BMCR 2009.03.60

Whither Quo Vadis?: Sienkiewicz’s Novel in Film and Television

, , Whither Quo Vadis?: Sienkiewicz's Novel in Film and Television. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. x, 292. ISBN 9781405183857 $100.00.

It is a remarkable fact that there were more than 200 novels in English about the ancient world published in the eighty years from Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii of 1838 to the end of the First World War. The vast majority of these were focused on religion — the development of Christianity, the destruction of the Temple, the end of Druids. Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur — subtitled “A Story of the Christ”— was the best-selling novel in America until Gone with the Wind, and as a play and film has gone on to define the genre. There were, however, a string of best-sellers now less well-known, as well as some frankly terrible books, where cruel pagans are instantly converted to the new religion by a plucky Christian’s honest face and brave resistance to torture. This genre of novels was part of the battle for hearts and minds in Victorian Britain, where religion was debated with an intensity and earnestness unparalleled since the Reformation. Catholics and Protestants (and many other groups) clashed specifically over the early Church and its significance for modern religion, and these historical novels were a prime means of spreading a specific religious agenda about history and its role in the present.

Henryk Sienkiewicz published Quo Vadis? in Polish in serial form in 1895, and shortly afterwards the novel appeared. It tells an epic story of the early Christians and their persecution by Nero. Its first English translation was as soon as 1897, and it has never been out of print since (with a new translation as recently as 1993). In 1905, Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to epic writing, and, as the award speech emphasized, his international fame rested on Quo Vadis?, which had already been translated into 30 languages, and sold more than 2,000,000 copies in Germany and Poland alone, as well as 800,000 in a single year in the U.S.A. It was a book which was regarded as sufficiently serious to lead to the Nobel Prize, but sufficiently popular to be a household name the world over.

In many ways, Quo Vadis? is a perfect example of the genre of the classical historical novel. It is obsessed with scholarship about the ancient world and about Christianity, with lengthy excurses on historical and archaeological details. It is peopled with characters from history interlaced with fictional figures — one of the most distinctive features of what Roland Barthes called “the reality effect” of the nineteenth-century novel. It fleshes out characters who are familiar to the classically trained reader, but who are often only briefly mentioned in classical sources: so one of its heroes is Petronius, the “arbiter elegentiarum” of Nero’s intimate circle and probable author of the Satyricon. It has an easy anti-Semitism, and a passionate support for the early Christians. Unlike most novels of this genre written in English, however, the author is Catholic rather than Protestant; and, although by the end of the nineteenth century, the fierceness of the anti-Catholic (and pro-Catholic) rhetoric of earlier novels had been tempered, there is a clear Catholic agenda to the novel’s portrayal of Peter and Paul.

The novel Quo Vadis? is, I suspect, not as widely known today, barely read even by classical students, and it may even be the case that the majority of our own graduate students would not be able to recognize the source and significance of the quotation enshrined in the title. This, despite the fact that the book has had a remarkable after-life in the world of film and television. There have been five full-scale adaptations for screen. The first was a silent Italian version made in 1912 by Guazonni; the most recent, a lavish Polish production issued in 2001 — the most expensive Polish film ever made. The 1925 Italian film (started by d’Annunzio but finished by a German team) is famous for the performance of Nero by Emil Jannings, a landmark in the iconography of the mad emperor. The 1951 Hollywood extravaganza is best remembered for Peter Ustinov’s Nero, but, with Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr as stars, it is also highly significant as the first major Hollywood epic after the Second World War. In 1985 there was also a miniseries for Italian T.V. As with Ben Hur, the novel has been overtaken by its screen adaptations, with the films of ancient epics from the 1950s in turn overtaken in the popular imagination by more recent productions such as “Gladiator” and “Troy”. Quo Vadis? is a wonderful place to explore not just the reception of classical sources across a century of adaptation, but also the relation of classics and popular culture.

Ruth Scodel, well-known for her studies of Homeric poetry, and Anja Bettenworth, who teaches Latin at Münster, and also works on ancient epic, have set out to investigate these five filmic adaptations of Quo Vadis? in their nicely titled study Whither Quo Vadis?. They offer a very brief and rather thin introduction on the theoretical issue of how novels are transformed into films, along with an equally brief and rather thin discussion of Sienkiewicz’s book. The focus of their book, however, is firmly on the films and on how they respond to the novel. There are five central chapters. The first looks at how the narrative of the novel is adapted in the five versions. This is a narratologically informed study of what scenes are included or excluded, of who focalizes the narrative, and of how the city appears within the films. The second chapter looks at gender and ethnicity. In Quo Vadis?, the central love story is between a Roman general and a Christian girl called Lygia, who comes from a region now in Poland and who escapes from any suggestion of barbarian values by quoting Homer, becoming Christian, and mixing purity and beauty in full confirmation of the stereotypes of Victorian heroism. Sienkiewicz was a Polish nationalist, and his ideological commitments are not hard to decipher. The secondary love story is between Petronius and his slave Eunice. Love across the races, across the classes, and across religions, is inevitably differently understood and differently represented across the twentieth century, where race, class, and religion have provided the frameworks for most of the conflicts that have scarred the era. Epic is always about the present understanding of nation, power and history, and the ancient world provides a particularly layered and engaging alibi for debating such issues.

The third chapter, thus, turns to political institutions and the political subtexts of the five different adaptations. There are some particularly interesting suggestions about the connections between Italian politics and the 1985 Italian miniseries, which also helps explain the surprisingly free adaptation of the book. The fourth chapter looks at the people of Rome: how are the masses depicted? This is a question not just of a Marxist bent, but also and more precisely of how any Marxist understanding relates to the Christian obsession with the crowd as the baying voyeurs of martyrdom and the setting for the greatest of conversion stories. The final discussion focuses on religion and religious authority, perhaps the most pressing of the intellectual agendas of the novel — but which takes on a quite different set of colours as the twentieth century pursues its less earnest engagement with Christianity, at least in popular art.

There is much to admire in this book. It has a clear focus and a good set of questions. It knows its way round the five films and around the classical sources, and is prepared to look at broader issues in relation to the close reading of the films. It does not bang its own drum loudly, but it should be emphasized how few books do succeed in bringing together a detailed appreciation of films as artistically constructed narratives with wider questions of politics and history, especially across such a time frame. There is a huge advantage to being able to see how a single novel is re-worked across a range of contexts: different countries, histories, languages, and ideological frameworks. As such, it makes a genuine contribution to reception studies, and will be used as such, as well as in the more narrowly circumscribed world of film studies.

It would have been more intellectually persuasive if the conclusions of the chapters had been more developed: they tend to fizzle out with the claim that different films produce different Romes, a claim which is of no great surprise and of little analytical purchase. It also desperately needs a broader sense of how each film was received in its own cultural context. There are barely any contemporary reviews or other material discussed, and what there is, is relegated to footnotes. How a film means needs a broader gaze than this book allows. Indeed, my main concern was precisely about what sort of reception studies this book offers. For each of the films is read very much as if it were engaging with previous films and with Sienkweciz’s book in an enclosed “literary” world. That is, the formal analyses of what scenes are included or excluded, of how the crowd is represented, who focalizes the scene and so forth, are conducted as formal analyses. Like discussing Apollonius of Rhodes re-working a Homeric type scene. There is much less of an attempt to appreciate any film as an event: who saw it, who said what about it when, how it entered and contributed to a cultural debate. This strategy starts from the beginning of the study: there is no awareness of how Sienkiewicz is contributing to and formed by the genre in which he is writing. He is influenced by Ben Hur, the authors correctly note, but they do not explore what this influence is, or the impact of other novels of the genre, or why this book was so successful as a novel: who it spoke to and how. Each film takes place too within a rich cultural context which needs exploring, with some solid archival history — as Maria Wyke, for example, has looked in detail at how films about Caesar are constructed as events — with marketing, reviews, intellectual discussions, all playing a role. There is simply not enough cultural history here to make sense of the cultural event of a film. It leaves us with too thin a historical sense of each film.

Scodel and Bettenworth, as one might expect from their distinguished work in classics, do not utilize the most sophisticated (and sometimes highly pretentious) theoretical work on film; nor are they trained in technical analysis of the production of visual images. They do well here what they do well elsewhere: a careful and largely intelligent analysis of how a film’s narrative reworks both earlier film narratives, and also the book from which they all are derived — which in turn re-works a set of classical sources into a fictional account. It is no straightforward task to tease out these layers of adaptation, and there is much to enjoy here in such analysis. What is missing finally, however, from their formal approach is the cultural history which explains why film matters as a cultural event. And this is a big question for contemporary reception studies: how should reception studies and cultural history interact?