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Paradise Lost & Found: Milking Milton

Sometimes you hear a movie pitch and you think “man, that’s a good idea”. This is not one of those ideas. Apparently Hollywood has run out of modern fantasy books and comics to adapt and have set their eyes to a somewhat higher brow work: Milton’s Paradise Lost. I loved that book in secondary school almost as much as I loved Dante’s Inferno (the rest of The Divine Comedy I could take or leave, to be brutally honest). Anyway, you’d think I would be rejoicing at the news of the adaptation, but my cynical nature betrays itself here. You see, here is exactly what the producers had to say about the proposal:

…the project tells the story of the epic war in heaven between archangels Michael and Lucifer, and will be crafted as an action vehicle that will include aerial warfare, possibly shot in 3D.

Yes, it’s a 3D “aerial warfare” movie. I’m waiting for the announcement that Sam Worthington will play Satan and Vin Diesel will play the “one day away from retirement” Archangel “my friends call me Gabe” Gabriel.

That pitch meeting obviously didn't go well...

You can just tell that director Alexis Proyas – a talent who has failed to live up to the promise hinted at with the sensational Dark City – was only selected when the studio discovered that “that guy who did Lord of the Rings or one of the Harry Potter directors was not available. And, being entirely honest, I’m not convinced that Proyas is a good choice. He didn’t exactly nail the religious undertones of his last film, Knowing, so his capacity to hand the religious overtones one would expect in Paradise Lost 3D has to be somewhat doubted.

However, this belies my central dilemma. I cannot name a bigger mainstream film director I would prefer to see handle this film. Except maybe Nolan – and even then he’d more than likely end up reworking the premise considerably, but it would at least be an entertaining movie – but Nolan is a director who could announce he was making a third Deuce Bigalow movie and I’d get in line for it. But the problem remains – Paradise Lost provides the dilemma which grips so much of these sorts of works when it comes to adaptation.

I don’t fundamentally think that the poem is impossible to adapt to film (if there is such a work), but rather is more than likely never going to properly adapted in the current climate. By which I mean the work has two central defining traits which are placed at odds with one another in the studio framework. The first key component is that it needs to be “big”. No arthouse film director like Lars Von Trier or garbage peddler like Uwe Boll is going to be able to deliver a film on the requisite scale. Which means that the budget for a spectacle that the story needs will have to come from inside the studio system – one driven on the lowest possible risk and the safest possible choices.

The other essential aspect of a work like that is that – if it’s going to be handled – it needs a film maker with genuine vision who isn’t afraid to play outside the box if necessary. However, taking risks on films of the scale required is the antithesis of what Hollywood is about. You don’t get to do what you want with that much money unless you’re the guy who made Avatar or The Dark Knight – otherwise you have suits walking the set, telling you what you can have and what you can’t have.

I wonder if this project has wings...

In fairness, there is a flipside to this argument. Occasionally, it’s proven wrong. Peter Jackson being given the keys to The Lord of the Rings as a franchise is perhaps the definitive example of a sacred text being put in the hands of a (relatively) inexperienced director (at least on that scale) and it paying dividends. Of course, that is literally the only example I can think of. But I’m probably being relatively closed-minded – can you think of a better example (or even just another example)?

It’s really weird to see Hollywood going this direction at all, though. Last time I checked, angels weren’t exactly a hot property. I mean, Legion didn’t exactly set the box office alight, did it? Sure, the Prophecy movies earned enough to produce a trilogy, but with a drastically reduced budget each time. And nobody mentions Constantine, despite Tilda Swinton’s great performance (in an otherwise sucky film) as Gabriel. The only successful angel-related films are low-key “life is good” feel-good films like It’s a Wonderful Life or The Preacher’s Wife, which aren’t in the exact same pedigree as what we’re talking about here.

And let’s not forget that religion is pretty likely a taboo subject among blockbusters – likely one of the reasons that we haven’t seen the release of a film version of Preacher yet. I would have thought that religion in this day and age was a sure way to divide your audience – a Christian narrative might not necessarily sell well as a blockbuster in the wider world (or even in America or Europe itself).

It’s strange, because I always figured that if you wanted to turn your attention to classic works, the Greek and Roman myths were ripe for adaptation. Seriously, they’ve got monsters and heroes and magic and sex and everything a blockbuster needs – Clash of the Titans demonstrated that this sort of fare was made for the era of CGI. The Iliad is arguably made for a big summer blockbuster and you can even throw in some Oscar nominations for free – think Gladiator but with literal monsters instead of creepy incestuous versions of Joaquin Phoenix.

I don’t know. This might not happen. But it could. It’ll be interesting – at least academically – to see how it turns out, despite all these things that are weighing against it. Which means they can, against my better judgement, count on at least one ticket from me.

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