April 1, 2008

There Goes Another Good Idea

After finishing that book about ancient Alexandria, it occurred to me, for the second time, that a story about Hypatia would be both timely and interesting. The facts would need to be tweaked -- most importantly, Hypatia herself would need to be made younger (she was murdered when she was about 60 years old) and a careful approach would need to be taken about religion. But the facts of history lay a substantial groundwork for what could be a really interesting movie.

Fourth-century Alexandria had an astonishingly complex set of religions. Too complex for a movie. There were people who practiced the "old religion," meaning the Egyptian gods; and there were those who practiced the "pagan" religions, which was mainly the Greco-Roman pantheon (Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and the like) plus a syncretic deity called Serapis who was an amalgam of various death and wisdom gods from the Egyptian and Aegean worlds. Then there was a significant population of Jews, and then there were the Mithras-worshippers. And the Christians, not yet a majority but probably a plurality of the city, were split into several denominations -- the Copts, the Romans, and the Arians. This is simply too complex an environment for a two-hour movie that isn't a documentary about fourth-century religion to describe with any kind of accuracy. So simplify it to two unnamed factions of Christians, identified more by their following the "traditional" leadership of the emperor, versus the followers of a charismatic local rabble-rouser, and then lump the pagans all into one basket.

The story would have a strong romantic element between the Christian Roman governor of Egypt, Orestes, and Hypatia. They wouldn't know what to make of each other at first, but the attraction would be powerful and undeniable. And unpopular for the hapless Orestes, both with the Emperor who appointed him and with the subjects he is supposed to govern. I hadn't decided yet whether they would disapprove of the romance because they would want him to take a Christian wife instead of a pagan, or because they wanted Hypatia to be the ornament of their city and not simply the head of one man's household. Either way, Hypatia gets to be shown lecturing at the library and museum, and at least the intelligentsia of the city value her for keeping the torch of knowledge alive, with Christians, Jews, and pagans all welcomed alike to her open-air classes.

But there has to be tension and conflict, too, and of course the basic story is about how the mob kills her. I figured the thing to do would be to show Orestes having to decide who the next bishop would be after the old bishop died, and show the Christians split into two factions. Orestes would have disfavored Cyril, the leader of the Coptic Christians, and Cyril would use Orestes' romantic involvement with Hypatia to whip the mob up into a frenzy, resulting in her death and the burning of the library.

In fact, Hypatia did her best to get the valuable books to have been smuggled out of the city before something bad could happen to them. For cinematic purposes, this could give us "daddy issues" for our heroine; she has to decide to do that despite the wishes of her late father Theon, who we would semi-accurately call the "last librarian", that she oversee rebuilding the library to the glory it had enjoyed before half its books had been burned in Caesar's time. She gets to decide that preserving the remaining light of knowledge for all mankind is more important than preserving her dead father's vision of rebuilding the library to its former glory.

I thought the opening scene could be done with modern CGI, with Hypatia teaching her students about how to figure out the size and shape of the world and proving that the earth revolves around the sun by having them climb the tower of the Pharos at night, intercut with scenes of Orestes coming into the city by boat, navigating using the light of the tower. And we could end with the flames of the tower being extinguished.

Boom. You've got a lot right there. Three plotlines, working at the "A," "B," and "C" levels, all interweaving and tied together at the climax. (The romance is the "A" plot, the political intrigue is the "B" plot, and the resolution of the dead father's wishes is the "C" plot.) Violence. Sex. Moral dilemmas for the protagonists to confront. Opportunities for eye-catching special effects. A tragic ending for the hero but a hopeful ending for the story; maybe we follow Orestes out of the burning city as he smuggles a chest of Hypatia's books to a secret location in the desert.

And plenty of opportunities for good casting. The biggest star needs to be Hypatia, of course. I was thinking Angelina Jolie, but we could go a little older with Katherine Zeta-Jones, or maybe go a different way and was starting to think about Salma Hayek. Orestes could be any of a number of dudes; he'd need to be good-looking and obviously strong to show military prowess, but not super-young, so there I was thinking maybe Hugh Jackman or David Boreanaz. My first thought for the insidiously-evil Cyril was Alan Rickman but that was a bit too obvious. Then I thought Lance Henricksen, but then I figured we ought to go younger with that role and make him a bit more impetuous, so maybe Ryan Phillippe. But then I thought, no, too young, and I really hadn't got to thinking about who else it might be.

So all I'd need to do is outline out the plot arc, write it, and find someone to help me sell it. Simple, right? Well, someone beat me to it, it seems. Agora will cast Rachel Weisz as Hypatia (I'd have probably got around to thinking of her myself eventually but hadn't yet) and the B-plot apparently involves her manservant deciding whether or not to convert to Christianity while developing feelings for Hypatia. IMDB says that Hypatia will be portrayed as an atheist, which does not seem like it would have been accurate to me. No other big names known to most American audiences, and the same director as The Others, a wonderfully-creepy and slow-paced movie from a few years ago starring a blonde Nicole Kidman.

Why do I put all this out there? Because I hope they make a good movie out of the story. I understand that the reality of fourth-century Alexandria is too complex for a movie of realistic length and that a successful movie needs certain kinds of plot elements. I think I put together a good story in my mind that would be successful within the limitations of a Hollywood movie that would still be true to the overall spirit of the story. It can be done and it's a story worth telling.

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