Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oh, Those Romans (Film and TV)

One of the biggest challenges of setting a novel in the ancient world was writing dialogue that didn't sound silly or stilted. ("Silence, by Zeus!", thundered the king.) I wanted the characters to sound like real people, not extras from Troilus and Cressida, let alone cartoons. Curious about how others had tackled this problem, I turned to movies.

One problem that came up again and again was diction: for some reason, all my characters kept trying to talk like they were British. I realized this went back to Robert Graves . I first watched the great 1976 BBC adaptation of his novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God when I was a child. Despite the English accents, the dialogue is fresh and spiky without sounding anachronistic (see clip below).

I had hopes that the recent HBO series Rome would have an even more contemporary feel. Indeed, despite (again!) the English accents, the characters felt immediate and recognizable, people you could talk to rather than just listen to.

Finally, for a bit of cinematic ancient Greece, find Pier Paolo Pasolini's astonishing 1967 movie Oedipus Rex. Pasolini has claimed that the film was autobiographical. An intense, beautiful, strange journey through a landscape that's both dream-like and utterly credible.

Here's a clip of one of my favourite I, Claudius characters, the empress Livia, instructing her gladiators:

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