John Turturro’s TV adaptation of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s dark murder mystery set in a Benedictine abbey in 14th-century Italy, began screening on BBC2 in October, 2019. Author Jean Goodhind has read the book and seen the film; how will this version compare?
The moment I saw this in my TV schedule I marked the first episode for recording, though do admit this is not the first dramatisation I have seen of Umberto Eco’s novel.
The first was the 1986 film version starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville; his novice, Adso, was played by Christian Slater. The location was bleak, the costumes grotty enough to qualify most of the monks for a trick-or-treat outing. They were scary, and the action stayed with me for days after, which got me wondering whether the TV adaptation would deviate from the grim reality of the period or pretty it up.
The action is set in 1327, a time of schism in the Roman Catholic Church when the Pope abandoned Rome and set up his court in Avignon. It is also a time when the Church’s opulence was beginning to be criticised, especially by the Franciscan order, which believed poverty was the true path to Christ.
The main character is William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar of discerning mind, the Hercule Poirot of an earlier time. He is accompanied by Adso, a young novice from a wealthy background who becomes fascinated by the sharpness of William’s deductive powers and determines to follow him wherever he goes.
Where they go turns out to be a monastery in Northern Italy, a bleak, forbidding place perched on a craggy cliff and covered in snow.
William has a message to deliver to the abbot there to prepare for a meeting between the Chief Inquisitor, played by a suitably dark Rupert Everett, and Ludwig of Bavaria. The subject for discussion will be the contentious issue of the church, its wealth and the perceived poverty of Christ as practised by the Franciscan order. If it goes the way of the Inquisition, the Franciscans could be for the chop.
William plods on regardless, his novice walking in his footsteps. On arrival at the monastery they discover a monk’s body in the snow that appears to have fallen from one of the uppermost windows some four or five storeys above them.
The investigation into the monk’s demise is low key at first, the abbot refusing to believe it was suicide, but insisting it was purely an accident.
As their stay lengthens and William of Baskerville begins to dissect the facts, murder becomes the favoured method for the monk’s demise.
In order to investigate further, William is given permission to go anywhere in the monastery in order to further his enquiries – with the exception of the library. Only two monks and the abbot are ever allowed to enter the library where great works, ancient and modern are kept under lock and key. Bounded by a scriptorium where monks copy and illustrate manuscripts, the library is said to defend itself from unwanted intruders.
William does not show his suspicion, but suspicious he is. Someone is trying to put him off the scent and someone else is trying to gain his attention – the unfortunate latter character being found at the end of the first episode upturned in a barrel of pig’s blood.
Generally I was not disappointed. As with the film I saw all those years ago, there was a raw, unsettling quality to the settings and although the costumes of the pope and his colleagues was opulent, you could almost smell the more poorly-clad monks and feel the cold whistling around their monastery as well as their bare legs.
It was one of those historical series where you have to pay close attention and might be a bit slow moving or complicated for some viewers. There are many characters, and also many sub-plots hanging on the main theme; such a lot going on.
A little over-stuffed with monks for some viewers perhaps, but I’ve read the book and was quite happy to sift and sort both character and plot. Perhaps it helped that I have both seen the film and read the book.
So ended the first episode, and yes, I will be recording the next and might even watch the first episode again in order to set the plot in my mind.
Jean Goodhind is the author of over 50 novels in a number of genres, writing as Jean Moran, Lizzie Lane and Erica Brown.
Her latest book, written as Jean Moran, is Tears of the Dragon, published by Head of Zeus and set in the Far East just prior to the invasion of Hong Kong in 1941.
The Name of the Rose is on BBC2 at 9pm on Fridays from 11 October, 2019.
Bernard Gui and Pope John XXII, William of Baskerville, and Adso and monks in the scriptorium: all © BBC/Palomar/11 Marzo Film via BBC Pictures.
Photographer: Fabio Lovino