It may be a coincidence that a new television adaptation of Umberto Eco’s 1980 medieval ecclesiastic detective novel “The Name of the Rose” begins the same week that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” finished its business, just as it may be mere happenstance that “Game” rhymes exactly with “Name,” as “Thrones” nearly does with “Rose.”
More to the point, this “Name of the Rose” — an Italian-German, English-language co-production that premieres here Thursday on Sundance TV, with a cast headed by John Turturro, Rupert Everett and Michael Emerson — puts on-screen every reference to sex and violence in the text and adds some of its own. (We open on a battlefield.)
Even more to the point, it has created a new character, named Anya — sorry, Anna (Greta Scarano) — a dark-haired, bow-and-arrow-toting girl, sometimes passing for a boy, who is out on a mission of revenge. Both stories are set in a medieval-type world of stone and skulduggery (and some actual skulls). There are secret doors, secret passages, secret codes, secret writing. There is fire!
It is by no coincidence, however, that Eco’s hero (Turturro), a Franciscan friar, resembles Sherlock Holmes; he is British, his name is William of Baskerville, as in “The Hound of,” and he begins the adventure with one of those detailed deductions that look to the outsider like magic. (“There is always a sinful pleasure in being proved right, I’ve found,” says William, who is less bothered than some here by the words “sin” and “pleasure.”)
Like the Holmes stories, “Rose” purports to be the writing of the detective’s sidekick, here a German novice monk named Adso (Damian Hardung, a little bland but athletic when necessary). And as the story of an amateur sleuth who just happens to be a guest at a place where murder is happening — William has traveled to a conference at a remote abbey to argue for the survival of his order, which has offended the property-loving Catholic establishment by advancing poverty as a clerical virtue — it also has elements of Agatha Christie; and as in Christie, one death is rarely enough.
If we want to beat this analogy to paper-thin pulp, we may consider the pope’s inquisitor, Bernard Gui (Everett), as the officious official detective who gets in our hero’s way. But Bernard is more of a villain here, with a fanatical hate of heretics and witches and such and an affinity for setting them on fire.
Like most detectives, William will get it wrong before he gets it right.
There is, of course, a tradition of clerical detectives that predates “Rose,” including G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Harry Kemelman’s “Rabbi” novels; and Ellis Peters‘ “Cadfael Chronicles,” which, like Eco’s novel, centers on a mystery-solving medieval monk.
“Rose” is something more literary and philosophical and political, and the miniseries retains some of these elements, which are tightly woven into the plot – are the plot, really. It’s also a book about books: At the heart of the abbey, and the story, is a massive, literally labyrinthine library, “spoken of in all the abbeys of Christendom,” whose secrets (and shelving system) are known only to its two librarians.
Where the adaptation follows the original text, it does so generally well, finding the salient points in pages of discussions. The sensational interpolations — the “Game of Thrones” stuff — are less successful, though I am sure they will please a substantial portion of the crowd. And while Turturro’s performance is a model of intelligent equanimity, other actors — including Emerson as the abbey’s abbot, Stefano Fresi as the Caliban-Quasimodo figure Salvatore, and Fabrizio Bentivoglio as Remigio, a monk with a dark past — push their parts to the edge of the parapet and sometimes over. The more intense the action, the more risible the series becomes.
Following Sean Connery, who starred in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 film of the book, Turturro – who also shares a writing credit — is great fun as the intellectual hero. (There are times, as when delivering a line like “The presence of soldiers at a theological debate is never a sign of good will or of neutrality,” he sounds uncannily like Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister.) William is a relatively nonjudgmental, somewhat modern figure — “I lack the courage to investigate the weaknesses of the wicked, because I discovered they are the same as the weaknesses of the saintly” — who believes in light and learning, and (a key theme in the story) laughter, though he doesn’t do all that much of it himself, other than tell a joke or two.
Apart from its taking advantage of your “Game of Thrones” withdrawal, the series is timely in other ways, with the current real-world pope taking St. Francis as his name and inspiration; in attacks on the reliability of torture; and in an attempt to give some respect, history, agency and psychology to its female characters — hey there, “GoT” — of which there are now two, the invented Anna and Eco’s “the girl” (Nina Fotaras), who here becomes a traumatized war refugee.
That the series comes in eight parts is doubtless a commercial consideration and one reason the action has been expanded beyond the abbey — because, heaven forbid you should be stuck with monks for eight hours — into the field, where hooves may thunder and soldiers scamper and a completely irrelevant naked couple be dragged out of hiding. While the book is long, it is because discussions go on for pages and pages of philosophy and history and argument, which is less attractive than action on the world marketplace.
‘The Name of the Rose’
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under 17 with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd