Will Terry Gilliam Destroy Don Quixote?

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

According to The Verge, Amazon has ponied up some money, and next year, Terry Gilliam will start production of his long delayed film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. On the surface, it sounds like the perfect project for me. It is a cinematic take on Don Quixote — something that really has never been done properly. And it is a film by a director who I admire. Yet I am extremely leery about this combination.

I know I’m just a little punk, but I think most people don’t get Don Quixote. They focus on the iconography — and on the title character. Yes, that’s all very interesting: the crazy old man who thinks he’s a knight errant. But what is most amazing about the books is how they play with the distinction between literature and reality. Quixote’s insanity manifests itself in his inability to distinguish between the two. And it is taken to absurd heights where the crazy old man causes so much trouble in his delusion that he becomes a literary figure. People say that Don Quixote was the first modern novel, but it is actually the first postmodern novel.

When Orson Welles attempted to translate the books onto the screen, he had one brilliant idea: put Don Quixote in the modern world. This shows that he understood one important aspect of the story: Don Quixote was an anachronism in his own time. Even if his ideas about knights were based upon romantic literature, the actual knights they were based upon existed centuries before. So Welles was right to see that Don Quixote was no more out of place with motor scooters and movie theaters than he had been with barbers and college students.

But again, how would one really capture the feel of the books? I think you would follow Welles’ lead and make it in modern times. And you would make it as a documentary. Don Quixote likes nothing so much as to have long conversations about his important place in the history of knights errant. And the people around egg him on and get quite a lot of enjoyment listening to the crazy man. I can well see interviews with him as well as the simple, but firmly grounded Sancho. I’m thinking something along the lines of the approach that Bob Fosse took in Lenny and Star 80. It could be brilliant in the right hands.

I’m afraid that Gilliam is entirely the wrong hands. According to Wikipedia the basic plot is, “An advertising executive who finds himself unstuck in time unwittingly travels between modern-day London and 17th-century La Mancha, where he participates in the adventures of Don Quixote.” Good God! I have flashes of Time Bandits. To make matters worse, the advertising executive apparently becomes the Sancho character. I guess there are ways of making this work, but Sancho is really the most important character in the book. Without him, there is nothing. His simple practicality is the perfect foil for Don Quixote’s complicated delusions.

A similar dynamic happened in They Might Be Giants where Justin Playfair who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes mistakes his psychiatrist Mildred Watson as Dr Watson. The point, though, is that Playfair is not Holmes. Now Don Quixote is insane and constantly sees reality differently than it is. So it could be made to work. But it is a supremely dangerous choice. What’s more, Holmes is interesting without Watson. Don Quixote really isn’t interesting without Sancho. And pushing him out of the plot almost certainly destroys the fabric of the narrative.

But we’ll see. As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of 12 Monkeys. Then again, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is co-written by Gilliam — never a good sign. I’ll still want to see it. And I will be the first to admit if I’ve been wrong about it. I really want to love it. Anything based on Don Quixote can’t be all bad. But sadly, most things based upon it are mostly bad.

6 thoughts on “Will Terry Gilliam Destroy Don Quixote?

  1. No, he won’t destroy it. For one thing, he’ll never finish it. I only made one terrible, horrible, very bad film (unreleased, it was not good) yet I learned one lesson very quickly. Assume the worst. Shit is going to happen, your plans will go to hell.

    Gilliam thinks in terms of the brilliant visuals he can come up with, making sure he shoots the moments which encapsulate his thematic obsessions, images that express more than conventional filmmakers think of.

    And that’s great. But, ya know, you gotta get the plot in.

    In movie after movie now (12 Monkeys seems to have been an exception) Gilliam fights and claws for funding. Then allocates that funding to the scenes with signature visuals. And has his films collapse because of entirely predictable screwups like, I dunno, rain.

    He’s incredibly irresponsible. He’s a genius, yet if I ran a movie studio, I wouldn’t give a dime to Gilliam. That’s not to say I don’t love his work, because I do. But, dude: plan for rain. (Granted, there are far less interesting filmmakers with far bigger budgets allowing for rain, robot monsters not working properly, etc.)

    • I haven’t followed the problems he’s had in the past, although I like that he has had problems because it relates to Welles’ problems. And there are more than a few things that link the two men. But I’m inclined to be a bit more forgiving of Gilliam. I don’t think he’s irresponsible. He just gets lost in details some times. But you’ve got to take the good with the bad. The best thing I can say about a director is what I can say about him: he never made a film that wasn’t worth making.

      But it does look like he’s going to get this film made. For good or for bad, I hope he does!

  2. @James Fillmore : if you look at Lost In La Mancha, you’ll see that rain was not the final nail in the coffin, actually I think the project could have move along with that but what destroyed it is that Jean Rochefort got a double hernia and couldn’t ride a horse (and to this day he’s still not able to).

    @Frank Moraes :
    “An advertising executive who finds himself unstuck in time unwittingly travels between modern-day London and 17th-century La Mancha, where he participates in the adventures of Don Quixote.”
    Actually that was the plot for the 2001 project. Since then, Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewrote it quite intensively and now it stands as :

    ““I keep incorporating my own life into it and shifting it,” Gilliam said. “The basic underlying premise of that the version Johnny was involved in was that he actually was going to be transported back to the 17th century, and now it all takes place now, it’s contemporary. It’s more about how movies can damage people.”

    “A modern and satirical twist on the tale, “Don Quixote” stars O’Connell as Toby, a jaded commercials director who travels to Spain for a shoot and comes across a gypsy who gives a copy of his student film — a lyrical re-working of the Don Quixote story set in a quaint old Spanish village. Moved by the discovery, Toby sets off on a bizarre road trip to find the little village where the student student film was shot and gets caught up in a series of catastrophies.”

    What I find particularly interesting about that new storyline is that it retains the modern/old clash of the first one while injecting all the meta flavor of the books. And making parallels between cinema and chivalry books is, I think, quite clever (I don’t know how far Gilliam will push the analogy but modern superheroes blockbusters surely are the knight tales of our times).

    • Thanks for the information! That sounds much better. Because of this, I went back at watched the Welles’ DQ that was released. Despite all the problems, I found that I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I had before. There is an issue with Gilliam having the project pushed off. The truth is that every time I read the book (which I do — a lot), it really is different for me — and not just in the sense that I am older. So I’m really interested to see what he does. Regardless, it is going to come down to the details. Don Quixote is ultimately a road trip narrative — but one in which starts in the real world and ends up inside the very book you are reading. I look forward to the movie. At its worst, it will be a bad Terry Gilliam film. And that’s always worth watching. And it could be sublime.

    • If the movie skewers superhero blockbusters even in the slightest, I’ll be thrilled it was made! Thanks!

      • I’m sure it will at least be interesting. But as a big Don Quixote fan, I’m worried (and thrilled) when anyone takes it on.

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