I think everyone secretly longs for their favorite books to be turned into movies—to see a beloved story come to life in a new and vibrant form.
I had a similar longing during my teen years to see The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff transferred to the screen. A story about friendship, honor, and loyalty in far corners of the 2nd Century Roman Empire, I seem to remember sitting on my bedroom floor with a old-fashioned tape recorder and a worn copy of the novel creating my own version of an abridged audiobook featuring all of my favorite sections. You can imagine my excitement when I heard about Focus Features’s production The Eagle (2011) starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, and Donald Sutherland.
You can also imagine my disappointment when I finally watched the movie and discovered that the creative team eliminated my favorite character, butchered or discarded my favorite scenes, and changed the ending…
But, I digress.
Adaptation is an art. And great artists always consider their audience when creating a piece. Focus Features and Director Kevin Macdonald assumed that because The Eagle follows the story of Roman Centurion Marcus Aquila the film should become a blood-soaked action thriller and cash in with the fans of movies such as 300. Yet, by forcing the story into this macho mold, the creators of The Eagle lost the broader spirit of Sutcliff’s novel as assuredly at the Ninth Legion marched into the mists of Northern Britain and never returned.
I recently re-watched the film adaptation of The Eagle of the Ninth to see if I could discover why the creators chose to adapt the book the way that they did, and if watching the film with the mindset of the target audience in mind changed my opinion of the movie… and the liberties they took with one of my favorite novels.
If you’ve seen The Eagle, you know it is conspicuously short of female characters. Honorably discharged for his wounds and distinguished service, Marcus Aquila does not know what to do with his life now or if he will ever regain the family honor after his father lost the Eagle Standard of the Ninth Legion in the wilds beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Saving and purchasing a British slave, Esca, from an unfair gladiatorial contest, Marcus develops a bond with someone who should have been his enemy and discovers a new purpose and method to gain his family’s lost honor by recapturing the Eagle.
The obvious lack of females is a bit surprising if you’re an aficionado of the novel because the main character, Marcus, proposes to his love, Cottia, in one of the final scenes of the book.
So, why would Hollywood neglect to cash in on a romance between a fiery, redheaded vixen and a Roman Centurion? Well, it makes sense if you watch the movie from the perspective of a macho war film viewer, the producers’ target audience.
Marcus and Cottia’s friendship and subsequent romance develops slowly over Marcus’s convalescence from his war wound and the sharing of their respective stories. It makes sense that if the creative team decided to focus the movie on the action that they might consider eliminating the mostly below-the-surface romance of the main character in order to give the Bro-mance between Marcus and his slave/body armorer/friend Esca… but viewers lose moments like the following:
Marcus hesitated for an instant, but if he did not tell her, the unspeakable Nissa undoubtedly would. “I am to have the wound cleaned up. That is all.”
Her face seemed to grow narrower and more sharply pointed while he looked at it. “When?” she asked.
“In the morning, very early.”
“Send Esca to tell me when it is over.”
“It will be very early,” Marcus said firmly. “You will scarcely be awake by then.”
“I shall be awake,” Cottia said. “I shall be waiting at the bottom of the garden. And I shall wait there until Esca comes, whoever tries to take me away. I can bite others besides Stephanos, and if anyone tries to take me away, I will, and then I shall be beaten. You would not like to know that I had been beaten because you would not send Esca, would you, Marcus?”
Marcus recognized defeat. “Esca shall come and tell you.”
There was a long pause. Cottia stood very still, looking down at him. Then she said, “I wish it could be me instead.” (73)
Without the advances of modern medicine, operations were life-threatening and Cottia’s wish to take Marcus’s place speaks of their connection and mutual caring. Instead, the creators of the film use this moment to deepen the bond of friendship between Marcus and Esca in an attempt to make the unusual connection between master and slave more believable. And it works for the most part. But this was not the only plot point Director Macdonald and his team changed to suit the target audience…
Butchered and Discarded Scenes
Although considering the film adaptation from the artistic perspective of an action thriller justifies the elimination of Cottia, I found the reorganization and elimination of other key scenes to be even more troubling to the integrity of the story—even for an action thriller. In an attempt to keep the flick action-filled and exciting, the creators compromised nearly every emotional connection readers develop with Marcus’s character.
Marcus from the book cares more about people than Rome and his family’s honor. Marcus from the movie, well…
In the book, when Marcus begins his first command at a fort in Britain, he reaches out to the local people and develops a friendship with a native named Cradoc over their mutual passion for chariot racing. It shows that Marcus values humanity more than Roman dominance and adds depth to the chariot attack on the fort organized by Cradoc a few weeks later. Focus Features actually went to the trouble of shooting a chariot scene, but for some reason left it out of the final cut. By removing the complication of the friendship with a Britain, the film oversimplifies Marcus’s character and his later choice to trust his British slave-turned-friend Esca with everything.
Speaking of Esca, Marcus from the book has a stronger stance against slavery while movie Marcus uses the station to stretch the loyalty Esca owes Marcus for saving his life in the arena. The film shows few conversation between the two men before they journey beyond the wall in search of the Ninth’s Eagle. Marcus does not even free Esca officially until all hope of their success is lost—at the strong prompting of Esca.
Book Marcus assures Esca he does not find his capture and entry into slavery to make him less of a man or an equal:
“Do I have to tell you in so many words that I really do not imagine a clipped ear to be the dividing line between men and beasts? Have I not shown you clearly enough all this while? I have not shown you clearly enough all this while? I have not though of equal or unequal, slave or free in my dealings with you, though you were too proud to do the same for me!” (55)
He follows up on his speech by later officially freeing Esca before asking him to join his quest for the Eagle. And in that quest, Sutcliff describes a covert operation in which Marcus disguises himself of Demetrius the Oculist from Alexandria and his guide Esca healing women and children on their way across the wilds of North Britain…
Which is a little bit different from rogue-warrior-fighting, child-killing, impatient Roman Marcus who attempts to rescue the Eagle in the film. No wonder the screenwriter had Esca turn the tables on Marcus and make his master his slave when they finally reach the tribe holding the Eagle.
I’m honestly surprised every time that Esca still stands by his word and saves movie Marcus’s neck.
An Altered Ending
Let’s talk about the ending of The Eagle for a moment.
I’ll leave it to you to read the details of the book’s ending if you haven’t already, but there are some key differences with the original text and the concluding events of the movie or the alternative ending provided on the DVD. Here’s a sampling:
- In the book Guern helps Marcus and Esca escape, but he doesn’t round up the remaining members of the Ninth Legion from across the wilds of northern territory for a final last stand to fight to protect the Eagle. (And thus, Guern does not die and get burned on a funeral pyre and instead returns to his family.)
- Marcus does scuffle with the chieftain’s son, Liathan, but ties and gags him and his companions up after knocking them unconscious in an old sentry tower instead of violently drowning Liathan in a body of water and killing all of the warriors attempting to regain the Eagle.
- In fact, Esca and Marcus’s quest is so successful in the book that NO ONE DIES.
Sure, there are some intense moments, but book Marcus’s cover is that of a healer. He’s not trying to strain relationships with the tribes further he’s there to heal the past. It draws quite a contrast with the high body count in both film endings.
- The Legate who approved their quest in the book recommends that they bury the Eagle with honor underneath Uncle Aquila’s house and lay the past to rest. Marcus is awarded a full army pension. Esca becomes an honorary citizen through in the award of a wooden foil, and Marcus and Cottia plan to buy a farm and get married.In the movie, the original ending shows Marcus and Esca swaggering into Legate’s governmental, plopping the Eagle on a table, and swaggering out musing “what’s next?” like a classic Western. I found it interesting that the screenwriter chose to have the Legate say that the Ninth Legion would be reformed instead of acknowledging the logistics and retiring the standard with honors as in the book.
So, what do all of these differences add up to? Why wrap the movie with an epic water fight scene, a funeral pyre, and a swaggering Western-themed final moment if none of this happened in the book?
Ultimately, I think the producers, screenwriter, and director sat down one day and said: Let’s make a war movie, an action thriller set in ancient Rome, and never looked back. Granted, some of the material was still Sutcliff’s , but the emphasis on violence disconnected the audience from Marcus’s character… and the story in general. To fit in the gratuitous fight scenes, most of the moments when we would resonate with Marcus as a character are removed or made more violent or altered to support the changes already made.
I think the creative team made the same mistake Marcus almost made at his first command. After hearing a noise in the night, Marcus calls the entire garrison to battle stations, saying:
“Better to be a laughing-stock than lose the fort for fear of being one.”
For fear of being a laughing-stock, for fear that the heart and soul of he story would not be “macho” enough, the production team behind The Eagle chose to make a movie for one target audience–historical war film action thriller fans–and thus simultaneously limited their audience and impact with the extensive violence. Perhaps some of it did help the pacing, but we spent more time watching Marcus fight than we did learning about who he is as a person and what matters to him. I think the movie would have been better if they had taken some cinematic risks and stayed closer to the story of the book. At least the characters would have had some development that way.
I’d like to blame Channing Tatum for his lack of expression, but he wasn’t given much to work with based on the script.
The camera work and costumes are creative and well-worth seeing. Once. But I’m not going to keep rewatching the movie adapted from one of my all-time favorite books. The art they hoped to create in this adaptation by emphasizing war and honor was purchased at the cost of the story and its characters.
After all, art designed for a target audience to get them to consume something without making an emotional impact on their life is simply advertising, right?
The Eagle. Dir. Kevin Macdonald. Perf. Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, and Mark Strong. Focus Features, 2011. DVD.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. The Eagle of the Ninth. New York, NY: Square Fish, 2011. Print. The Roman Britain Trilogy.