Last night the Duchess and I curled up on the sofa with a big bowl of Eton mess to watch The Eagle, the 2011 movie version of Roseary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.
Now, to put my reaction in context, The Eagle of the Ninth was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a young Dux. I was completely transported back to the world of the Roman Empire by the book, and by the old TV series that annoyingly has never been released on DVD. It is no exaggeration to say that it, and other books by Rosemary Sutcliff such as Frontier Wolf probably shaped my love of history, and thus the whole direction of my personal and professional life. It is a great regret of mine that I never wrote to Sutcliff before her death to tell her how much her books meant to me.
So, obviously any film was going to have to work hard to meet such powerful childhood associations. Nevertheless, I'd like to think that the Dux is a magnanimous viewer, happy to take a film on its own merits. For example, I largely liked the movie Centurion, which owed an obvious debt to Sutcliff's novels. And there were certainly things to like in The Eagle. The first half hour certainly evoked something of the isolation of a Roman frontier fort and the professionalism of the Roman army. Much of the photography was beautiful.
But here's the thing. I understand that anyone writing a screenplay needs to simplify novels to make them work as a film. Heck - Peter Jackson's The Two Towers arguably improved aspects of Tolkein's story. What I fail to understand is why anyone would wantonly stuff around with aspects of a story for no apparent reason other than to make the story more stupid and illogical. For example, in Sutcliff's novel, Marcus Aquila heads off North of Hadrian's Wall to find the eagle of his father's legion disguised as a travelling Greek eye doctor. This makes sense - it explains his foreigness in the eyes of the Picts he and his slave Esca meet, it allows him to travel widely and makes him valuable to the peoples he meets. This would hardly have been difficult to include in the film, but instead we just have Esca insisting on doing all the talking, while Marcus sits on his horse in the background looking Roman. As the Duchess asked, what on earth was Esca saying in all these encounters with random Picts? Presumably something like 'oi mate, we're looking for a Roman legion that disappeared here about 20 years ago. Have you seen it at all? No? Ok, thanks anyway. Romans? Us? No, no.' Ultimately of course we find out that Esca knew all about the site of the last stand of the Ninth Legion because his people, the Brigantes, implausibly travelled the length of Britain to take part in it. In fairness, I will point out that the overgrown battlefield they find with fragments of skeletons looked fantastic.
But enough of being fair. When they finally met the Seal People who buggered off with the Legion's Eagle, I nearly choked on my Eton Mess. What were the costume people thinking? Actually, the probably drunken meeting where they decided what they should look like is all too easy to reconstruct. 'In the book they're called the Seal People, yeah? Seals are, what, grey and that? So how about they have grey skin, you know, like seals? And because they are supposed to be dead hard, lets make them look like punks with mohawks. Actually, I saw Last of the Mohicans last week. How about we make them look like the Hurons or whatever from that, but grey, and wearing skulls on top of their heads. And camouflage jackets. Yeah, why not? Another pint? Go on then, I've only had eight.'
As bizarre as this was, the butchery the screenwriter made of the climax to the film eclipsed even whatever the Seal People did to the Ninth Legion. As Esca and Marcus escape with the Eagle, Marcus is finally unable to go on. Not to worry, Esca heads off and returns with a bunch of beardy old Roman survivors from the Ninth Legion, who fortunately have all kept their Roman shields and armour, so they can all give up their lives at last defending the Legion's Eagle and regain their lost honour. In the book, the chase reaches an altogether more satisfying and plausible climax as Marcus and Esca defend an abandoned watchtower. In the final, rushed, scene of the film, the two men, now friends, present the procurator of Britain with the Eagle, and he effectively promises Marcus that the legion will be reformed and he'll be given command of it! The conclusion to the book, which I won't give away, is infinitely superior.
Anyway, end of rant. I think I will read the book again as a form of ritual cleansing. As though having George Lucas to contend with wasn't enough.