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Scaramouche – by Rafael Sabatini

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad – Rafael Sabatini

Scaramouche: a stock character in the Italian commedia dell’arte that burlesques the Spanish don and is characterized by boastfulness and cowardliness… from the Italian scaramuccia, skirmish – Meriam-Webster Dictionary

th43CA7I4IThe character Scaramouche is a little skirmisher, not a hero. He starts things, but he does not necessarily stick around to finish them; he lets other people do that. Scaramouche is also wearing a mask; he is an actor playing a part that has been outlined for him. The actor must ad-lib his lines in commedia dell’arte, but the role is established and he cannot deviate from it.

Scaramouche was published in 1921 and was so successful they made a movie two years later with Ramon Novarro in the title role. It was Rafael Sabatini’s first successful novel, though he had written others before. He would go on to write many more, including Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. He has always been, for me, the quintessential writer of swashbucklers. But Scaramouche is considered his finest book and has always been my own favorite.

The story occurs just before and during the French Revolution and follows the adventures of André-Louis Moreau. He was born illegitimately and does not know his parents. His godfather, M. de Kercadiou, has raised him to be a lawyer. But when his friend is murdered in a duel by the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr (who knew his friend could not fence) because his friend was proclaiming the rights of man and the injustice of the aristocracy, André-Louis is determined to avenge himself on the Marquis. He does not believe in his friend’s rhetoric – he is too cynical about the nature of man – but he can still give voice to his friends ideals and stir up the people against men like the Marquis.

Another reason for his hatred of him is that the Marquis is also seeking to wed André-Louis’s childhood friend, Aline, the niece of M. de Kercadiou.

But André-Louis’ political agitation gets him in political hot water and he has to flee, falling in with an acting troupe, where he finds what he believes is his most natural role, playing Scaramouche. But although temporarily distracted with acting and falling in love, he is soon reminded of his promise to speak for his dead friend and causes a small riot at the theater and must flee. This time he finds work at a fencing academy and becomes friends with the fencing master, learning to fence and eventually succeeding him to the business.

By this time the Revolution has begun in earnest and he no longer has to hide. In fact, he is now sought so that he can participate in the assembly in forming a constitution. But the aristocrats who form the First Estate on the assembly are challenging important assembly men from the Third Estate to duels, who accept out of a sense of honor. Inevitably, they are killed, until André-Louis begins to provoke the aristocrats into fighting him, instead. As a fencing master, he naturally wins and soon manages to achieve his dearest wish of provoking the Marquis into challenging him. At the end of the book, there are also several surprise revelations (almost like a mystery novel, important revelations and explanations all come in the last two chapters).

Ramon Novarro as Scaramouche from the 1923 Silent Film

Ramon Novarro as Scaramouche from the 1923 Silent Film

André-Louis is Sabatini’s most intriguing character from any of his novels. He is at turns a lawyer, revolutionary agitator, orator, friend, avenger, actor, fencing master, lover, politician, and evil genius (the words of the Marquis). And he does well in each role. But he also points out several times that his most natural role is that of Scaramouche; he always seems to be having to leave behind every role that he plays after he has started some form of trouble.

And like Scaramouche, he is always figuratively wearing a mask. He is very conscious of the affect he has on people and will deliberately say, do or behave a certain way to disguise his emotions or to achieve a certain goal. The result is that, through his sarcastic humor and flippant manner, he is always being asked by those who love him (and those who don’t) if he has no heart.

One of the most supreme ironies is that despite all his wit, his understanding of human nature and his abilities, he does not understand himself and is mistaken in his own motivations. He does not fully realize that he loves Aline, and that ends up clouding his understanding of her motivations. And he is even curiously blind about who his mother really is, though it seemed fairly obvious to me. It is as though his reason and pride in his sardonic detachment from an unreasonably emotional world blinds him and on several occasions he makes serious errors in attributing the wrong motivations to people.

He is almost like a male, swashbuckling version of Jane Austen’s Emma (and Austen and André-Louis do both appreciate irony); how Emma believes she understands everyone’s feelings, but does not know her own in regard to Mr. Knightley…though André-Louis does not try to arrange other people’s lives. He is much too busy throwing himself headlong into whatever pursuit he is currently pursuing.

It is a very engaging, exciting read. I’ve never gotten tired of it.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Fiction

 

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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.

 
 

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