From Book to Screen: “The Name of the Rose”
If you’ve never read a novel by Umberto Eco, take it from me: you’re missing out on one of life’s most bizarre but rewarding experiences. And if you haven’t seen the meticulous film adaptation of his best-selling work Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), you’re missing what may be Sean Connery‘s most mature and underappreciated performance.
Before there was Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, there was Eco. An Italian semiotician (someone who studies symbols), Eco carries in his balding, bearded, bespectacled head an encyclopedic knowledge of Kabbalah, metaphysics, the Knights Templar, 19th century occultists – every esoteric spiritualist movement and every weird avenue to enlightenment ever dreamed up in an opium den. Beginning in the 1980s he took “weird fiction” and added footnotes, turning it into a respectable art form. It’s demanding reading; Dan Brown’s savvy twist on Eco’s medieval thriller format was to make it accessible to a broader audience, but this came at the cost of Eco’s incredible specificity. Eco, perhaps uncharitably, dismissed Brown as “one of my creatures.”
Eco’s books feature danger and death and mayhem, but generally they are light on plot and heavy on atmosphere, making them unlikely sources for film adaptations. The defining feature of an Eco novel is the list of arcane trivia. In his debut novel The Name of the Rose, about a series of murders at a 14th-century Italian monastery, Eco describes a grotesque tableau chiseled into the frame of a church doorway. It is a long passage in which Eco rattles off the names of beasts of yore, few of them familiar today, but many of them half-familiar, like echoes from our collective human memory. The effect of Eco’s writing is like a welling up of deeply buried memories and things that we never knew in this life but feel instinctively that we should know, because our remote ancestors knew them and feared them. Whole chapters in Eco’s grander and more experimental second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, essentially consist of bullet-point lists of secret societies and their famous initiates.
Many books have been called “unfilmable” only to be translated into highly successful movies (see The Lord of the Rings), but rarely does the word seem more apt than in the case of Eco’s cerebral oddities. Yet in 1986, just six years after The Name of the Rose hit bookshelves, the movie version hit theaters, and in a big way. Jean-Jacques Annaud directed bonafide international superstar Sean Connery, Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham, and well-known French actor Michael Lonsdale. A young Christian Slater also headlined, and seared himself into audience’s minds by going full frontal for a fleeting second. The film did well in Europe, grossing over $77 million on an $18.5 million budget, but critical reaction was mixed (Ebert said it was “all inspiration and no discipline.”)
But what an inspiration it took to bring this challenging story to the screen. Annaud does it by fixating on the central conflict in Eco’s work: fear of the power of knowledge versus the insatiable desire to know. A curious and scientifically-minded Franciscan friar, played in the film by Sean Connery, represents the latter impulse. Monks of the more ostentatious but theologically-conservative Benedictine order represent the former. A mountain monastery, a clue-dropping serial killer, an ancient library, and a clerical summit frame their dialogues, which concern matters as heady as theology and epistemology and as gritty as forensics and medieval politics.
A bit of text that appears on screen as the film begins announces it as a palimpsest, not an adaptation. A palimpsest is a document whose original text has been written over with a new one. This is a wise apology because it lowers expectations for fans of the novel and prepares them for deviations from the original. The film introduces a number of new elements. The book has plenty of villains — the forces of orthodoxy and, of course, the killer — but the movie sees fit to create a more obvious one: an Inquisitioner who is too simply characterized by an almost mustache-twirling F. Murray Abraham. The movie also adds a triple execution, by burning at the stake, to the climax, and this draws away some of the energy of the original and more thematically-appropriate culmination in the library over a stack of books.
But the big surprise of the film is how faithful it stays to the book. The mystery and contemplation of the original are intact at a level of detail well beyond what could reasonably be expected of a screenplay gloss. The characters’ philosophical discourse is intelligible but not dumbed-down. The isolated surroundings and unique geometric architecture of the monastery, crucial to Eco’s plot, are crafted in accordance with the book’s exacting descriptions. Even the rich bestiary carved into the church doorway appears in life size and with a creative twist (it moves). The movie’s departures only really affect the last act, and by that time purists should have been won over and inclined to forgive some dramatic license.
Annaud’s color palette is cold and gray, well chosen for “the dark north of Italy” where the novel is set. His actors are largely European, and look it, with makeup and hair that transforms them into subjects worthy of medieval illustrations. Christian Slater, though an American, is no less a fit as a “beautiful” young apprentice than Michael Londsdale, Michael Habeck, and Volker Prechtel are as sallow, careworn men of God.
For Connery, the quality of the performance and the material make The Name of the Rose a contender for his best credit. It compares favorably with his equally literary vehicle The Man Who Would Be King (1975). His character has a timeless appeal, combining Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction with the gadgetry and classical education of a Renaissance man. The Sherlock inspiration is also evident in the character’s name: William of Baskerville. William’s weakness is that he is given to a certain kind of likable arrogance, or at least excessive confidence, and this is a trait Connery is very well-suited to convey. And since William is from the British Isles, Connery’s accent is a boon, not a distraction.
The film is beautiful, thoughtful, intelligently acted, and exciting. It is a superb adaptation of a difficult novel, and equally rewarding in its way. That the book is better than the movie, though, is no surprise. There is simply no room in the film for the fascinating and often gory backstories of the supporting cast, or for a close examination of the prophecies and Biblical passages that the murder references in the way he kills his victims. These are the clues that drive the mystery in the novel, but the movie would have required another hour on top of its 126-minute runtime to do them justice. It would have been worth it, but at least the omissions provide a great reason for admirers of the film to pick up Eco’s groundbreaking book.
The Name of the Rose vs. The Da Vinci Code
I gotta level with you; I haven’t seen The Da Vinci Code (2006). But it’s the most obvious point of comparison. The original authors are similar in their interests, and the subject matter is similar even though the movies are set centuries apart from one another. I’m guessing these stack up pretty evenly, but tell me if I’m wrong.
The Name of the Rose vs. Clue
Speaking of really difficult adaptations, Clue (1985) had to adapt a board game for goodness’s sake. Obviously, it’s a comedy, while The Name of the Rose is a historical thriller. Clue had to do a lot of expanding while Rose had to do a lot of condensing. Rose is the clear winner, and by far the more ambitious of the two, but something about this matchup just feels appropriate. Maybe it’s that they both have top-shelf casts.
The Name of the Rose vs. The Man Who Would Be King
Another great, underappreciated Connery role, and another adaptation of a thoughtful work of literature. Rudyard Kipling’s story of two madmen who trek into the Asian hinterland looking for gold and glory is strikingly similar to B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and John Huston‘s eternally-relevant adaptation of the latter. It is no coincidence that Huston also directed 1975‘s The Man Who Would Be King. I think King beats Rose comfortably. Huston’s directing is hard to top, and the script doesn’t strain for a big ending.
The Name of the Rose vs. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Did I mention that Christian Slater gets fully nude in The Name of the Rose? He doesn’t do that in 1991‘s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but he does playing a young follower of an older master in a medieval setting. He also drops an F-bomb. A regular boundary-pusher, that Slater! I’m partial to Robin Hood movies of all kinds, and I tend to think Prince of Thieves is fun enough to tolerate its flaws, but The Name of the Roses is the runaway champion of this matchup.