same heir apparent being crowned by Nature herself, you will not find a more beautiful new show on television. It’s too soon to say if this show will be smart. Kings’ melodramatic bent may get the better of it, but I hope that it doesn’t. I think our culture could use a television show that dramatizes the necessary tensions and tragedies of a country perpetually at war, and this show does this – though I think it might do it too beautifully to be quite ethical.The show’s most explicit allusion is to the Old Testament story of David and Goliath – at least that’s the story we have majestically and heavy-handedly invoked in the pilot (available free on Amazon — 4/2 Update: Apparently, the “free” thing was a limited time offer. Now it’ll run you $1.99): only this David is a soldier in the army of a country that seems to be somewhat reminiscent of a U.S. post-9-11, and Goliath is a kind of armored tank used by a northern enemy of this future U.S.-ish country (yes, I know, the idea of Canada at war with the U.S. – slightly implausible; “Canada – the world’s gay friend,” as Jon Stewart once put it). The Australian actor who plays young David, Chris Egan, seems to have been made in a lab from fused bits of DNA taken from Leonardo DiCaprio, Josh Hartnett, and Ryan Phillipe – and he can act, he’s not just easy on the eyes. The abilities of the magisterial Ian McShane (for whom some of the script might have been Deadwood/David Milch-ified to recollect his immortal performance as Al Swearengen) go without saying, as do those of actors like Wes Studi (Magua in Last of the Mohicans) who plays General Linus Abner.It remains to be seen where Kings is going, but I haven’t seen any television show so beautiful and potentially interesting in a long time. I am usually disappointed, but I hope.