I had the opportunity to hear a paper at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association meeting last November by Jon Solomon. The paper was “The Book Was Different”: Greek and Latin Inserts in Film Adaptations of Novels.” He had noticed that a number of high profile popular films, adapted from novels, included Greek and (especially) Latin, even though the novels on which they were based had none. A particularly striking example was Girl, Interrupted, in which Vanessa Redgrave, portraying a psychiatrist at a mental institution, quotes a brief passage from Seneca’s Hercules Furens (!) in Latin. Another notable example was Mel Gibson’s Man Without a Face, which involved Gibson reading in Latin, if I recall correctly, the entire proem of the Aeneid, as well as peppering the script with various snippets of conversational Latin. As always, pronunciation was dicey, as was the grammar in those instances where the Latin was composed for the film.
The point, however, was that the insertion of Latin and Greek into film narratives, adapted and otherwise, was a fairly broad phenomenon. Listening to this paper made me realize how conventional a lot of my thinking about Classics, films, and popular culture had been. I had actually delivered a paper the previous year on an instance of this phenomenon – Terrence Malick had inserted a moment into his film adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line in which a character quotes the Homeric formula Eos rhododaktylos (“Rosy-fingered Dawn”) on the morning of a battle. My approach to this was (and still is) to analyze it in terms of how Malick activates and thematizes latent Homeric elements in the novel through this and other insertions. I do think this is a valuable approach and one which the film welcomes. I wonder, however, if the emphasis on discrete film vs. discrete Classical text unduly ignores general questions of popular cultural perceptions of Classics in favor of either defending or attacking the viability of particular comparisons between modern and ancient artistic works. I am fascinated to learn, for example, what sort of more general Hollywood patterns Malick’s film either conforms to or bucks in its inclusion of Homer.
Inspired by the paper I had heard at PAMLA, I read the 1963 novel Seconds by Richard Ely – the basis for a Rock Hudson film of the same title that I have seen several times and very much enjoyed. It is about an aging banker who is solicited to purchase the services of a shadowy organization dedicated to creating second lives for wealthy customers. For a fee, it fakes their deaths, provides them with moderately restored youth via plastic surgery, and establishes them in new lives suited to the dreams and ambitions that the organization’s psychiatrists decide are ones that the customer had really wanted to pursue the first time around, but either abandoned or never really embarked upon. The book was adapted to film by John Frankenheimer in 1966 (most famous for The Manchurian Candidate). I first saw the film about ten years ago and was struck by its depiction of a Bacchanal (in the film the event is actually dedicated to Pan). Having read the book, I now know that the filmmakers contrived this scene, which consists of naked people scrunched together in giant vats crushing grapes, while chanting, “Wine! Wine!” The theme of rebirth certainly welcomes a Bacchic orgy and of course the box office might have been thought to welcome naked people in vats of grapes. There is also a brief (incorrect) Latin insertion near to the beginning of the film, fidelis eternis (sic), which appears as an inscription on a memento used by a friend of the main character to verify his identity (the friend has already undergone the rejuvenation process and would be otherwise unrecognizable without some token of proof).
The book contains only a couple of passing classical references. One agent of the organization has a Ph.D. in history – his area is the fall of Rome (possible reference to the social and individual decay that the book targets?). The main character at one point finds his rejuvenated self ‘satyr-like’ in appearance.
Did the director and screenwriter pick up these small references and decide to augment them? The history Ph.D. is missing from the film version, but we have a Latin inscription harkening back to a happier time in the life of a decaying individual at the very moment that he is about to choose diversion from his woes through superficial rejuvenation and decadence. Perhaps the inscription’s reference to a better moment, long past but imagined at the time to be eternis (sic) accomplishes the same thing that the mention of fall of the Roman empire does in the book; namely, point to the decay of the character’s present. No explicit reference to the main character’s (Rock Hudson’s) satyr-like appearance is made in the film, but we have a wine orgy (in the background of which maybe briefly glimpsed the statue bust of a bearded man complete with archaic smile). I tend to think in terms of highly significant particular connections such as these, and of course run the risk of projecting the connections I would like to see. Could the filmmakers have missed – or simply not developed — these admittedly very passing Classical references in the book and simply made their own Classical insertions through their own inspiration, assisted perhaps by the priorities of mid-1960s popular/alternative culture(s)? Whichever is the case, what valuations of Latin and the Classical world would have led to foisting these elements upon the narrative at this particular time?