The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, is a movie that came out earlier this year. It is based on the book The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Since Sutcliff has been one of the biggest influences on my own historical fiction writing, my interest was definitely piqued by the preview, and I was exited to watch it while we were on vacation last week.
*SPOILER ALERT!* The first third of the movie follows the book almost exactly. Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing) introduces himself well as a faithful and stalwart Roman centurion, trying to make up for the dishonor that his father had brought upon the family. The Roman fort Marcus commands is very believable, as is the surprise attack by the marauding Britons. Wounded in the leg, Marcus is forced to retire from his military career and spends some time in the south of Britain with his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland). While Marcus is still convalescing (and wondering what he is going to do with the rest of his life), he attends a gladiator fight where he saves the life of a young Briton named Esca (Bell). Aquila purchases Esca as Marcus' body slave, and Esca makes an oath to serve Marcus even though he hates everything Roman.
It is at this point that the plot of the movie radically diverges from the story in the book. Marcus decides to go north across Hadrian's Wall and find the eagle standard from his father's lost legion, bringing with him his deeply-embittered slave Esca as a guide. Instead of adopting some sort of plausible disguise so that he can search unnoticed in enemy territory, Marcus naively follows Esca around the north of Britain, hoping that the tribesmen will ignore his Roman haircut and his reliance on the Latin language. Eventually, he discovers that Esca has been pulling the wool over his eyes--the slave knows exactly where the lost legion lost itself because his tribe was there at the battle! Esca spouts some touching memories about the deaths of his family members, prey to the voracious appetite of Roman conquest. Marcus responds in typical Roman fashion by defending his nation's imperialism and brutally killing any tribesmen who stand in his way.
Marcus, afraid that Esca has betrayed him, behaves stupidly and earns many beatings. But one night, after a tribal ceremony where the eagle is displayed, Esca wakes the Roman and tells him that it is time to complete their mission. The two men steal the eagle and ride for the border pursued by hordes of angry Indians...ahem...Celtic tribesmen. When Marcus is unable to go any further, he finally trusts Esca enough to grant him his freedom. The Briton leaves his erstwhile master and dashes off to find a very unlikely source of help. The movie culminates with a fierce battle between the two men (plus auxiliaries) and the aggrieved tribesmen, which my husband described as "Roman biker gang vs. Native American Blue Man Group."
My main contention with this movie is that the screenwriter took a historically plausible adventure with a resourceful hero and turned it into an anachronistic rant against slavery and Roman conquest. In the book, Marcus and Esca become friends (in a believable way) while they are still at Uncle Aquila's home, and Marcus manumits his slave before the trip to the north. Esca, although a Briton, is from a completely different tribe than the ones that slew the lost legion. He has no conflicted loyalties on the trip. Marcus is a sympathetic character--not an unintelligent brute--who shows kindness to Esca and devises stratagems to find and steal the eagle. The book also includes a small romance between Marcus and Cottia, a young woman who lives nearby Uncle Aquila's home, which softens and adds dimension to Marcus' character.
Instead of following the plot of the book, the screenwriter clearly showed that he (or she?) had an ax to grind. The temptation to add a "relevant message"to historical fiction is one that can beset both novelists and screenwriters. Marcus must learn to hate his country and feel self-loathing by the end of the movie because that is what we would feel if our country went around killing and enslaving people. Some may see this as a profitable addition to the story. After all, since literature teaches by example, is it not right to imbue it with our own society's sense of morals?
Two posts I did earlier in the year have some bearing on this issue, one with Ian Mortimer's take on historical fiction and the other with Sharon Kay Penman's. In his History Today podcast, writer Ian Mortimer states that he is "not interested in enhancing people's understanding of the past. In fiction I'm using the past to demonstrate how we can say something that is true today and more meaningful for us today." Mortimer's kind of thinking would embrace the addition of "messages" into historical fiction, ones like the anti-slavery and anti-imperialism messages in The Eagle, because these are values that are generally held by us today.
Sharon Kay Penman, on the other hand, insists that historical fiction should scrupulously follow the mindsets of the past and avoid anachronistic messages that may appeal to our modern understanding. In a blog post titled "History vs. Fiction" she talks about the medieval view toward animals:
When daily life is so hard, few can spare sympathy for hungry dogs. This is especially true in a world in which people believe that God has given them dominion over the earth and all in it. So when one of my characters is moved by the plight of a suffering animal, he often is vaguely embarrassed by his Good Samaritan inclinations. When Justin de Quincy rescues a drowning dog in The Queen's Man, he does it after he "casts common sense to the winds," and he is motivated in some measure by the tearful entreaties of a small child. The life of a horse was worth a great deal and the life of a pet dog might have mattered to its owner. But the lives of animals in general had no intrinsic value and my characters cannot display the same outrage in the face of cruelty that we would.Ms. Penman avoids injecting her novels with the modern notion of animal rights because it would not be appropriate to the time. Her commitment to historical accuracy in her writings outweighs her modern sensibilities.
The Eagle could have been an excellent movie, if the story had stayed close to Sutcliff's original story, or if the plot had been historically appropriate. I do have the capacity to enjoy a movie even if the storyline differs from the book. All I ask is that any changes to the storyline make a story that is equal to or better than the original. In the case of historical fiction (whether book or film), I follow Ms. Penman's (or Ms. Sutcliff's) school of thought. Paint the people as they truly were, not as twenty-first century Americans in helmets. And since films so rarely fail to live up to this criterion, perhaps it is better to keep our favorite historical fiction novels away from the cinema all together. As Lindsey Davis said, when asked about a poorly made film adaptation of her Falco series: "I am not interested in having inferior versions!"