Popular Chaucer: The BBC's Canterbury Tales

By Forni, Kathleen | Parergon, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Popular Chaucer: The BBC's Canterbury Tales


Forni, Kathleen, Parergon


Since the publication of Steve Ellis's Chaucer at Large (2000), a survey of Chaucer's reception outside academia, popular manifestations of Chaucer--found in adaptations, appropriations, invocations, and kitsch--have continued apace. (1) While Ellis describes Chaucer's image in the 'modern imagination', with some notable exceptions, as 'firmly down-market', such recent manifestations of popular Chaucerianism as Peter Ackroyd's The Clerkenwell Tales, an experimental meditation on millenarian religious extremism, Mike Poulton's ambitious six-hour stage adaptation, The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Guare's Chaucer in Rome, an absurdist satire on artistic and religious commercialism, should hearten Chaucerians that his presence on the popular radar may transcend his image as a jovial purveyor of bawdy naughtiness or as a nostalgic icon of 'the easy, inebriated amity of a static Merrie England'. (2) Indeed, the commercially successful and critically acclaimed BBC Canterbury Tales (2003), pitched as a 'prestige series', intended to reflect 'life in the new century' and 'the identity of Britain today', is part of this trend toward a more complex engagement with Chaucer. (3) Presenting selected Canterbury Tales in the novelty of modern dress, these six 'one-offs' ('The Knight's Tale'; 'The Miller's Tale'; 'The Pardoner's Tale'; 'The Man of Law's Tale'; 'The Wife of Bath's Tale'; 'The Sea Captain's Tale') attest to the continuing currency of Chaucer's cultural capital, his ability to appeal to what Herbert Gans calls different 'taste cultures'. (4) Indeed, the series' commercial success (which inspired a subsequent modernization of four of Shakespeare's plays) resides in its ability to engage a broad horizon of audience expectations. By 'shoehorning' the adaptations into 'popular genres', the episodes appeal to 'the bulk of the audience [who] won't know the original Tales'. (5) And for those who are familiar with Chaucer, the episodes provide the pleasure of 'intertextual dialogism' (Robert Stam, influenced by Bakhtin) or 'literary symbiosis' (David Cowart, influenced by biology) in which the adaptation invites a thematic and aesthetic reappraisal of the original, encouraging viewers 'into a recognition of the historical and diachronic differences between the voice of one literary age and that of another'. (6)

Chaucer has inspired several film treatments. Two can be categorized as rather loose adaptations (what Geoffrey Wagner would call 'analogies') clearly inspired by Chaucer but manifesting 'a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art'. (7) Although Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944), opens with Chaucer's pilgrims en route, a jump cut (in which the Knight's falcon becomes a World War II Spitfire) provides a jarring transition to wartime Kent, where four modern pilgrims make their way to Canterbury through the pastoral English countryside. Clearly invoking the penitential pilgrimage motif, Powell and Pressburger nonetheless seem less intent on providing modern analogues of Chaucer's pilgrims or tales than invoking Chaucer as an icon representing England's national heritage and cultural identity. (8) Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale (2001), a modern romance in medieval dress (with a stadium-anthem soundtrack), largely ignores the original narrative but does provide us with a charmingly reprobate (and handsome) Chaucer whose experiences with the eponymous knight and his foes ostensibly inspire bits of The Canterbury Tales. (9) More faithful adaptations (closer to what Wagner terms 'transpositions') include both Pier Paolo Pasolini's neo-realist I racconti di Canterbury (1972), an X-rated exercise in auteurism that heavily emphasizes Chaucer's darker fabliaux sensibility, and Jonathon Myerson's brilliantly animated, award-winning, Canterbury Tales (1998). (10) Pasolini is clearly concerned with the profound textuality of artistic inspiration and the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality, and Myerson, finding a ready market in the educational sector, emphasizes Chaucer's genial proverbial morality, but both make an effort to paraphrase the General Prologue and tales and provide viewers with some sense of the generic and thematic scope of Chaucer's poem. …

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