On Sunday night I got around to watching the movie version of The Name of the Rose, with Sean Connery as William of Baskerville. The movie was made in 1984, in the wake of the novel’s success. I loved the book, so I was curious to see the story told on screen.
Of course, though, the movie didn’t live up to expectations. I’m not sure if that’s because the movie was generally bad, or if it simply hasn’t weathered time as well as the novel. To my mind, the movie was dated — it seemed very much a product of the 1980s, for some reasons I am able to enumerate, and others that are little more than fleeting notions.
My number one overall rub with the movie was it’s grittiness, an essence of dirt that I didn’t really sense in the book. The Middle Ages were medieval for a reason, I suppose, but there was something about how horrible and not-fun the scenery, the setting, and the mood of the movie was that really didn’t jive with my impression.
I attribute this to the semi-dated idea that films of historical fiction, particularly ones that attempted to hew closer to the history than the fiction, sought above all truthfulness. If we were to be transported back in time to 1327, we would find it horrible and dirty; ergo, a movie about 1327 should first capture that sense of horribleness and dirtiness.
Movies were not always made that way. The Return of Martin Guerre, a French film made in 1982 (and starring Gerard Depardieu) was the first of this true-life historical genre. The filmmakers strove for historical accuracy, going so far as to hire historical consultants (in this case the author of the book by the same name) to ensure everything from the clothing to the food in the film was appropriate to the time period (16th century).
Now we consider it normal for period films to have historical consultants on staff, but it was quite revolutionary in the early 1980s. That’s a good thing, but it’s my opinion that the Martin Guerre-Name of the Rose era went a little overboard in the realist department. I would have preferred a little less dreariness from The Name of the Rose; perhaps more greenery and a hint of an aura of otherworldliness. And maybe a little less ’80s era music, which made the movie seem mildly like Sixteen Candles at times.
The other thing that bugged me about The Name of the Rose was what I perceived to be unnecessary and offensive caricature. I guess they were trying to imbue the movie with a certain nefariousness, so each of the so-called evil characters looked like a villian. Wild hair and wild eyes, sneaky looks, etc. I didn’t really see the point in that generally, but I could have excused it if there hadn’t been what was unquestionably a dated and stereotypical depiction of a gay character.
Not to give too much away if you are unfamiliar with the story, but there is one monk, the assistant librarian at the abbey, who is known to be homosexual. My imagination didn’t really conjure up much as I read, expect that he was probably well-read and seemed intelligent, perhaps good looking (which I guess is stereotyping on my part, but I digress). The movie made this poor guy into the most horrible gay caricature, with pseudo-feminine featurs including long fingernails, a high-voice, tremors, a face that looked made up. To add insult to injury he was fat and nasty — ugh, he just looked like the perfect antiquated image of that terrifying gay beast who would jump out of the shadows and have sex with your children. It really disgusted me.
I suppose I should forgive the transgression, because art is a product of it’s time, blah blah blah, but I find it difficult to do so. Especially since so much of the movie was irritating anyway.
And what about Christian Slater, who played the teenager narrator? Let’s just say it’s no surprise to me that his career bottomed out as he got older. The movie highlighted his ability to looked surprised and confused, and proved that he really didn’t have much else to offer.