Marcus Aquilla, a wounded young Centurion, ventures into the wilds beyond the northern border of his empire. His goal: to find whatever's left of his father's lost legion, and to reclaim the eagle-standard that was the symbol of their honour.
On its surface, the plot of The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliffe's children's historical classic, is a familiar one, especially to fantasy readers. It's a quest! For the mystical doohickey-of-our-ancestors! Knowing that the book had just been adapted for a film staring Channing 'Epic-of-the-Neck' Tatum, I approached the book in that spirit, expecting much gallivanting around misty glens, and bashing of barbarians with pilums. What I found was far subtler, smarter and more humane.
In many ways, the The Eagle of The Ninth seems a poor candidate for steroiding-up into a Hollywood blockbuster. For one thing, excepting a brief siege at the beginning, there is very little fighting in the novel. Marcus, and his friend and body-slave Esca, proceed through their quest for the Eagle by observation, deception and a certain amount of blind luck, but there is none of the stab-happy violence about them that characterises many adventure-parties.
For another thing, the quest itself doesn't even start until over a third of the way into the book. Instead, Marcus gets a leg injury and spends a chunk of time recuperating, during which Sutcliffe treats us to a thorough, and pretty sophisticated, children's introduction to the problems and pitfalls of occupying a foreign country through military force. I say sophisticated, because the Britons aren't simply portrayed as bubbling and spitting at the Romans like a pan of resentful fat. As far as a lot of them are concerned, occupation makes little difference to their ability to farm and hunt and marry and love. Their individual lives stay pretty liveable, so they try and get on and live them, as individuals. But they also share a sense of violated pride, and a culture ill-at-ease with the rules imposed by the Romans, and so, as a collective they find themselves again and again rising up.
A son of a chieftain slain by Romans, enslaved by Romans, Esca could be forgiven a little racism, but his relationship with Marcus is untainted by prejudice. When Marcus rescues him from death in the games, Esca declares himself as 'loyal as a hound' and he remains just exactly that - loyal for the course of the book. It's endearing and infuriating in equal measure, although it never seems spineless, because there's never any indication he's suppressing a rebellious instinct.
Esca's affection for Marcus seems in part to be engendered by the general gosh-wow-what-an-awesome-guyness of Marcus himself. Brave, smart, resourceful, reckless only in protecting him men, honourable and painfully reasonable, he feels no blood-lust and grapples manfully with agonizing wounds without complaint. In every, single dilemma, our protagonist chooses the moral, smart, or courageous path.
This isn't the clanging Mary-sueism it might appear. Marcus and Esca aren't the author's self-insertions. Rather they seem to be role models, or better, icons. Like the Eagle of the Ninth itself. Symbols to be aspired to by the spirit, even when the flesh can't measure up. Even so, when Sutcliffe's shines the bright white light of her values on her characters, even the faintest trace of a shadow that might have provided some definition to them is scoured away. It leaves their conquering of adversity feeling inevitable, and a little unsatisfying, and perhaps, more than anywhere else, this is where the story shows it's age.
The best thing about this novel is the language. Rich, sharp and beautifully poised, Sutcliffe's descriptions slip the wild heather and the cool highland breeze in behind the senses of the reader. This is another reason why the film adaptation seems so ill-judged. Adapting what makes the novel great into a film, would be like trying to adapt a Renoir for radio. You can supply the data, but the sense that made it worthwhile can't make the jump across media.
To be fair to the filmmakers behind The Eagle (I'm not sure why they hacked off the second half of then name) they knew that a book characterised by a very little violence, and a conflictless main-relationship wouldn't make a riveting movie. Their answer was simple.
Change the book. Change it wholesale.
And you know what? I don't mind that. There's nothing sacred in the text, nothing that says the film can't choose it's own path. There's no good reason why the remnants of the disgraced Ninth Legion shouldn't band together to reclaim their honour by fighting a last ditch battle against the nasty, barbarian Brits, even if by doing so they sacrifice all the even-handed subtlety that made the source text interesting. The film could've made its own merits, and then stood on them.
Sadly, it didn't.
The divergences from the book were handled with uniform artlessness. Action scenes were added, but the blue-painted baddies just spattered over Marcus and Esca like a light drizzle, with virtually no impact on their bodies or their minds. Esca was given a boiling loathing of all things Roman, but the script undercuts it by having him cack-handedly state his own motivation.
“I hate everything you stand for, everything you are,” he says to Marcus. “But you saved me, so I have to serve you.”
That's not dialogue, that's a cribnote. The script bludgeons the viewer with exposition, as brutal and brusque as a drill sergeant. Proceed immediately to next battle scene, do not pass insight, do not collect a meaningful story.
It's a shame, because the book for all its slightly antique-feeling moral rectitude, works. The immediacy of the writing sears away your cynicism, and makes you feel like family honour could be worth a desperate quest to recover a battered metal bird. Sutcliffe's language puts you there, with a friend you know you'd die for, hunched over a fitful fire, in the wilds beyond the wall.
Tom Pollock is now that rarest of beasts - a recurring guest author for Pornokitsch (we didn't scare him off!). Tom spends most of his spare time making up monsters that jump out at you from around street corners. You can read more of his ramblings about stories, plus the odd bit of fiction or verse, at wingsmith.livejournal.com and you can follow him at @tomhpollock.