[Milton-L] Great Adaptations

Horace Jeffery Hodges jefferyhodges at yahoo.com
Mon Jan 21 19:09:00 EST 2008

I didn't have quite the negative reaction as Professor Hamlin. Taken in context, Professor Gee's remarks on Beowulf and Paradise Lost as unreadable are more understandable:
  "The unpalatable truth is that both originals are now virtually unreadable. 'Beowulf' is written in Old English, an inflected Germanic tongue that looks a lot less like our language than one would hope. As for Milton¡¯s epic, it's in 'normal' English, but its blank verse is so densely learned, so syntactically complicated and philosophically obscure, that it's almost never read outside college courses."
  I also didn't find Gee say that the original stories had been improved on, but perhaps I missed that statement.
  I did find her express admiration for the re-reading of Beowulf in the recent film version, but I also found that one point admirable. The link established between the two monster sections of the poem is intriguing, as also is the concommitant deconstructive interpretation employing a hermeneutic of suspicion to Beowulf's boasting. The Anglo-Saxon culture was a shame-and-honor one, and the suspicion that honor would trump veracity is plausible to me.
  Aside from that one point, however, I thought the Beowulf movie a failure.
  I haven't seen the film adaption of the first volume in Pullman's trilogy, so I can't comment on that, but I found the series disappointing. I read the first volume with great excitement but lost interest as I read the second and third volumes. Pullman's style is lovely, and his characters feel real, but the story failed for me, partly because it's so polemically didactic. A more subtle critique of religion would have worked better, in my opinion
  Jeffery Hodges

HANNIBAL HAMLIN <hamlin.22 at osu.edu> wrote:
    No reflection on Tim, of course, but this is an extremely irritating, and, to my mind, foolish article.  All the more disturbing in that it is written by someone who apparently teaches Milton, and perhaps also Beowulf.  I am a great fan of Philip Pullman, but his novels are hardly an "improvement" on Milton, however smart and enjoyable they are.  They are, for one thing, children's books, in an entirely different literary genre altogether, and therefore subject (to a large degree) to different standards and categories of judgment.  The movie of the first book, as Gee acknowledges, is a failure.  As for Beowulf, I have not, I confess, seen the film, but from all I have heard, including Gee's account, it sounds quite simple-minded, if also perhaps some empty-headed fun.  However, to call it an improvement on the original is, again, foolish.  It sounds as if the film has been made to sympathize with contemporary American values and expecta tions (about women, for instance,
 Freudian psychology or models of flawed anti-heroism), but it also sounds as if most of what makes the Anglo-Saxon poem powerful and moving has been excised.  Getting back to Paradise Lost, I'm sure members of this list will feel as annoyed as I do with a university English professor who calls the poem "unreadable."  Beowulf may be unreadable, if only in the sense that few now know Anglo-Saxon, but I have been impressed everytime I have taught Milton at how keenly undergraduates read him.  Even students who don't finally like Milton or the ideas he seems to express (in thier view) are excited by the experience of reading him, especially Paradise Lost.  Philip Pullman obviously found Milton exciting, otherwise he wouldn't have borrowed so largely from him as he did (along with Blake, or Milton filtered through Blake perhaps).  Furthermore, having taught courses on film and literature a number of times, I have to s ay I have found very few cases where the film version was a
 significant improvement on its literary original.  I make no sweeping theoretical generalizations based on this, but it is nonetheless (I think) true.  (One of the few exceptions is The Wizard of Oz, and there are some cases where film and book are both good, as in Altman's Short Cuts.)  On the matter of popular culture more broadly, the problem with popular adaptations of classics is that they tend to involve a dumbing down or flattening out.  This is inevitable if a work is designed to appeal to mass audiences, for one thing since mass audiences tend not to want to think too hard about what they are watching or reading.  
  Apologies for venting, but I had some steam built up after reading this article the first time.  Perhaps others will feel encouraged to vent, or cross-vent, in turn!

Hannibal Hamlin 
Associate Professor of English 
The Ohio State University 
Book Review Editor and Associate Editor, Reformation 

Mailing Address (2007-2009): 

The Folger Shakespeare Library 
201 East Capitol Street SE 
Washington, DC 20003 

Permanent Address: 

Department of English 
The Ohio State University 
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Columbus, OH 43210-1340

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  BOOKS / SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW   = | January 13= ,=20 2008 
Essay:  Great Adaptations=20 

Instead of dumbing dow= n the=20 classics, mass-market popularizations sometimes make them even better.=20 [...]

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University Degrees:

Ph.D., History, U.C. Berkeley
(Doctoral Thesis: "Food as Synecdoche in John's Gospel and Gnostic Texts")
M.A., History of Science, U.C. Berkeley
B.A., English Language and Literature, Baylor University

Email Address:

jefferyhodges at yahoo.com



Office Address:

Assistant Professor Horace Jeffery Hodges
School of English, Kyung Hee University
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Seoul, 130-701
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Home Address:

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