Television review: The Name of the Rose

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, May 31st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a TV adaptation of a book many Christians like.

MEGAN BASHAM, REVIEWER: The late Italian literary theorist and semiotics scholar Umberto Eco was not a believer. But because of his serious treatment of spiritual things, his novels often pop up on lists of Christian favorites. Theologian Michael Horton, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, and author and Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior all count themselves fans. When Eco died in 20-16, Marvin Olasky wrote an extended obituary dealing with the contradictions and complexities in his thinking.

And yet, Eco’s fiction reads like a cross between Marcel Proust and Dan Brown. It contains the kind of pot-boiling intrigue rarely associated with works classified as “literature.” His best-selling medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose is a prime example. It’s hard to imagine a book better built for adaptation in today’s “peak TV” environment of marrying twisty plots to intellectual pretension.

The classic Sherlockian plot would be selling point enough.

CLIP: I see that your problem is the following: If that unhappy youth, God forbid, had committed suicide, you’d not allow the body into the church. And I believe that this morning you would have found the windows open. Whereas you found them closed with no sign water at the foot of any of them.

An observant detective friar William of Baskerville solves a 14th century “locked room” homicide with his sidekick, the earnest and naïve novice Adso of Melk. The new Sundance Channel series also capitalizes on the magnificent setting by filming on location at a mountaintop abbey in the Italian alps.

CLIP: We had been walking for days. From dawn to dusk, often in silence. We were heading to a famous Benedictine abbey on a mountain range in northern Italy. During our journey, William’s mission remained unknown to me.

It trusts the audience’s intelligence enough to flesh out Eco’s religious and philosophical themes. In several ways, the series even improves on the occasionally unwieldy novel. And it’s light years ahead of the 1986 Sean Connery film.

John Turturro’s self-deprecating humor gives more likeable shading to Baskerville’s know-it-all lectures.

CLIP: Since I have been entrusted to present the imperial theologian’s point of view. What will happen if you lose the debate? I never lose a debate. Never? [laughs]

And additional subplots deepen the story’s appeal. Young Adso still sins with a peasant girl. But in this case the encounter is preceded first by friendship and then by a blooming romance. It’s both more realistic and more respectful toward women to give the girl a motivation beyond anonymous randy opportunism.

But it also brings us to the series’ downfall. Adso’s encounter with the peasant girl is at least as explicit as Eco wrote it. That scene and two other non-sexual scenes showing topless women spoil an otherwise exceptional show. How many opportunities do Christian TV-lovers have to see theological matters deeply debated, with the good guys making the more Biblical arguments? Where else is a viewer likely to hear the protagonist proclaim, “Christ did not come into the world to command but to be subject to the conditions he found?”

Baskerville’s Franciscan brothers act as Martin Luther precursors. They contend that though Christ owned all things He relinquished His claim to wealth and power. Therefore, His followers should do the same. Meanwhile their antagonists, Dominican envoys of a corrupt pope, heap up treasure on earth by putting vulgar price tags on absolution.  

CLIP: You see the figure of Christ has a purse at his waist, just to remind people that our Lord did not worship poverty, not even when he was on the Christ. The church of paupers has no future. And that’s precisely the ruin the Franciscans want to drag us into.

Rupert Everett’s performance as Bishop Bernardo embodies the worst stereotypes of Christian zeal. But his slobbering and sneering at the foot of the crucifix can’t extinguish the light of those Franciscans. Their good-humored simplicity and deep Scriptural devotion telegraphs the truth of salvation: Though bad men abuse the gospel and roost in cathedrals for their own selfish ends, the true church triumphs.

It all makes those fleshly scenes an even more crushing disappointment. As William of Baskerville himself observes, “Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could and perhaps should not do.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Photo/Fosforo Press)

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