15.03.14, Johnston, Rouse, and Hinz, eds., The Medieval Motion Picture

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Tison Pugh

The Medieval Review 15.03.14

Johnston, Andrew James, Margitta Rouse, and Philipp Hinz. The Medieval Motion Picture: The Politics of Adaptation. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. xix, 233. ISBN: 9780230112506 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Tison Pugh
University of Central Florida

Few in the field of medieval studies could miss the recent deluge of monographs and essay collections addressing cinematic medievalisms--too numerous to delve into even in a cursory bibliographic fashion within the constraints of this short review. Many a deluge could nonetheless benefit from an additional drop, and such is the case with Andrew James Johnston, Margitta Rouse, and Philipp Hinz's The Medieval Motion Picture: The Politics of Adaptation, which contributes to the ongoing discussion of movie medievalism primarily through its detailed attention to the nature and repercussions of adaptation as a cinematic mode. Because virtually every entry in the field of movie medievalism relies to some degree or another on adaptation, whether in retelling a medieval tale or simply in taking inspiration from the fantasy of the Middle Ages, the collection's focus on adaptation and its intersection with the medieval promises to advance scholarly discussions of the genre.

In the introduction, "Temporalities of Adaptation," Johnston and Rouse establish the volume's ambition to expand an understanding of the interconnected nature of medievalism and adaptation: "Meeting the challenge of questioning, as well as moving beyond, constraining orthodoxies within adaptation studies and medieval studies, [The Medieval Motion Picture] employs the format of the edited collection precisely to show the variety of approaches that medieval films studies twined with literary studies of various national literatures has to offer for the study of adaptation and vice versa" (2). Johnston and Rouse convincingly articulate the joint condition of cinematic medievalism and adaptation studies as secondary modes--in that the historical Middle Ages haunts endeavors in medievalism, as so too do literary texts haunt their cinematic adaptations. With an eye to film's global purview, including Hollywood films set in various geographies and "medieval" pasts, as well as to international cinema, the editors cast a wide theoretical net and reel in numerous illuminating insights into the nature and aesthetics of cinema that turns to the misty pasts of medievalism.

Time, both fleeting and determinant, structures the experience of "medieval" film, for it cannot constrain a narrative within a particular era, yet it concomitantly establishes parameters for audiences to digest a given work. Jocelyn Keller and Wolfram Keller explore this paradox in "'Now is the time': Shakespeare's Medieval Temporalities in Akira Kurosawa's Ran," investigating the multiple nature of time in its source text--King Lear--which Kurosawa then amplifies in his remediation of Shakespearan temporalities, as filtered through Buddhist ones. In "Dracula's Times: Adapting the Middle Ages in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula," Cordula Lemke explores the temporal play between the medieval past and the cinematic present as mediated through the impossible eternity granted to the undead; Dracula thus becomes an incarnation, not only of timeless love in his quest for his lost Elisabeta, but of the postmodern moment of adaptation that liberates him from his precursor texts, both historical and literary. With these opening chapters explicitly theorizing time's meaning for medieval adaptations, the collection advances its objective of reformulating how viewers understand cinematic temporality.

The two following chapters, Margitta Rouse's "Rethinking Anachronism for Medieval Film in Richard Donner's Timeline" and Judith Klinger's "Otherness Redoubled and Refracted: Intercultural Dialogues in The Thirteenth Warrior," explore Michael Crichton's medievalisms--in his sci-fi novel Timeline, in his horror novel Eaters of the Dead, and in their cinematic adaptations. Rouse posits that adaptation should be seen as "a process of (re)making history, in which anachronisms provide a resource for constructing alternative histories" (58). Rouse argues that in Timeline, Crichton's novel of modern scientists conquering the mysteries of time travel so that they can experience history's reality, the variability of anachronism for numerous characters and plot points challenges rigid perceptions of both past and present. Likewise, Klinger notes the multiple meanings of culture and communication in The Thirteenth Warrior, John McTiernan's retelling of Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which is Crichton's retelling of Beowulf through the eyes of an Arab ethnographer. Klinger also pays attention to constructions of gender when societies come into contact with one another, concluding that the film "invites engagement with the perspective of an Other who can never be one--or a simple reflection of the self" (101). While Crichton is hardly accorded the attention given to such medieval fantasists as J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and George R. R. Martin, his works contribute powerfully to the modern construction of the past, with Rouse and Klinger collectively demonstrating the continued relevance of his re-creations of the Middle Ages.

Medieval literature is renowned for its legendary, epical masterworks, and the collection's two subsequent chapters address particular examples of their modern cinematic rebirth. In "Crisis Discourse and Art Theory: Richard Wagner's Legacy in Films by Veith von Fürstenberg and Kevin Reynolds," Stefan Keppler-Tasaki provocatively states that "the history of medieval cinema is haunted by the works of Richard Wagner" (107), as he then examines von Fürstenberg's Feuer und Schwert (Fire and Sword, 1982) and Reynolds's Tristan and Isolde (2006) for traces of Wagnerian influence. With Wagner's inspiration from medieval art as a focal point of analysis, the essay tackles the operatic legacy in films rewriting medieval legend. Much cinematic medievalism inevitably invites incongruity due to the tension generated when modern filmmakers, with cutting-edge technologies in tow, re-create the Middle Ages, and Philipp Hinz and Margitta Rouse, in their "Adaptation as Hyperreality: The (A)historicism of Trauma in Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf," address the ways in which the film's motion-capture technology "links the fantastic medieval world with the reality of Hollywood stardom" (132). Cinematic innovations become a means for representing history and legend differently, thereby better to highlight "the contradictions between an interpretation of history as a psychoanalytical trauma narrative and history as a narrative of linear progress" (149).

Adaptations often rely on yet transcend the limitations of their source texts, as Martin Bleisteiner demonstrates with his "Perils of Generation: Incest, Romance, and the Proliferation of Narrative in Game of Thrones." Bleisteiner stresses the importance of incest to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation as Game of Thrones, noting the trope's significance to medieval romance and concluding that "romance simultaneously provides a paradigm of production and reception for one of the most successful and variegated medieval-themed works of art that the contemporary media landscape has to offer" (165). In "Arthurian Myth and Cinematic Horror: M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense," Hans Jürgen Scheuer builds from Kevin Harty's seminal analysis of the film's Arthurian motifs to read the multiple ways in which it represents the sixth sense itself. Considering the medieval roots and the modern presentation of the film's eponymous subject, Scheuer sees the film's extrasensory thematics as reflective of cinema itself, as viewers bathed in the dark enjoy an otherworldly experience. Andrew James Johnston finishes the volume with "Marian Rewrites the Legend: The Temporality of Archaeological Remains in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian." This essay queries the film's thematic interest in medieval art and aesthetics--primarily archaeological sites, triptychs, and ballads--to argue for its concomitant interest in theorizing the telling of historical legends. Johnston further addresses the film's rewriting of the Robin Hood legend in Maid Marian's murder of Robin and subsequent suicide, seeing in it a reworking and troubling of medieval spirituality, which others might presume would provide it a simplistically transcendent unity.

As a whole, Johnston, Rouse, and Hinz's The Medieval Motion Picture: The Politics of Adaptation lays out theories and exemplary readings that will enhance theoretical discussions of the cinematic Middle Ages, particularly in its focus on the temporal nature of adaptations, while also putting forth intriguing interpretations of a range of films, from masterpieces (Ran) to blockbuster successes (The Sixth Sense) to schlock (Timeline). Each essay provides a strong reading of the film under consideration, and scholars of these films will benefit from the volume's detailed readings of them. While I esteem Laurie Finke and Martin B. Shichtman's Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film (2009) as the definitive study of movie medievalism, The Medieval Motion Picture: The Politics of Adaptation stands in good company with it.

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Tison Pugh

University of Central Florida