The making of an "impossible" movie: THE NAME OF THE ROSE

When director Jean-Jacques Annaud first announced that he would be making a film adaptation of THE NAME OF THE ROSE — airing on Sundance Channel this Sunday at 10:05PM — many were perplexed, if not aghast. Umberto Eco’s thick historical novel was a gripping medieval mystery, true, but it was also a dense meditation on linguistics, theology, the legacy of the Classical Age and history in general, from a proud academic who had previously been known mainly for his brilliant books and essays about semiotics, literary theory and aesthetics. The novel was a remarkable combination of page-turning suspense and heady philosophy —- how on earth would it translate to film, and a big-budget one at that?

Keenly aware of the fact that no film could ever manage to live up to the ambitions of the novel, Annaud dubbed his endeavor a “palimpsest” of Eco’s novel, and the description is perfect: Annaud took the deliberately digressive, multi-character tale of investigation into a series of elaborate murders at a Franciscan Monastery and streamlined it into a focused thriller with sex, gore and, yes, just the right amount of philosophical rumination.

At the time, many fans of the novel were understandably displeased, but the film today remains a triumph of atmosphere, suspense and creeping dread. And it actually tackles some of the key cerebral questions in Eco’s novel as well, through sharp, witty dialogue exchanges between Brother William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and the occasionally grotesque characters around him, including the young novice monk Adso (a very fresh-faced Christian Slater). The film wasn’t a hit in the U.S. at the time, but it did very well internationally, and is now rightly regarded as something of a classic. To date, it’s the only work by Eco to be made into a film, although Stanley Kubrick was reportedly interested once upon a time in adapting his 1988 novel, FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM, which has been described as “a thinking man’s DA VINCI CODE.”

It’s no surprise, however, that Annaud was not fazed by such a tricky adaptation; he has made a career out of tackling challenging, if not near-impossible, material. Prior to THE NAME OF THE ROSE, he had made 1981′s QUEST FOR FIRE, a prehistoric epic about a group of cavemen on a journey to reclaim their lost fire. With zero dialogue and featuring characters who weren’t particularly easy to relate to, Annaud’s film notoriously divided audiences. (Roger Ebert quipped at the time that “the movie has been compared with such varied works of art as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Alley Oop.”) After THE NAME OF THE ROSE, Annaud would film another essentially wordless movie: 1988′s critical and financial hit THE BEAR, the story of an orphaned bear cub and his friendship with an adult bear in an attempt to escape from human hunters, starring actual bears. In 1995, he made WINGS OF COURAGE, the first narrative film shot in IMAX 3D, about a French pilot who crash-lands in the Andes —- a technological breakthrough, but an inert drama. TWO BROTHERS, his 2004 attempt to recapture the magic of THE BEAR — this time with two captive tigers — was less successful with critics and audiences.

Along the way, Annaud made more traditional epics as well, including the Buddhist drama SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, starring Brad Pitt, and the WWII flick ENEMY AT THE GATES, starring Jude Law and Rachel Weisz. His most critically acclaimed film may still be his very first —- 1976′s BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR, a winning comedy set among French colonialists in Africa, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. With its easygoing charm, it is just about the farthest thing you can imagine from the grim, apocalyptic dread of THE NAME OF THE ROSE — a testament to Annaud’s underrated versatility.

Tune in to THE NAME OF THE ROSE this Sunday at 10:05PM and all month on Sundance Channel.