I finished reading The Name of the Rose a few weeks ago and decided I absolutely had to watch the 1986 film adaptation, mostly because it starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater as detective monks, and who wouldn’t want to watch that?
I’ll admit, I was kind of hoping it would be gloriously cheesy. Instead, it was just sort of . . . okay.
William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and novice monk Adso (Christian Slater) travel to an isolated abbey for a debate on the poverty of Christ. Unfortunately, someone — or something — is killing off monks left and right.
1. First, it should be said that the hair displayed in this movie is some of the worst hair I’ve ever seen. And while that’s probably to be expected in a film about monks in the Middle Ages, there is simply never an excuse for this:
Come on, man. Pull yourself together. Even Jesus owned a comb, right? (I mean, probably. Unless the Franciscans were right, of course.)
2. So here’s the thing: there’s no way I’m looking at this movie anywhere near objectively. I’m judging it as an adaptation, not as its own creative work. Which I’m cool with because judging it as an adaptation . . . kind of why I wanted to see it in the first place. But let’s just be clear on what kind of review you’re reading here because I’ll probably be comparing it to the book a lot.
Now, this novel — it’s not an easy thing to adapt. There is a veritable shitload of religious history stuffed inside this book, like, chapters and chapters and chapters of it. There’s no way it would ever have all fit inside a two hour movie. (Or a two hour and ten minute movie, as the case may be.) In fact, slimming some of that shit down is a bit of a relief, and I like religious history. I minored in Philosophy & Religion, for god’s sake, and I still was happy to see we spent a little less time discussing the differences between the Dolcinites and the Minorites. I was especially pleased to see a NINE PAGE SERMON on the coming apocalypse shortened into a sixty second monologue. That was helpful for my sanity.
But I do feel like we lost a few important things along the way. Like this thing about the poverty of Christ is a Big Deal, and sure, many of the visiting Franciscan monks look appropriately flustered about it, but I don’t feel like the movie ever manages to convey why it’s such a Big Deal. I wanted to really understand the consequences of what might happen if the talks fell through, and I didn’t get that at all from the film.
And what’s weird about this story, too, is that the book was written in the 1980’s, takes place in the 1300’s, and still feels weirdly relevant today. At least that’s the impression I had from reading it — I kept thinking about some of the things Pope Francis has said about capitalism and financial inequality, as well as some of the very angry responses he’s received from conservative politicians and commentators. (Good Christ, I just linked to a Rush Limbaugh rant. Well, read at your own risk.) I don’t feel like I’m usually one to seek more Inspirational Messages from my movies — certainly not from my murder mysteries — but I can’t help but feel like there are some missed opportunities here. I think this could be a smarter movie than it really is.
3. But enough about that, at least for now. Let’s talk about how YOUNG Christian Slater looks in this movie.
Tell me that’s not, like, the best picture ever.
Christian Slater is all of fifteen in The Name of the Rose, and — well — he’s not very good. But considering he’s not even legal at this point, I won’t be too hard on him. I mean, just look at him. I just to pat him on his adorable baby head.
Mostly, Adso spends this movie looking around, blinking innocently at things, and asking William stupid questions for the audience’s sake. He gives more of an accent attempt than I was expecting, although that’s not really saying much. (Especially considering it’s not the right accent. I’m pretty sure he’s Austrian in the book.)
4. On the other hand, I like Sean Connery well enough in this.
He’s not who I’d cast in a remake — even if he was still acting after the fiasco that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — but I enjoyed some of his line deliveries, and he’s clearly one of the best actors in the entire cast. (The only other person I really liked was F. Murray Abraham and, occasionally, Ron Perlman — who I liked in some moments and didn’t in others. It was weird.) Watching Connery nerd out in the library was pretty great. Buddy, I’m with you. Books are awesome.
5. But as to the rest of the casting . . . well . . .
IMDb trivia tells us that Jean-Jacques Annaud specifically cast some of the ugliest men he could find as the various monks, and on one hand, it’s nice to see that not everybody in this monastery looks like Brad Pitt and Channing Tatum. (Well. I guess it’s nice. Although I probably wouldn’t have objected too hard at the idea of seeing Sexy Monks, cause hey. I’m shallow like that. Also, Sexy Monks is my new imaginary band name.) But honestly, it’s occasionally a good thing when Hollywood remembers that not everybody in the world looks like they were carved out of cream cheese . . .
. . . except it seems pretty clear to me that Annaud cast these actors solely to make the monks and the abbey itself seem creepier and more foreboding, which is kind of shitty. I can’t help but think about fairy tales, how beauty is almost always a virtue of the good, whereas ugly girls have to just deal with the fact that they’re destined to be wicked. It’s kind of a sucky lesson to learn, really. Why should the inside reflect the outside? So, you’ve got a really big forehead and fucked up teeth — what exactly about that screams villainy, again?
I’d be totally down with casting for realism, but I just don’t think that’s what this is.
6. Not to mention, I actually wish Annaud had gone for realism. Cause it’s not just the monks who look scary — everything is shot to look all sinister and gothic and ugly, and I feel like the movie would be more interesting if all the suspects and victims actually seemed like people, not shadowy caricatures.
Also, mud — while fun to play in — is kind of boring to look at, after a while.
7. There is also a girl . . .
. . . but we’ll have to wait to talk about her. For now, I’ll just say that her role is actually expanded from the novel, which is both a good thing and a bad thing for this story. Mostly bad, though.
Actually, let’s just get to spoilers, shall we? And a reminder: these spoilers will be for both book and movie. If you’re only familiar with one and don’t want to know too much about the other, please go no further.
The mystery begins before William and Adso even arrive at the abbey. Adelmo, a young, attractive monk, appears to have died from somehow falling out of a locked window. In the book, the Abbot asks William to look into the matter, as he’s eager to have the whole thing squared away before everyone can arrive to start talking about whether Christ believed in owning shit or not. In the movie, however, William figures out something awful has happened, supposedly because he’s clever, but really because the Abbot is a shifty, shifty weirdo.
(Although he’s no worse than Berengar, I suppose — but we’ll get to Berengar shortly.)
Now, everyone at the abbey thinks that some kind of evil spirit, if not the Devil himself, must have killed Adelmo, but William figures out the truth very quickly: Adelmo killed himself by jumping out of a different, unlocked window, and his body simply rolled down the hill. The case isn’t quite solved, though, because another monk — Venantius — is killed the next night, and he certainly didn’t commit suicide, as his body is found upside down in a very large jar of pig’s blood.
I’ll admit, I was really looking forward to seeing this scene after reading it in the book.
The monks are uber freaked out about this, as you might expect, although they are awfully histrionic about it. I mean, they start wailing and shrieking about the End Times a lot faster than seems appropriate to me. Monks! Calm yourselves, men!
No one is wailing or shrieking harder than Ubertino, though. Ubertino is hiding out at the abbey — he has some fairly unorthodox beliefs — and he is yet another weirdo monk in a long series of monk weirdos.
In the novel, Ubertino is clearly obsessed with — and tormented by — the thought of women. He has such charming things to say about them, really. In the movie, though, while Ubertino does briefly talking about women (“beautiful are the breasts that protrude just a little,” like, WOW, guy), he mostly seems to be perving on young Adso. He doesn’t really serve a ton of purpose in the story except to loudly proclaim that the deaths are a clear sign the Apocalypse is nigh, and that there will be five more murders in accordance with the prophecy.
William, of course, thinks this is all a bunch of superstitious nonsense, and it is, but it doesn’t look like that when Berengar is found quite dead the next day in the bath. (Point of interest: Berengar has a black mark on his tongue and on his index finger, just like Venantius did. This will obviously be important later.)
But I’ve skipped ahead. The night before Venantius’s body is found, William and Adso sneak into the Aedificium to look at what the dead translator was working on. They find a book — which will henceforth be known as the Very Important Book — but Berengar manages to steal it (and William’s newfangled glasses) from under their noses. (The whole thing about the glasses is a much bigger deal in the novel, but it’s one of the few changes from text to screen that doesn’t bother me at all.) William and Adso split up to give chase, which we’ll get back to in a minute. (Boy, will we.)
First, though, let me talk a little about Berengar.
We later find out that — prior to their respective demises — Adelmo and Berengar had sex. We’re told that Berengar, as assistant librarian, had access to the Very Important Book, and wouldn’t let Adelmo look at it unless he agreed to sleep with him. (I was less clear on this while reading — I kind of assumed that Berengar and Adelmo’s relationship was a little more two-way than that, despite the fact that Adelmo obviously hated himself for it — but perhaps I just misread something.)
Now, I find it a little uncomfortable that Berengar is a gay monk who pretty much extorts sexual favors from a straight monk, leading him to the path of SIN . . . because, you know, that’s totally what those gay men do, turn perfectly good, straight men into evil homosexuals. Then again, there’s no reason a gay character should always have to be the heroine’s fashion-forward bestie, right? Gay people can be terrible, just like straight people can. I don’t think I have a fundamental problem with a gay character who extorts sexual favors.
I do have a fundamental problem if that same character is portrayed as an even shifter, shifty weirdo than the Abbot, though.
Cause, you know. We really need to get across that Berengar is gay, and what better way to show that than to make the guy a bald, pasty creeper with long nails and a high-pitched shriek, especially when mice come anywhere near him?
Moving on. While chasing after Berengar, Adso find himself a poor, comely peasant girl hiding in the kitchen. The girl doesn’t have a name — or dialogue — but she does have a nice body that she’s more than happy to share with Adso.
Adso — who was raised in a monastery and has probably never been within five feet of a woman — doesn’t take a whole lot of persuading. (Unfortunately. Their sex scene seemed long and awkward to me, not least because the actress was 22 at the time of filming, while Slater was all of 15. I was very relieved to get back to the monk murdering, thank you very much.)
Now, you might be wondering why a poor, young peasant girl is hiding in the kitchen of a monastery. Well, it turns out that Remigio, one of the monks, snuck her inside. He gets to have sex, and she gets to have food, see? Seriously, everyone at this abbey is so damn charming. (Although I’m assuming she did change her mind about the sex, otherwise, I’m not sure why she’s hiding at all.)
I should throw out there: even in the book, I thought this scene was kind of ridiculous. Actually, it might be even more ridiculous in the book — the movie at least makes a teeny, tiny attempt to harbor some kind of chemistry between the two actors. See, early in the film, Adso sees the Girl outside the abbey, and they share a Look. In the novel, however, Adso sees the Girl for the first time when he stumbles upon her in the kitchen, and she’s basically like, ‘Gosh, you’re good looking. Let me introduce you to my vagina.’ Cause yes. I can totally see how women who are about to sell their bodies for food so that their little brothers can have something to eat are absolutely in the mood to fuck any passing pretty boy for free.
In the novel, Adso keeps thinking about the girl and the sex and the sin and the sex — nothing that’s particularly surprising. Unfortunately, the movie takes it a step further by having him instantly fall in love with her, despite the fact they haven’t said a single word to one other, or hell, even seen each other in halfway decent lighting. Of course, maybe Adso isn’t really in love with her — maybe he just thinks he’s in love with her because he’s lusting after her body and all — but nope, he has a discussion with William that clarifies this is the Real Deal, y’all. No matter how ludicrous that is.
And unfortunately for Adso, William, the Girl, and basically everyone ever, Bernardo Gui of the Inquisition shows up shortly thereafter.
We find out that William also used to be a part of the Inquisition, which I guess is supposed to be a Big Reveal, although I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not particularly surprising, I don’t think, even if you haven’t read the book — where we learn about William’s former career in, like, the first fifty pages. Of course, the movie does make some changes here — in the book, Gui and William just don’t particularly like each other, whereas in the film, William once stood up for a supposed heretic, and Gui tortured him until he recanted. I don’t mind the change to his backstory — it’s appropriately dramatic, and Connery has a nice moment, talking about how he got to live while the other man was sentenced to burn — but there are one or two moments where it all seems a little much to me. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)
So, Salvatore is caught practicing witchcraft, and unfortunately, the Girl is with him at the time. Adso wants to save her, but William says she is already “burnt flesh”. Meanwhile, the debate is going pretty poorly for the Franciscans, not that we spend more than three minutes on it. More importantly, our friendly herbalist monk Severinus of the especially frightening hair finds the Very Important Book and tells William about it. William can’t leave the conference right away, but advises Severinus to go inside and lock his door until he can come. Severinus does this, but alas! He does not check his surroundings before he locks up, so Malachia, the librarian, has the opportunity to kill him and steal the book.
(Point of interest: Malachia’s name in the book is Malachi. I have absolutely no idea why they changed it.)
Malachia urges Remigio to run because the Inquisition will surely burn him along with Salvatore and the Girl. (Remigio doesn’t just like the ladies, see. He and Salvatore also used to belong to a very violent heretical group, the Dolcinites.) Of course, Remigio gets caught trying to escape, and Gui blames all the murders on him. Remigio clearly didn’t kill the others, but he basically goes nuts under the threat of torture and confesses to everything anyway.
Gui forces William to be a judge on Remigio’s trial — to which I seriously rolled my eyes — and William argues that Remigio didn’t do it. Gui says William is clearly a heretic himself, and I think plans to arrest him — but doesn’t, at least not immediately? Maybe he really wanted to hear blind Jorge’s sermon about the apocalypse first, I don’t know. Anyway, Malachia suddenly collapses at said sermon, dies, and in the uproar, William and Adso take off, heading for the library.
Oh, I haven’t really talked about the library yet. Hm. Well, the library is a Big Deal — or ought to be, anyway. See, it’s forbidden for anyone but the librarian or the assistant librarian to enter — because books are dangerous, you know, at least the wrong kinds of books with the wrong kinds of knowledge. So, Adso and William have to sneak in and find their way through the labyrinthian setup.
Jorge has beat them there, though, and we move into the Big Reveal. The VIB is actually a missing work by Aristotle, a book about comedy. Jorge is not a big fan of comedy. To him, laughter is a dangerous thing because, oh, laughter defeats fear, and the fear of God is important to the order of the universe, and might not men start laughing at God if they laugh at everything else, etc., etc. This argument works a little better in the novel, partially because there’s more time for the discussion, but also because you can hear it. In the movie, Jorge is running around the labyrinth as he rants at William, and everything he says echoes weirdly, so it’s hard to make out exactly what he’s shrieking about.
It turns out that Jorge has spread some deadly poison on the pages of the book, sticking them all together. Venantius, Berengar, and Malachia all died because they each licked their index finger while reading, in order to turn the pages easier. (And that shows you for licking the pages, nasty boys. That’s just gross.) Jorge tries to trick William into doing the same, but William is too clever a detective monk for that, so Jorge’s Plan B is to destroy the book by eating the poisoned pages and setting it on fire for good measure. Of course, the library also goes up in flames.
Meanwhile, Gui is busy roasting people outside the library.
Salvatore and Remigio both die, while the Girl is saved at the last minute because of course she is. Adso — who has escaped the library under William’s orders — chases after Gui, yelling some nonsense about how this is all his fault, and far be it from me to defend an evil bastard from the Inquisition, but that’s just patently untrue. Gui didn’t set the library on fire, poison the book, or kill the monks. (Okay. He killed a couple of the monks.)
Gui escapes in his carriage, but not for long. The peasants, presumably upset about the Girl nearly being barbecued, have decided to revolt, and they launch Gui’s wagon off a godamn cliff. This is just silly. For one thing, the peasants have shown absolutely zero sign of stirring towards revolution before now. For another thing, Gui (like Ubertino) is a real historical person, and totally didn’t die from getting his ass tossed off a cliff.
William escapes the fire with an armful of charred books. He and Adso leave the abbey, but not before a run-in with our favorite mute peasant Girl. Adso has a choice whether he should continue going with William or leave everything he’s ever known behind for a girl he’s never spoken to and thankfully chooses the former. Old Adso Narrator says that he never regretted the choice because William taught him much, but now that he’s all old and dying, the one face he sees most clearly is the Girl’s, and he doesn’t even know her name. And that’s how we end it.
There are some big differences in this ending. For one, Gui doesn’t bite it in the book. For another, the girl totally does. Well, not on screen. Gui and his people leave with the supposed heretics and witches in tow. They’re absolutely going to be burned, just not right there at the abbey.
Also, it’s not just the library that burns down in the novel — the whole abbey does in a huge, three day fire. Monks that you never meet in the movie are horribly killed. And William doesn’t escape that library with jack shit in his arms, and he totally dies of the plague some years after the story.
The movie actually has a pretty decent Kill Count, but it pales a bit compared to the book:
Movie Kill Count:
Most of the books
Old Adso (okay, he’s basically about to die)
The Book Kill Count, on the other hand:
ALL of the books
Benno (not in film – died in library fire)
Alinardo (not in film – trampled during fire)
Salvatore (off screen – but totally going to happen)
Remigio (off screen – but totally going to happen)
Girl (off screen – but totally going to happen)
Ubertino (off screen – murdered a few years later)
William (off screen — plague a few years later)
Old Adso (okay, he’s basically about to die)
Cause yeah. This book is not an upper. The loss of the library — which is supposed to be one of the most magnificent libraries in the entire world — is just devastating. Aristotle’s book on comedy is destroyed right along with the rest of the books. Most of the monks are killed off. William doesn’t really save anyone, and Jorge basically wins. I’m saying, I’m not entirely averse to creating a slightly more hopeful ending for the movie.
But I’m not exactly sure how to do it because this movie’s ending — while not ridiculously upbeat — still rings false to me somehow. Perhaps because the movie seems more concerned with the fate of the girl than the library, and ultimately I think it should be the other way around. Like, to me, this is very much a story about knowledge versus faith, and whether these two things are intrinsically opposing forces, or whether they can coexist in harmony with one another. William, I imagine, would argue that scholastic learning has been his path to self-enlightenment, that his fervor for knowledge has led him closer to God. Many of the other monks clearly feel the same, or do in the novel, anyway, where their inability to enter the library freely is a considerably bigger deal. (Not to mention feeds into their desperation to look at the forbidden VIB.)
But Jorge — and Ubertino as well — both argue that knowledge is dangerous, that too many ideas, or exposure to the wrong kinds of ideas, impede the path to God. It’s this fundamental belief that causes the deaths of all these monks. The battle should be for the library, and the fall of it should be devastating.
Instead, the library burns, and it’s just . . . it just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. I mean, William’s upset about it, sure. But he grabs at least a few books, so it’s basically okay. It feels just like when our heroes lose the Book of Amun-Ra at the end of The Mummy, or the Holy Grail at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We knew they couldn’t keep it, right? It’s basically expected at this point. Anyway, the girl is Saved, and isn’t that really all that matters?
I’m not trying to say that a woman’s life isn’t important — I mean, I certainly hope people would choose to rescue me over a shitload of old books — but our Girl just isn’t that significant to this story. Taking her out of the picture changes almost nothing in the long run of things. After all, Salvatore is really the one doing witchcraft, which could certainly have been done without her. Adso’s emotional turmoil would certainly be altered, sure, but nothing in the actual plot would change. Taking out the library, on the other hand, changes almost everything about the story. There are no murdered monks without the forbidden library.
And maybe if the Girl was very important, you know, thematically — but she just isn’t, not really. The movie tries — the writers basically tell you that the titular ‘rose’ is a reference to the Girl, and they want you to feel all invested at the end when Adso has his whole moment of choice deal . . . except it totally doesn’t work cause, like I said before, these two do not know each other AT ALL. For this moment to play, we really need them to have an actual relationship, or at least buy into some kind of special connection between the two. And I didn’t buy into that, not even a little.
You know what could have helped with that? Hm, here’s an idea:
Meh. It’s not terrible, and there are moments I enjoy, but I can’t help but feel like this movie failed to translate some of the more powerful ideas from the book. (Amusingly, I think the film’s deficiencies may have actually forced me to appreciate the book more.)
Although. I could be interested in a remake.
Our love is God. Let’s go get a slushie.
Women don’t really want intelligent conversation, basic introductions, or even food to feed their families. If your face is pretty enough, they will totally have sex with you on a kitchen floor for funsies.
Oh, and monks are probably not to be trusted. I mean, honestly. Just look at their hair.