Page to Screen: Ivanhoe (1997)

Ivanhoe (1997)
based on the novel
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Despite its length, Ivanhoe is actually a fairly compact story–feast, tournament, feast, capture, containment, battle, more containment, trial. Sure, there’s a lot more background, but a particularly ruthless screenwriter could adapt it quite well. I knew of the 1952 film, featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, but as I was shelving at the library, I discovered a 1997 BBC and A&E adaptation of Ivanhoe. It involved Christopher Lee. How could I resist?

Ivanhoe is the story of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a disinherited knight who returns from the Crusades to clear his name of supposedly betraying King Richard, who languishes in a prison in Austria. He also finds his childhood sweetheart, the Lady Rowena, betrothed to another. In attempting to clear his name and win Rowena, Ivanhoe becomes entangled in the affairs of Prince John, as well as the affairs of Isaac of York, a wealthy Jew, and his daughter Rebecca, a skilled healer. But he also finds the one man who knows the truth about Ivanhoe’s time in prison–the villainous Sir Brian de Bois-Gilbert.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of pragmatic adaptations, but even I felt Ivanhoe took a few too many liberties. Many things are compressed or simplified. For instance, the first feast is also the betrothal feast for Rowena and Athelstane, and instead of Cedric’s stubborn pride, Ivanhoe is given a supposed crime to make his father disinherit him. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but I do feel an audience watching a miniseries has enough time to be shown that Cedric disinherited Ivanhoe of his own volition. This is tied to the fact that the conflict between the Saxons and Normans is simplified–the Saxons are our heroes, and the Normans are our villains. De Bracy, being lovely, honestly in love with Rowena, and apparently in very bad company, is our only good Norman. Bois-Gilbert is just as complex as he ought to be, but he’s still our villain. Even the climax doesn’t show the Templars as having any redeemable qualities. We miss the complexity that showed both sides had their faults and virtues that was in the novel, and I’m not sure why that couldn’t be presented here. In any case, they also show a lot more royal politics, which actually ends in Queen Eleanor visiting John and Richard and fixing things herself. Some of these changes work; the removal of the complexity of the Saxons and the Normans doesn’t.

Rowena is upgraded from proud Saxon maiden to a feisty woman who loves Ivanhoe and defends his honor from men like Bois-Gilbert. She’s played very well by the almost impossibly lovely Victoria Smurfit, who has cheekbones like the Cliffs of Dover, freckles, and envious princess hair. She and Wamba actually have a sweet relationship that I quite liked, although Wamba tends to come across as a smart ass instead of a fool. The rest of the cast remains fairly true to the book; Steven Waddington is a very good Ivanhoe, although he spends much of the story off-screen or passed out. Rebecca, as played by Susan Lynch, is beautiful and virtuous, although here she is tempted, however fleetingly, by the intellectual life Bois-Gilbert could give her. I particularly liked Chris Walker’s Athelstane, who comes across as a sort of cheerful Saxon Seth Rogen; while we’re meant to see him as a repugnant suitor for Rowena, I was wondering why she didn’t give him half a chance–he was such a nice guy! But far and away the best performance in this miniseries, and the reason I think you ought to check it out, is Ralph Brown’s Prince John. He’s perfectly smug, supercilious, and childishly vulnerable–there’s this way that Brown purses his lips that just lets you know he’s scheming. He even gets his own Bond one-liners. (“How would you like to stand by me for the rest of your life?”) It’s the exact same love I have for Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, quite frankly, although Brown here is understated compared to Rickman there. Christopher Lee chews just as much scenery (and floods my dad’s sound system with his deep voice), and I laughed in delight when we were blessed with a scene between Lee and Brown. It’s good times.

The action is quite well-done, with real weight and gore that’s not gratuitous–the non-battle at the end of Ivanhoe becomes an actual battle here, where Bois-Gilbert eventually asks Ivanhoe to off him because of his raging inner conflict and guilt. I do have to say that I giggled at the arrows, which aren’t exactly shot well. The costumes are gorgeous, with Rowena getting the lion’s share of pretty dresses, although Rebecca gets her own. The scenery is quite nice as well–Front de Beouf’s castle is ugly and imposing, while Prince John plots in an airy throne room. It feels very immediate and real, which I quite liked. Still, I would have liked it better if there had been more complexity to the characters, instead of just noble Saxons and evil Normans.

Bottom line: This 1997 adaptation of Ivanhoe takes the basic plot and characters and runs with them, upgrading Rowena into a feisty and outspoken woman and robbing the story of a lot of its complexity by making the Saxons good and the Normans bad. Still, it boasts a good cast, and an amazing and over-the-top performance by Ralph Brown, who can only be matched by Christopher Lee lending his gravitas to the head of the Knights Templar. Well worth the rental, but after you’ve read the book.

You can read my review of the novel here.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Ivanhoe (1997)

  1. What a shame to have a lovely first name like Victoria and then have your last name be Smurfit. I would hastily marry–or actually, I would just change my name, because apparently in England it’s really easy compared to the States.

    I’ll have to check this out! I am in the mood for BBC period drama, and Bleak House, which I got from the library, just isn’t calling my name right now.

    • Perhaps she’s proud of the Smurfit name after enduring all the Smurf jokes at her expense through the years.

      This is good fun, especially when Prince John’s onscreen- ought to at least be cheerier than Bleak House.

  2. I saw this one and liked it. I agree that it’s better after you’ve read the book though. I have Ivanhoe on my list to re-read but I’m not sure if I’m going to get to it anytime soon.

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