In 1980, an Italian semiotics professor named Umberto Eco published one of those rare literary unicorns, a work of genius that nonetheless didn’t curl up and die of obscurity. The Name of the Rose, a historical fantasia about a series of murders in a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy in the early 1300s, dazzled the brainiacs and also enjoyed massive commercial success. It was, and is, a wonderful book about people who revere books. Its focal point is a cinematically fascinating, labyrinthine library. I get why someone making TV would want to get his paws on it. I do. It was previously adapted into a movie starring Sean Connery as the sharp and crafty William of Baskerville and a young Christian Slater as his novice, Adso; F. Murray Abraham played real-life Catholic inquisitor Bernard Gui. The monk and his novice arrive for an inter-order debate on whether the Catholic church should have wealth, but are confronted with a spooky series of murders that seem to relate to a forbidden book. Ecclesiastical hijinks ensue. The movie’s maybe not a masterpiece, but it’s a fun use of a couple of hours and definitely a high-clarity adaptation of the source text—which isn’t nothing when said source text is a 600-page rhapsody on semiotics and religious philosophy.
SundanceTV is bringing the story back in the form of an eight-part miniseries, starring John Turturro as William of Baskerville and Rupert Everett as Gui. I’ll note right here that although Turturro is not at all what I or probably anyone who ever read the novel imagines when they imagine William, he’s enjoyable enough. He doesn’t read as remotely English, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Everett’s fine too, though he has a lot less to work with, as in this day and age it is its own form of heresy to allow a bad guy to have depth. So there’s that. Anyway, the series has captured the look and feel of the abbey and its inhabitants very well, and it has a lot of dialogue that’s taken directly from the novel. But never fear, it also does the novel one better by adding a bunch of stuff. Like an Arya Stark character. And a love story.
No, seriously: What is going on with us, that in an era of “peak TV” when there is Vatican-level moolah getting thrown at television and unprecedented numbers and varieties of platform, what we do is apparently produce retread after retread, and specifically pandering Frankenstein’s monster retreads that fly in the faces of their source texts for no reason having to do with commentary on those texts? I mean, it’s one thing to have a scene where Turturro screams “He’s eating Aristotle!” And you know what, it’s really pretty next-level to have battle scenes inserted into a story that takes place in a remote Medieval abbey and whose characters are almost exclusively monks.
In the book, there is a peasant girl from the village who gives young Adso his first and only taste of carnal love. It is the departure point for a meditation on temptation, human nature and the similarities and differences between divine love and earthly love, spiritual ardor and bodily enslavement. It’s an insanely beautiful passage and one of the most thoroughly intellectual sex scenes you will ever, ever read. What it isn’t is a subplot. Now it is. There are extensive scenes of their blossoming relationship, including learning each other’s languages, the girl teaching the young novice how to mimic the call of a dove, and not one but two daring rescue sequences. Instead of a bittersweet treatise on learning to detach from what you maybe want but cannot realistically have, there’s… not letting go at all, plus a discomfitingly literal witch hunt, plus Adso physically duking it out with the deranged brother Salvatore like a 14th century Jason Bourne. Why? Because today’s audiences don’t want to hang with a bunch of bookish, celibate dudes for 8 hours? Welp, The Name of the Rose is set in a Medieval monastery, guys. The characters are men. All of them, except for that girl, who is not so much a character as a focus object for the protagonist. So, you know, maybe it’s the wrong property to adapt if that worries you.
Arguably the weirdest change is the introduction of Anna, a character who freaking fell out of the sky for reasons best known to the writers, and I confess my own imagination is not equal to the task of coming up with any good reasons. In the book, there is a disgraced rebel Franciscan named Fra Dolcino (who, like Bernard Gui, was an actual, historical figure, burned at the stake for heresy in 1307). Dolcino drew the ire of the Holy See for his relatively relaxed stance on physical relationships but especially for the militant insistence that it was hypocritical for the church to amass wealth. A debate over poverty as a Christian principle is the inciting event for the novel. Dolcino was known to have a lover or consort named Margaret. This adaptation gives them a daughter, and a vengeful little spitfire trousers-wearin’ daughter who’s hella handy with a bow and arrow at that. Arya-sorry; Anna- comes to the abbey to take vengeance upon Bernard Gui, who in this rendering is a torch-mad monomaniac for whom nothing is ever as urgent as going all Inspector Javert on anyone related to Fra Dolcino. So Anna is of course also instrumental in freeing the peasant girl from the abbey’s Stoney Lonesome before she can be torched by the Inquisition for existing.
The Name of the Rose is a brilliant postmodernist novel that tells a wonderfully wry, witty, and very touching story about men who are willing to sacrifice love and family and earthly pursuits in order to cultivate and guard (and kill and die for) knowledge. The string of murders that intersects with William and Adso’s visit? They happen because of a book. At the hands of a book, in fact. It’s specifically not about earthly love relationships (the cloister setting and hundreds of pages of discussion of whether Christ laughed seems like it might point that out), so retrofitting characters to be motivated by such relationships is problematic at best. And if the logos of those choices is anything to do with contemporizing or making the text more relatable (the novel came out in 1980, it’s not exactly a fossil), I have to ask, as I often do these days, why not greenlight something original if you’re worried audiences will chafe over the lack of a strong female character or get bored watching monks debate theology?
It’s not a rhetorical question.