August 1, 2010

Quo Vadis

1948 screenplay
written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, John Lee Mahin
based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1895 novel)
(my review of the 1951 film)

QUO VADIS is a rare book that I consider to be perfect. It creates a rich, complex world filled with rich, complex characters, tells a sweeping, challenging, genuinely moving story, and makes every little detail in the intricate web essential without anything feeling forced or artificial. A perfect book. Now comes the challenge of adapting it to film.

There's obvious places to start in the conversion process. You've got your two huge setpieces in the burning of Rome and the punishment of the innocently charged Christians in the Arena. You've got a snarling, prancing, smirking villain in Nero. You've got a starcrossed romance between Roman centurion Marcus Vinicius and captured foreign princess Lygia. All big, epic, crowd-pleasing stuff. But this script didn't stop with them. Petronius, the uncle of Marcus and right hand to Nero who wages a cold war against his rival advisers as schemes build in troubling directions. Ursus, the massive warrior who dedicates himself to the life and teachings of Lygia. Eunice, the infatuated servant and lover of Petronius. Pompaea, the wife of Nero who's not only jealous of his extramarital conquests, but the loves of others she desires. Acte, the first love of Nero when he was young and good, who was pushed away as youth left both behind. The Apostles Peter and Paul, struggling to hold together a flock as it's being eradicated before their eyes, and conflicted on whether or not to leave and start anew. Rome itself which casts an uneasy eye on decadence that it nonetheless has grown comfortable with.

All of these elements are there, and more. And, surprise surprise, it hasn't been dumbed down. These three writers (I'm not sure who specifically did what) somehow managed to compress a 500+ page novel into a 152 page screenplay without losing much of that intricate web.

Take, for instance, the character of Marcus. The initial draw between him and Lygia isn't so much love at first sight as it is lust. He sees her bathing at a spring and goes total horndog, and the only thing keeping him from forcing himself on the woman that night is the looming Ursus at her door. He continues with the playboy routine as he tries to take her again at a party, then goes so far as to concoct an arrangement where Nero will personally have the foreign hostage swapped from her current household to Marcus's. This is not an innocent man and his intentions are not pure. He wants to rape the woman and make her his pretty love puppy. And when her Christian brethren help her to escape before the transfer is made, he tracks her down and even brings along a full-on gladiator to challenge Ursus.

This was a ballsy way to set up a romantic lead in the book, and I'm stunned it made it to the page in a Hollywood adaptation. Now, as with the book, Marcus does eventually experience a conflict of conscience when things go wrong and he finds himself at Lygia's mercy, but it's still very uncommon to have a lead protagonist play out so villainous for the first third or so of the script. And I love it. I absolutely love it.

The romance is a bit typical, but there's nothing wrong with that as it's nicely executed. Marcus comes to know Lygia and genuinely falls for her as a person. For her part, some of the snips have resulted in her hesitancy having more to do with him not being a Christian than her shame at her own initial lust, but it still largely works, and she comes off very intelligent and graceful.

But all this isn't to say the script is totally without alterations, some of which make a lot of sense. The most notable is the cutting of Chilo, an aged swindler who helps Marcus infiltrate the underground Christian sect while the man is still searching for Lygia. That's the extent of his involvement here, but he was a huge character in the book, constantly reappearing and driving new twists in the stories as he couldn't resist any type of involvement that promised profit, even as he started to question the brutal consequences of his actions. He was a magnificent, absolutely unforgettable character, and it hurts to see him reduced to little more than a cameo, but I understand the decision. He doesn't drive the story. It's as easy as that.

There are, however, a few choices I do take issue with. The first is the portrayal of Nero. In the book, he's a pompous yet ineffectual leader who never intended to burn down Rome, but made a lot of bad choices in the event's wake which led him to depths of paranoia and aggression. In other words, he becomes mad, but doesn't start there. The Nero we have here is a totally wicked loon who does want to burn the city so he can replace it with a new capital dedicated in his name. While he's still a very well written madman, a lot of the ambiguity of the character is lost. The Nero of the book made bad choices, but you could understand why he was making them. The Nero of the script is glee and anarchy and ego. It's an impressive villain, but a lesser one.

Another is the glorification of the Christians. Here, we have the typical speeches about how the holy and peaceful and benevolent Church will triumph, but it's lacking the balanced arguments of the pragmatic and fair Petronius, who spent an entire chapter in the book discussing things with the Apostle Peter before casually dismissing the teachings as "Not for me." Now, granted, the holy flights of fancy still don't hit too high, but there is a notable shift there as faith declared from states of emotional extremes are no longer countered by calm rationalization. And they also cut the character of Crispus, a fire & brimstone preacher who's damning sermons acknowledged the darker places future incarnations of the Church will go. I don't say I want him back in the picture because my personal atheism desires a smear campaign, but because I miss the moments where the Apostles Peter and Paul took him on. It's a very honest look at how even tight religious communities can find fractures and how even the worshiped original founders can't fully control what their teachings will become in someone else's hands when they're no longer around.

Granted, a lot of these issues can be attributed to the abridgment of the material for screen, but it doesn't make me miss them less. I think this is a case where I'll just let them slide and appreciate the impressive amount of what they got right. And, man, they got a lot right. There's even great little flourishes they added, like a scene where Nero first appears for a speech and we cut around the crowd as people slip sharp insults about the emperor to one another between shouts of "Hail!", or the masterfully staged atrocities in the Arena which are vividly set up, then cut away at the moment of violence, making it all the more striking.

It really is a fantastic script, and, while I have a few nitpicks here and there, it's most certainly worthy of the book. The world is captured, the characters brought to life, the pace driven smooth and steady, the opening and ending coming right as they're needed. Great stuff.



Anthony Williams said...

The change in Nero doesn't surprise me. Film being what it is, and having it's limitations, tend to rely more heavily on broad archetypes. If you're going to make any sacrifices with character development, that's probably where'd you'd start.

NoelCT said...

Agreed. At least it's still well written.