The Name of the Rose (1986) from Tuna, Keith, and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Tuna's comments in white, a reader's response in aqua, Scoop's response in yellow.

The Name of the Rose (1986) was a critical flop in the US, and was also a box office flop in the US. It was, however, a smash hit in Europe, and most of the rest of the world, and garnered many awards in Europe. Why? It is a European sort of film. The pace is leisurely, the tone is dark, the locations perfect, and the story is complex, and is not spoon fed to the viewer. 

Sean Connery stars as Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan who has come to a Benedictine monastery in Italy from a debate among Benedictines, Franciscans and Papal delegates as to whether the clergy should take vows of poverty or not. The Franciscans favor helping the poor, the rest believe in helping themselves. As the year is 1347, we are literally taken to the Dark Ages, and one of the darkest periods in Catholicism. The Inquisition is in full swing, and most books are kept in hiding by Monasteries because they conflict with Catholic doctrine. Connery, we later learn, has a history with the Grand Inquisitor, and is the  Sherlock Holmes of the religious set, being both brilliant, and more enlightened than his peers. 


Connery's young charge has a sexual encounter with an attractive peasant girl, Valentina Vargas, who shows everything in very dark scenes.

Christian Slater's buns are also visible briefly, and there may be an appearance from L'il Christian in one or two frames.

When he arrives at the monastery (actually Kloster Erbach in Germany), there has been a mysterious death which is being attributed to the devil. William of Baskerville (his name one of many nods to Conan Doyle) is called upon the solve the mystery. With him is a young protégé (a very young and subdued Christian Slater), who is the narrator of the story, and plays Watson to his Sherlock. I am going to strongly recommend this film, so don't wish to give away any plot details. The mystery story line alone would sustain this film, and has plenty of twists and turns, but there are also many intertwined themes, mostly about excesses of the church, including homosexuality, surreptitious sex with a local peasant girl in exchange for food, murder, heresy, burning at the stake, hoarding knowledge, and economic oppression of the common folk.

The film is very moody, and is darkly lit, which successfully creates an ersatz "dark ages". There was not a flat performance anywhere in this film, the costumes were appropriate, the locations perfect, and the art direction top notch. The film didn't just explain the Dark Ages, it took us there.

This response from Keith, a long-time reader:

I have to lodge a rare disagreement with you concerning the movie The Name of the Rose.  Here's the problem with the movie, in brief:  they took a very complex book by Umberto Eco and manipulated the plot to become far more of a Hollywood-type thriller.  Just look at the ending -- the girl played by Valentina Vargas dies in the book, which is certainly much more in tune with the Middle Ages than her miraculous escape in the movie.  The towns people oddly rebel and kill the papal emissary (F Murray Abraham) in the movie -- in the book, the denouement is much more realistic -- the emissary is a more complex character, not the mustache-twirling bad guy of the movie, and the resolution is decidedly mixed.  It's always struck me as ironic, therefore, that they took a near-perfect work of literature, added "improvements" to increase the marketability, and wound up with a failure of a movie. 

The reasons for the failure of the movie in the US were not related to the fact that the movie is very European in tone -- quite the opposite, I think. The book sold a literally unbelievable number of copies, and every single person I've met who has read it -- counting Americans, Brits, French, and of course Italians at this point -- was greatly moved by the work.  To me, and I've [add drum roll for upcoming pretentiousness] read it in both English and the Italian original and met Eco once at an academic conference, it's the best novel of the 20th Century.  But people who have no such intellectual investment in the subject matter loved the book, and who couldn't be amazed by the fact that Eco took a relatively complex look at epistemology in the Middle Ages and turned into a page-turning read. Odd humorous bits like William of Baskerville's name and the constant bumbling of his assistant keep the individual chapters going along, and the underlying mystery of who killed the monks and why -- definitely a secondary element in the book -- is used to propel the narrative through its various
concerns and goals.  Not even Eco has successfully done this sort of thing again.

In Italy, obviously, where Eco is a well-known public figure, the movie was a huge event, and everyone went.  And, as noted, everyone was greatly disappointed.  In France, where Annaud is a fairly big name and where the book was very popular -- a similar story.  I saw the movie in the UK, and the crowd seemed very familiar with the book and grumbled loudly at the end. So, in summary, what killed the movie was not that it was too complex and/or too "European" but that the book was well-known and well-loved, and that the movie deviated from the book to simplify and Hollywood-ize more difficult elements.  I would've been among the last people in a room to say "Oh, yeah -- making a movie out of the Name of the Rose is a great idea!  It screams 90 minutes of cinematic joy!" but I was hoping to be proven wrong.  Connery was of course a masterful choice for the lead, and Christian Slater was fantastic, as were most of the rest of the cast (I'm not a fan of Abraham's work in the flick -- but I'm not a big FMA fan in general).  But script manipulations killed the movie version, just as they have for so many other works of serious to semi-serious literature.

As Dennis Miller would say, that's my opinion, I could be wrong. 


Scoop's thoughts:

Frankly, I think you guys are both right, but appear to disagree because you are jumbling together several arguments that need to be separated:

1. is the movie commercial?

2. is the movie any good?

3. is the movie a proper transformation from the book?

They need to be separated for several reasons. Number two is independent of the others, while one and three are negatively correlated in that success at one would surely guarantee failure at the other. The better an adaptation of this book, the more money one would lose. That doesn't mean the book isn't good. It simply means it is non-commercial. There is no sense trying to please the small number of people who have read the book in English. (Small by the standards of films, that is)

To the first question, the answer is measurable, and is clearly "no", certainly not in the United States. Who the hell is going to plop down their money to see a film like this? No matter what kind of adaptation you make of Ulysses or The Name of the Rose, unless you throw away the spirit of the source material, you are going to have a difficult time getting people to see it. These are books intended to be read by the elite of the elite, books written by and for lovers of literature as art. That is a miniscule percentage of the population. There is probably no version of the film which could be commercially viable and simultaneously please the literati.

To the second question, there is no clear and obviously quantifiable answer. My opinion is "yes", it is one of my favorite movies. I love the mystery, I love the characterizations by Connery and Slater, I love the Felliniesque pantheon of mediaeval monks. I don't like the cartoon portrayal by F. Murray Abraham and the screenwriter, who conspired to make Gui not a three dimensional representative of a conflicting world-view, but rather a monster cut from the same cloth as the official Vincent Price Conqueror Worm witch-hunter kinda guy. But I lived with that lack of subtlety as a necessary compromise and compression necessary to translate the book into something visceral enough to work on the screen with a wider audience.

To the third question, did they do a good job on the transformation? This one is complex, isn't it, since it hinges on a sub-question. Are you going to try to make a faithful adaptation of the book to create a work of cinematic art? Surely you realize that this project would require a six hour movie, would cost a fortune, and would appeal to a miniscule portion of the potential movie-going audience. Are you going to make a commercially viable movie? In that case, you are going to arouse the ire of the literati who worship this book. I'm going to piss off a lot of you with this series of pronouncements, but here's the reality, as I see it.

  • This is, without a doubt, even in English translation, the most dazzling and brilliant and rewarding book I've ever read. Forget about the twentieth century, this is probably the greatest novel ever written. It is also one of the most difficult to read. It is not as difficult as Finnegans Wake, but is more difficult than Ulysses or A Clockwork Orange, for example. Took me a couple weeks to get through it, and I didn't try to translate all the untranslated phrases, or to understand the mélange of languages spoken by the one crazy monk. If I wanted to understand everything, it would have taken me an entire course on this book, and ongoing discussions with others who were also reading it simultaneously. Not many people have that kind of time. The book is filled with theological digressions, literary inventions, philosophical arguments and counter arguments, and as much scholarship as any book ever written. It is so good in English translation that I can't even imagine how good the original must be.
  • Having offered that, let me then proceed to state that if I were charged with making it into a movie, I would do one of two things. If the movie were subsidized, I'd try to evoke the spirit of the master as closely as possible. If the movie were a commercial venture made by investors expecting a profit, I would chop the sucker to bits, maybe even change it completely, in order to find the key to "selling" the concept to a mass audience. I would have changed it even more than Annaud did. I would deliberately have made a shitty adaptation of the literary masterpiece, and would have Hollywoodized it even more (albeit in different ways), because that original masterpiece is simply not a commercial property. 

Annaud tried to do pretty much what any of us would have done, given a financial expectation from the backers. He made a film which is a kind of a more accessible reduction of the book. What else could he do? Was he supposed to just throw the investor's money away? I think he made a good film which is not a perfect representation of the book, but which makes some thoughtful elements of the book accessible to an audience that would not normally have been able to appreciate it. While the movie bombed at first-run theaters in the USA, it was and has continued to be a solid winner in the rental market, and has thus found a reasonably wide audience.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director Jean-Jacques Annaud

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Vintage making-of featurette

  • All-new photo journey wuth director Jean-Jacques Annaud

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

The only problem that I see is that Annaud did not choose to make either a great work of art or a money-making mass audience film. He tried to compromise, succeeded partially and failed partially at both. But it is still a good film, and I thank Annaud for making such a splendid work. Do you know why? Because I saw the film first, just had to know more, and that prompted me to read the greatest book I have ever read. Damn, if that isn't a reason to thank a filmmaker, what is?  

I am thankful to Connery for appearing in the film, thus assuring some business from his legion of fans, and saving it from the complete obscurity it would have achieved without him. And I think William of Baskerville (Hound, James Hound) is probably his most interesting portrayal, although he'll always be the REAL James Bond to me as well. 

  • The denizens of the Cheers bar once debated the sweatiest movie. (Spartacus? Cool Hand Luke?) In that same inquisitive spirit, we might ask which movie in history had the ugliest cast. Tod Browning's Freaks? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Whichever film holds the argument, The Name of the Rose must surely be a valid contender, despite the handsome, normal appearance of its main stars, Connery and Slater.
  • I was pleased with the DVD. The print is very well illuminated, even in the darkest and most macabre scenes. Even the details of the dark sex scene are quite clear. In addition to the good transfer, there are some worthwhile features. The director does a full-length commentary. (He is a gossipy and generous guy, and he's always interesting, if not very focused.) There are also two featurettes. One is a "making of" from back in 1986, and the other is a new interview with the effusive and expansive director, Jean-Jacques Annaud.
  • In a spirited and realistic sex scene, Valentina Vargas provides one of the more explicit gyno/procto shots ever committed to mainstream celluloid. Annaud points out in a DVD featurette that he never told Christian Slater what was coming in this scene. Slater knew that there was a love scene in the script, of course, but did not know that the director told Valentina Vargas to surprise Slater by making the scene as real as possible, and to be as aggressive as she could. Slater's natural reaction was captured on camera, and was perfect for the character, who was a naive and virginal novice monk being overpowered by a lusty, experienced peasant girl. I don't know if Vargas actually packed it the Slater Sausage at any time, but if not, she came damned close. Slater's penis also makes a few appearances on camera.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half. Maltin awarded 2/4, and Ebert 2.5/4 in contemporary reviews, but subsequent critics have regularly praised it, as shown below in the RT score.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.7 (tied with the lowest score it the all-time Top 250). It debuted with neither critical praise nor North American box office success, but has steadily developed a strong following. 
  • With their dollars ... It took in $7 million domestic on a $20 million budget, but was a solid hit overseas with $70 million in box office, and it has remained an excellent performer in the rental market. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is at least a very high C+, maybe a B. The offbeat mystery appeals to a lot of people who would not normally watch a film about medieval theology and scholarship.

Return to the Movie House home page