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.