Whenever a studio adapts a book to the screen, it draws inevitable comparisons. Was the book better than the movie, as so often is the case? Did the movie streamline and improve the story from whence it came? Or do both versions manifest unique qualities specific to their medium and provide something for those who enjoy both? That last option is certainly true of The Name of the Rose, a film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s blockbuster novel. What is special about this particular adaptation isn’t that it works so well, but rather, given the dense and challenging nature of the novel, that it works at all.
The story takes place at a remote Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy during the Middle Ages, where an Franciscan monk named William of Baskerville arrives with a young novice under his protection—a Benedictine named Adso of Melk. The two are there for a formal theological debate on the relationship between Christ, the Church and poverty. But before the debate can begin, monks start dying under mysterious circumstances around the monastery. William is a man of reason and deduction at a place and time that places little value on either, but the Abbott tasks him to solve the murders before agents of the Inquisition are summoned to find the guilty party by the means for which the Inquisition is so well known. As William and Adso struggle to unravel the mystery, they discover that this monastery is a place of many secrets, where there is far more religion than spirituality, and where murder might not be the work of the Devil, but wearing the cross hardly guarantees freedom from suspicion.
This is a movie that defies an easy explanation as to why it got developed for the screen in the first place. Sure, at 50 million copies, any book that popular is likely to get optioned—even if 35 million of those copies probably were bought by people who bailed after the first 50 pages. But those who did the optioning must not have read the dust jacket, for this thing provides such a dense interweaving of semiotics, medieval Christianity, philosophy and other matters that the murder-mystery that propels is by far its smallest and least meaningful part. Indeed, by isolating the plot which to the casual viewer seems like a medieval take on Sherlock Holmes, you do get a rather enjoyable tale for the cinema. But it leaves behind so much that comparing the movie to its literary source seems not only impossible, but pointless. For who would read the book and rush to see this movie of it, knowing how little it could possible cover in two hours? And who, after seeing this movie, really was going to pick up the novel and make it all the way through?
Maybe that’s the point; if there must be an adaptation, let it be something that will serve its intended audience well. And that, this movie does. It works on its own terms as an examination of the darker nature of man despite our efforts to isolate and annihilate our baser selves. But it is also a condemnation of how any institution we build inevitably corrupts those who rise within them. And in an age where power is so unevenly distributed, we can’t expect guys like William to run the show or even to prevail. The best he can hope for is to keep his head down and fighting the temptation to be the smartest guy in the room. That’s enough of a challenge to fill a lifetime. And even then, it almost costs him his life.
What works especially well here watching William and Adso uncover the monastery’s various secrets and hypocrisies (that village girl who seduces Adso was hardly sneaking into the monastery for the first time, and she sure knew her way around the folds of a monk’s robe). William has long known that life as a monk isn’t as simple—or as free from temptation—as it’s cracked up to be, and Adso is getting quite the crash course as events unfold. Together, however, they both discover that knowing the solution to a puzzle and having the power to actually solve it are two different things. Despite William’s best efforts, the Inquisition arrives anyway, the usual suspects are rounded up and condemned to death, William’s own reputation is destroyed for daring to speak truth to power, and even the vast stories of knowledge for which the monastery is famed are not meant to last.
In the end, when William and Adso leave the monastery behind them—which is now considerably less populated than it had been before—there seems little to cheer. William did not solve the mystery in time to save any lives or to serve justice. He didn’t even get to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing he’d puzzled things out. But we have to ask ourselves if all of that is really so bad, especially to those such as William and Adso. After all, they have witnessed enough suffering, death and injustice to shake even the most devout faith, but they remain true to their calling, even when given ample reasons to abandon it. Heroism isn’t always about fighting evil. Sometimes, it’s about staying the course when nobody else will.
We see this most in the moment of truth, when at the end of the tale, William is trapped in the monastery’s burning library, surrounded by hundreds of volumes of knowledge soon to become ash. As he struggles to decide which books to save, he looks around at all that will be lost. And as he bows his head, we cannot help but wonder, how much is being lost, really, when almost all of it is being hidden from view? Maybe that realization is what spurs William to exit the tower with arms full of irreplaceable volumes, rather than to resign himself to the flames. In the end, he served illumination itself, and that is enough.