Don Quixote (review)

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Adapted from the Novelization of the Motion Picture Based on the Famous Book!

The year is 1605. Guy Fawkes attempts to blow up the English Parliament. The reign of Akbar the Great of the Muhgal Empire comes to an end. And Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes publishes the first volume of what many consider the first novel: Don Quixote. This milestone of literature, a social satire and parody of medieval romances, is still beloved by readers worldwide today.

And now it’s a piece of cheese starring Dr. Emilio Lizardo, that guy from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and a former Miss America. Listless and unpoetic, Don Quixote — a TNT Original movie airing all this month on the cable network — manages to take a classic story of delusion and enthusiasm, madness and morality, and boil it down into an overlong cartoon.
“You read too much,” Antonia (Amelia Warner) complains of her exasperating uncle, Alonso Quixana (John Lithgow: A Civil Action, Terms of Endearment). A poor country gentleman — and not quite right in the head — Alonso takes a little too much refuge in his favorite books, which regale him with tales of the derring-do of centuries before. He gets it into his head that he is Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant out for adventure in the “great elsewhere.” An old sword and suit of armor from the barn are pressed into service, the peasant Sancho Panza (Bob Hoskins: Michael, inexplicably cockney accented) is shanghaied as his squire, and a village washerwoman (Vanessa L. Williams) is dubbed his “lady beautiful,” Dulcinea. She’s skeptical of his claim that he will travel the world and fight giants in her name for four years to earn her love, but she humors him anyway.

And he’s off. To say the least.

It’s hard to shake the impression that this version of Don Quixote went through the wringer several times before it ended up in the form we see here. Like a piece of writing that gets translated from, say, English to Japanese and back to English — or more appropriately, like a Shakespearean play that gets translated for the screen and then novelized for mass-market paperback publication, there’s little substance beneath a vaguely familiar surface here. Alonso’s basic optimism about the world, however insanely inspired, never comes across in all of Lithgow’s ranting codgerism — his Alonso is never more than a sad, mad old coot, wandering the Spanish countryside (filmed on location! TNT wants you to know) bereft of context. Sure, we see those famous windmills through Alonso’s eyes — big, warty giants who look exactly as low-rent as we’ve come to expect from Robert Halmi Sr.’s Hallmark Entertainment (Merlin, Alice in Wonderland) — but they’re only fairy-tale boogeymen. No: they’re not even that — fairy-tale boogeymen do usually represent something beyond themselves, are symbolic of other fears. But here, anything metaphoric or meaningful in Alonso’s fantasy has been whitewashed away, and we’re left with Renaissance Festival jousting matches and slapstick comedy.

This isn’t Cervantes’ Alonso — he isn’t a visionary and idealist here, just a pitiful old dude in need of meds. But perhaps that says more about the value we as a society place on imagination than it does about anything else. Certainly, there’s an uncomfortable lightheartedness about Don Quixote that has everything to do with the unimaginative tone with which the story is presented. What should be disturbing events are presented in a straightforward, uncommented-upon manner, and with seemingly little connection to anything that comes before or after. Alonso leaves in his adventuring wake escaped criminals, unpaid innkeepers, and wounded soldiers. An intervention on Alonso’s behalf by Antonio and his friends, the local priest (Peter Eyre: Dangerous Beauty) and barber (Tony Haygarth), results in the burning of Alonso’s books and the sealing up of his library because “the books have unhinged him.” Alonso is taken in, during his knight errantry, by a duke (Lambert Wilson) and duchess (Isabella Rossellini: The Imposters) who taunt him for their own amusement. The filmmakers go for laughs here, and nothing else.

But they also spare no opportunity to share with us Alonso’s fantasies, as flocks of sheep become armies poised for battle and a wooden hobby horse carries Alonso and Sancho to the stars. Nothing is left to our imagination. That sounds like an odd criticism of such a visual medium as film, I know, but when such lavish attention is paid to phantasms and the horrors of the real world are ignored, I feel justified in complaining.

I have to wonder, then, what anyone saw in Cervantes that was worth adapting, aside from the opportunity for special effects. That’s not a criticism of the novel — it’s a criticism of the filmmakers, who seem to have missed the point of the work entirely.

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