Monks, manuscripts and movies (reblogged from Postscript)

Find the original post here.

Everyone loves a good book-turned movie … but sometimes novels just shouldn’t make the switch to screen. A longtime lover of both books and movies, Clair McLafferty explores which pages should (and shouldn’t) make it to the silver screen.

For years, I assumed that Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz was a work of modern philosophy, not science fiction. Once, I even opened a copy to look at the table of contents. Its three parts are titled in Latin, and I became even more suspicious that it was probably something pretentious.

But a month ago, the copy on my boyfriend’s bookshelf got the better of me. Pretentious or no, I was curious. Several hours later, I was halfway through the second section, “Fiat Lux.” The premise and prose had captured my attention.

Most of the story centers on a monastery in post-nuclear Colorado, where the monks collect the remnants of science along with relics of the traditional Catholic God. This quasi-feudal society formed after purges of scientific documents, books and scholars wiped out most of the scientific records of the past 2,000 years.

As a result, the monks only have bits and pieces of the original documents, which include calculus textbooks and engineering diagrams. These manuscripts are copied and recopied, sometimes embellished, and sometimes made into art. They also include some of the theoretical developmental work on the atomic projects, which allow generations of scientists to focus on weaponizing technology instead of searching previous generations’ work for understanding.

Thankfully, the only screen adaptation was the 1993 BBC attempt which only covered the first two sections. With the advances in special effects that have been made since, the tendency might be to focus on creating the landscape and its mutant inhabitants rather than on the purpose of the story. Because the story spans millennia, visual adaptations might sensationalize the differences between the times. This change runs the risk of focusing on the differences among the time periods rather than the similarities in their stories.

Basically, the magic of this book lies in its subtleties. In the rush to sell movie tickets, the beauty of Miller’s world would probably be lost in explosions and hacked dialogue. Stay back, Disney. I will defend this story like its monks defend their scientific knowledge.

Clair McLafferty lives and reads in Birmingham, Alabama. Author photo by Mary Katherine Morris.

Purchase a paperback copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz from Church Street Coffee & Books by clicking the Order Books link on the left of their website. Or pick up a copy at your local independent bookseller.

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