Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Tristan and Isolde: Another Great Story Botched by Hollywood Literalists

(This is the Blog Edition of something I will turn in for school. The school version will look different from this. Less... digressive, for one thing.)

Tristan + Isolde is a movie released in 2005, based on the legend that bears the same or similar names. The story is a great one, long one of the most powerful in western literature. The movie is another matter.

The movie, from a purely aesthetic point of view, is so-so. The set design is beautiful, though gloomy; Sophia Myles is wonderful as Isolde; and the fights scenes are well done. However, the other actors range from mediocre to bad. The script is terrible, and historical accuracy seems to have been fed to the dogs. My brother and I came up with a drinking game based on it: you take a shot every time there's a historical inaccuracy. The problem is, you'd be blind drunk in the first half hour.

In fact, the movie was so bad, that it caused me to want look for the story that inspired it (the logic works if you don't think about it too hard).

The first thing I discovered was that there are many versions of the story, from nearly every nationality in Europe, with as many variations on it. J. Bedier, a lifelong scholar of this legend, determined that there must have been a common source for it, an original tale, now lost.

The basic themes and events of every version of the story, however, are very similar. Tristan's mother dies in childbirth, and gives him a name which literally means 'child of sorrow.' He is sent from his home to be raised in the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, where he grows into a great knight. He defeats an Irish knight, come to challenge the king, but is fearfully wounded in doing so. He is sent on a raft over the sea, and washes up on the shore of Ireland, where Isolde, sister of the knight he killed, heals him, without knowing who he is. In some versions they develop great affection for each other at this point; some versions are silent on this matter.

Tristan returns to Cornwall, but is shortly sent back to Ireland to bring Isolde home, to be Mark's queen and forge peace between the lands. (In some versions, this is the result of negotiations; in some, Tristan slays a dragon to win her, or wins a tournament.) Isolde's mother, apparently a great sorceress, sends a love potion with the girl's maid, a potion that will bind whoever drinks it in undying love. It is intended to be slipped into Mark and Isolde's drinks. Tristan and Isolde are mistakenly given it to drink. Guess what happens.

There is much variation in the next part of the story. To give the gist, Tristan and Isolde carry out their affair, trying to keep it a secret, but of course this is impossible. They are found out. Sometimes the king banishes them, or sentences the to be killed and they escape. At any rate, because he loves both Tristan and Isolde, there is a plethora of second chances, of returning of trust, which is always violated by the pair's adultery. Tristan is finally banished, and dies. Usually he dies because a bitter woman who loved him but whom he did not love tells him that Isolde does not love him, and he dies with her at the gate of the castle he rests in.

The legend probably began life as an oral tale, and was commonly told by bards in the Middle Ages. Many of the earliest extant versions were copied down by monks in Ireland, England, or France. The story found a niche in the expansive King Arthur mythos. After Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, it lay dormant until the 19th Century, when there was a revival in Arthurian mythology. Its best-known incarnation was in Wagner's19th-Century opera, Tristan und Isoud.

What has made this legend so fascinating to so many people over so many centuries?

The most obvious reason is the basic fascination this type of story holds; the theme of forbidden love, of star-crossed lovers, seems to strike a deep chord with people. One thinks of the obvious example of Romeo and Juliet. But this particular story goes beyond simply a pair of lovers who cannot be together. For the third player, King Mark, is usually portrayed sympathetically: he is Tristan's beloved uncle, a good man, and a wise king. This is the most heart-wrenching part of the tale; for neither Tristan nor Isolde wishes to betray the king, yet neither seems either willing or able to cease loving one another, thus betraying the king anyway.

To its credit, the movie portrays this aspect very well. However, it leaves out another point of interest entirely.

"The mystery which is the cause of all this suffering, the love potion," says Prof. Alan Fedrick, in his introduction to Beroul's The Romance of Tristan, "Is undeniably an essential part of the legend's fascination.... The theme of the love potion is probably the best known distinguishing feature of the Tristan legend, and it is in their attitude to this theme that later authors differ most widely."

This is not to say that one must blame the potion for the adultery that follows; the potion might function, as in Shakespeare's plays, as a symbol for the unreasoning nature of love. A Midsummer Night's Dream is not about the love potion, despite the fact that it seems to make the lovers in that play act in ways they would not normally; for all four lovers in that play, from an objective viewpoint, are equally suited to one another: all are good looking, young, prospersous. But the vagaries of Love seem to elevate one particular person above the rest.

Similarly with Tristan, Isolde and Mark: Both men are equally suitable husbands; and for Isolde, loving Mark would cause no problems such as bringing kingdoms to their knees. But Isolde, love potion or no love potion, loves Tristan.

So how does the movie deal with the love potion? Quite simply, it doesn't. It throws it out entirely. In an interview, writer Dean Georgaris said he took out the love potion "Because I thought it would be nice if they fell in love simply because they fell in love." Well that's nice, but you've just thrown out a thousand years of literary tradition. He elaborates, "So our version of the story is a stripped-down, more realistic version."

This is the key to the movie's failure. There has been a trend recently of stripping down old legends, trying to make them more "realistic". This was the watch word of the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced King Arthur (2004). The idea was to set King Arthur in just barely post-Roman Britain, where his legend probably began, and eliminate all the extraneous characters. However, this would have meant eliminating Guinevere (whose character was a Medieval French invention), Lancelot (also a later French addendum), and Merlin. And without these three, there's really no legend to tell.

So they were kept, and given rationalizations for being there. But really all the record there is of this old Roman Arthur is of some battles he fought. So the movie had to fill up an hour and a half of screen time based on events that might have happened, based on what we know of the cultural conditions of the time. Basically, it was creating its own myth.

This is what happens when you strip myths of their mythology: you are left with a jumble of characters, a realistic setting, and some basic themes that you have far less tools to use to work into a story. You end up reinventing the wheel, trying to create a new myth that is not the old myth and yet is the old myth.

This is partly where the movie fails: without the love potion, and without the trappings of chivalry, Tristan and Isolde simply appear as two adulterers, for there is now no way to show that intagible thing, love. The potion worked as a symbol for it; that is gone. The accounts of Tristan's rescuing Isolde from death have been eliminated. Gone too, is the scene where the pair meet a hermit, who challenges them morally; and with this goes any hint of the ambiguous morality the pair is engaged in. They go from a pair holding their love against their duty, and trying and failing to reconcile the two, to a pair engaging in their affair because the laws and customs that keep them apart are wrong anyway. They become moral judges, rather than sinners.

A further aspect of the movie is its gloominess. The sets are dark, and when they are not, the story is dark, the dialogue depressive, the directing apparently set up to accentuate misery. The poem of Beroul, and most of the rest of the legends incarnations, have at least some hint of irony. There is the irony of God seeming to engineer things to protect the lovers; the irony of Isolde's ambiguous oaths. Sometiems the whole story, the idea of two adulterers as heroes, is treated as ironic. And, in the best retellings, real humor can be elicited from these situations, while not betraying the tragic mode.

The legend of Tristan and Isolde has a long history of reinterpretation and derivation.However, its central themes, those of love, sacrifice, passion, irony, and moral ambiguity, have always remained the same. And it is in betraying these themes, more than the shoddy production, that the movie ultimately fails.


I recommend a translation of Beroul's The Romance of Tristan if you're interested in the story. It's one of the best.


Anyone who even read THIS far deserves congratulations. Below is just some extras; take them or leave them. ;-)

(The original opening line, which I liked so much I wanted to save.)

Recently (okay, it was a while ago, but recently sounds better) I watched the movie Tristan + Isolde. I will skip the typical sarcastic typographical posturing and simply say, it was a horrible movie.

Here is a list of variations JUST IN BLOODY SPELLING I found:

Tristan, Tristam, Tristram, Trystan

Isolde, Isold, Iseult, Isolt, Yseut, Isoud, Ysoud, George Foreman.

An extended opinion on the best part of the movie:

Sophia Myles plays Isolde with as much intensity and passion as the character calls for. She seems able to deliver the hokiest lines and make them, at least, ALMOST palatable. Too bad her co-star, Jamie Franco, had all the intensity of a slug.

And for anyone who read all THAT I have a gold-plated award of some kind.



EH said...

I did read the whole thing. Where's my gold-plated award?!?!

Paul said...

As did I. I also wish a gold plated award. I also wish to hear the story about Tristan and George Foreman. ;)

EH said...

I KNOW!!! Ethan seriously needs to keep his promise and give us a gold-plated award apiece. Tristan is a cool name. if you've ever read the all creatures great and small books, Tristan was a HILARIOUS guy.... but that's a different Tristan. and some people use Tristan as a girl's name, which i think is kind of weird. bye now.

Heidi said...

I read the whole thing too, Ethan. How much gold have you been hiding away from us? ;)

EH said...

i don't think ethan will be giving us any gold-plated awards for a couple of days. maybe then our whining will be loud enough to convince him!

Ethan said...

Ellen: Tristan is a cool name. Unfortunately it also means "child of sadness." Furthermore, I remember Tristan from those books. He was, ahem, quite funny.

Paul: Society did not accept Tristan and George Foreman. So George began punching people's teeth out. Sadly, she punched Tristan as well, and Tristan died in her arms.

Heidi: ...

Ethan said...

Oh, and furthermore:

*Hands Heidi, Paul and Ellen pennies with 1-karat gold plating that say AWARD on them.*

*Runs off into the happy purple sunset glow of insanity.*


EH said...

you amuse me. i think i shall not allow you to be thrown to the giant pink grasshoppers. oh, also, i already KNEW Tristan meant 'child of sadness'. yeah. w/e. bye.

Anonymous said...

oh my god
this movie was the most amazing one i've seen in years, and you're either a too judgemental person, so judgemental that you have absolutely no friends and you get drunk durring every movie because you decide that there is a historical allusion, then go on the internet and copy and paste off of wiki the goofs in the movie (too drunk to remember anything from the actual movie) and then post this here so people would think you are so smart and critical and you'll feel special in your own sad kind of way, or there is a chance that you're simply retarted and can't put two and two together, and again copied and pasted the historical info nd goofs in the movie off of a critic's website simply because you could not understand the movie

either way
i would fucking beat you up if i ever met you

thank you for your time,
and to all who read this and agree that this guy is an asshole


Anonymous said...

Very good review, I watched it last night, it was better than I thought it would be from looking at rottontomatoes but it's terrible flaws and general failing was just as you described.

I liked most of the charectors but the skinny, wet eyed, weepy hero became just too much after a while and by the end he and the girl (especially the girl) were so morally trashed that you despised them both.