Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

arabia through a lens, sepiatone

Another day, another sweeps period, another spectacular historic miniseries event for May.

What is it about recent sweeps periods that have brought out historical literary works to play?

The success of The Odyssey and Gulliver's Travels on NBC seems to have ruined sweeps month. It's hard to imagine that anything could ruin sweeps month even more, especially in May, but that seems to have done it. The difficulty is that they were both terribly successful--not only critically acclaimed, but people watched them--thus producing a network stampede to repeat this high-budget success.

Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten what made those miniseries successful. It wasn't just the spectacle of it all, it wasn't just the casting, it isn't the beautiful sets, it wasn't just the "event advertising", although, no doubt, it all played a role.

It's the writing, people! You can pretty much do what you want with something like The Odyssey, because, although many people know the framework of the story, most people haven't read Homer and don't know the details. (And they should be glad. About the third or fourth time Rosy-Fingered Dawn goes past, mayhem begins to enter your mind.) With a source like Gulliver's Travels, you have to be more careful, because it has been more widely read, if generally in a sanitized version. But in both cases, the scriptwriters were fairly careful to make their characters consistent and to generally write a very good screenplay that was fairly true to the time and the characters.

Unfortunately, this year's crop of literary/historical miniseries doesn't seem to have absorbed that part of the lesson. For all its beauty and casting, NBC's The Tenth Kingdom was basically a mess (as I mentioned in an earlier review). And now Arabian Nights comes down the pike.

Arabian Nights, like the Tenth Kingdom, is a beautiful, generally well-acted ... mess.. The art direction and set decoration were truly stunning in places, although they tended to be a tad sepiatone. The acting, as mentioned, was for the most part fairly good. (Does Dougray Scott do anything but period pieces? Honestly, I've only seen him in three things, and they were ALL period. Not that he's bad, heavens no. Somehow, he seems to be quite right for period pieces. And the actress playing Scheherazade, Mili Avital, was quite good, all things considered.

Unfortunately, the writer and director seem to have left a few brain cells behind here and there.

Take, for example, Scheherazade's overall situation. She is currently the Sultan's wife because he caught his first wife, whom he loved greatly, having an affair with his brother. In a fit of anger, he killed her. (As was his right, under the laws at the time. Note that in the original story, he kills her lover as well.) After that, he marries a woman a day, and has them executed before dawn the next day, after a night of ... whatever. (Well, it frankly doesn't sound as if it would have been pleasurable for anyone involved, including him.) If the woman survives past dawn, she will live through the next day, but none have so far. Scheherazade, in this version, is a very bright, intelligent young woman who has never told a story before, and now has to do it in an intriguing enough way to keep him engaged until after dawn daily. So, in order to develop the skills to do so, every morning after the Sultan falls asleep, she goes out to the bazaar to a professional storyteller so that he can teach her his skills.

Now, consider: the Sultan executed his first wife because, at its core, she betrayed him with another man. She deceived him. If Scheherazade is going out daily to be taught by this man how to tell stories, what is she doing that's so different? A different level of betrayal, to be sure, but still betrayal. And with a man. To say nothing of the fact that a gently reared woman of the harim would never have been able to get out and about like that. It's simply not a sane or safe thing for her to be doing. (And in the original, she doesn't. She and her sister, Dunazade, have been telling each other stories for years and developed the skills. I don't know why they decided that this part of the story had to go.)

The stories themselves also had problems. For some reason, they decided to introduce all sorts of anachronisms into the dialogue for John Leguizamo's djinn (he plays two of them), and they just jar you right out of the story. Airplanes? Cars? What the hell are they doing in this story? The one story that works the best--the tale of Buk Buk or Dikdik or whatever the character's name was--depends on stereotypes for its humor, stereotypes which are just this side of offensive, and which, frankly, didn't have to be there. The base story itself was funny enough without them--various people keep winding up with the corpse of the sultan's favorite in their possession and MUST get rid of the body, lest they be blamed for his death. The stereotypes are only slightly more muted in the Aladdin story.

Scheherazade's part of the story also contains a conspiracy subplot between the Lord High Executioner and the Sultan Shahryar's brother, the first wife's lover. Shahryar doesn't have enough people killed for the executioner to make money, so he's throwing his weight behind the brother. Not only is this plot stupid, but after the establishing scenes, it pretty much disappears altogether--between Scheherazade's scenes with Shahryar, and the stories she tells, there's simply no time to establish a decent conspiracy. In fact, the entire subplot with Shahryar's brother, which didn't exist in the original, is both stupid and appalling. (He drags around the corpse of his lover, the sultan's clearly dead first wife. Ick.)

The ending, to be sure, was quite nicely handled. In the original, you don't discover until the end that Scheherazade has been telling these thousand and one stories over the course of 20 years and several children. In the miniseries, at the very end, you discover that Scheherazade has, in fact, been telling the entire story--her own as well as the others--to her youngest children. She's older, and her hair is going gray, so clearly time has passed. It was an unusually clever and deft touch for something that managed not to be clever or deft for the previous four hours.

Posted by iain at 11:04 PM in category