Shiny Shelf

The Pardoner’s Tale

By J Clive Matthews on 11 November 2003

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Since my television shame over the summer, I’ve been trying to avoid the mindlessness of the box altogether. For the last five weeks I haven’t watched any television whatsoever (aided by having no reception at my new flat). This afternoon I decided that I missed telly, and bought a fancy antenna.

The first sight, once I’d got it tuned, was Iain Duncan Smith ranting like a lunatic at the Conservative Party conference. I switched off. Not a promising start to my return to the square-eyed majority.

Come 9pm I was bored again, and decided to risk the BBC’s “Canterbury Tales made relevant” despite having heard nothing but bad things about previous episodes.

Ignoring the fact that ‘Shallow Grave’ is already a superb modern retelling of ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, the Beeb thought they’d have another crack. Sadly, the writer put in charge of making this simple morality story “relevant” today, Tony Grounds, proved incapable of stretching five hundred lines of fourteenth century verse to an hour’s drama, and so found it necessary to haphazardly throw in all kinds of irrelevant nonsense that utterly destroys the meaning of Chaucer’s original story. Then again, he used to write for ‘The Bill’ and ‘Eastenders’, so we probably shouldn’t be too surprised. Thanks to this wonderful experience, he states, even though “I’ve never read any Chaucer before… I know what audiences want in terms of drama.” Well THAT’s alright then.

The moral of the original of ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ is that greed leads to destruction. Three drunken friends go out to kill Death. They are told he can be found under a tree, but find a pile of gold lying there instead. In their greed and jealousy over their new-found wealth, they end up killing each other. In other words, their love of gold leads to them finding death in a way they didn’t expect. All very neat.

In a typically sensationalist manner, the BBC’s version pointlessly introduces rape and child abduction into the mix. One might suggest this is somewhat unfortunate considering the glut of recent disappearances and murders of young girls, but then again, that’s the point. People can recognise that, but can’t possibly relate to a poem that has successfully entertained and remained an insightful truism about human nature for seven centuries. The fact that the missing girl’s parents are presented as comic figures (“amusingly” wailing about their lost daughter, running into walls in their grief etc.) hardly helps one to roll with it and see what the new elements will “add” to the story.

Then, just to emphasise that this is an “adaptation” of a classic work of literature, the principle character (played by the always watchable Johnny Lee Miller) randomly quotes from Dickens, Shakespeare, Douglas Adams and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. You see – it’s a self-aware adaptation. Very clever and post-modern. Well, not really, but that was evidently the plan. By this stage I was visibly cringing in my seat.

In this version, “Death” becomes a murderering paedophile who, it turns out, is actually Johnny Lee Miller anyway. The old man of the original tale who points the three rioters towards the gold and their doom becomes, meaninglessly, the ghost of a previously murdered girl. (Despite the fact she’s a ghost she’s still able to have sex with Miller because, after all, how can modern audiences relate to a story with no sex?) She points the three friends to a house where she says the pederast lives, and they go to kill him to gain fame and glory, only to find a load of gold under the floorboards. They end up murdering each other after Miller’s two friends work out he’s the actual killer, and he decides he wants all the gold for himself.

Miller’s two friends don’t decide to kill him because of their greed, but because of the superfluous child murderer plot. Miller’s posthumous poisoning of his erstwhile companions happens thanks to the original tale’s motives, but due to his friends’ motives now being almost noble, the impact of the story is lost. The mindless final shot of the two dead girls ascending to heaven simply confuses matters more.

This destruction of Chaucer in the name of updating his work is akin to actually re-writing Hamlet so that the prince wants to kill his stepfather so he can sleep with his mother. It’s as if Oliver Twist takes over Fagin’s racket and launches a raid on the Bank of England in tandem with Bill Sykes. It’s effectively as if Jesus’ rising on the third day is revealed to be a David Blaine style magic trick, and the Passion was simply a practical joke. The meaning is wiped out, and the moral of the tale, which is its whole point, has vanished.

If this is what is meant by “making the classics relevant”, I think I’ll risk being labelled as elitist and state categorically that they should be left well alone. If this means people miss out on the pleasures that can be had by spending a few hours crawling through dense Middle English, fine. If “modern audiences” really are so dumb that they can’t understand such simplistic themes as Chaucer’s without whacking in News of the World style editorialising and dressing it up with fancy slo-mo camerawork, they shouldn’t be allowed near books anyway. They’ll probably only hurt themselves.

In short, I’m amazed that anyone can have the audacity to attach Chaucer’s name to this nonsense, and I’m sorely tempted to try and return that TV aerial tomorrow and go back to a more civilised existence without the brain-numbing intrusion of the box. If this is all it’s got to offer, I’m amazed I didn’t give up on it before.

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By J Clive Matthews

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