It's <I>The Odd Couple</i> Meets <I>Dick</i>. In Classical Rome.Complications Ensue
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

I'm about through episode nine of Rome (and yes, Denis, when the time comes I'll probably sign on to TMN for Season Two), and it is occurring to me that at some level the show is The Odd Couple. Here's Lucius Vorenus, trying so hard to do the right things by his duty and his gods. And what's his reward for it? He's stuck with Titus Pullus, who pretty much follows his instincts and his dick, and everything comes out fine for him. Titus gets the gold; Titus gets to sleep with the queen; Vorenus gets the slow burn and the ulcer.

The other story this reminds me of is Dick, the utterly charming and silly movie in which Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams stumble their way through the Watergate Crisis, bringing down the Nixon Presidency more or less because he's mean to his dogs. In Episode 2, Titus Pullus is the spark that ignites the crisis that brings down the Republic, basically because he decided to go gambling in the wrong bar the night before.

When you're adapting historical material, and even sometimes when you're adapting a novel of great scope and many characters, it's often useful to figure out what familiar story is the kernel of the story you want to tell. It's a rare movie that manages to show historical events in a compelling way without rendering them down into basic human stories of much smaller scope. (Gettysburg does a pretty good job of making a big sweeping story compelling without rendering it down; it really is about the battle.) You're trying to tell the story of the rise of Julius Caesar? It's so big, how do you figure out how to put it on the screen? Tell it through the point of view of two soldiers -- one an educated, devout republican, the other a common rogue -- and it becomes small enough to fit.

Suppose you were doing the fall of Julius Caesar. You could make it a father and son story -- a family drama about how Brutus came to murder the man who saw him as a son. You could make it a coming of age story -- how Octavian had to grow up fast once his uncle was murdered on the Senate floor. You could make it a love story -- as Rome does for a few episodes, when it seems like Caesar is not pursuing Pompey because he's in love with Servilia.

But pick a story and stick with it. The brain can absorb the vast sweep of armies best when it's filtered through one or two human stories before it is refiltered through the camera's lens. And if we understand the small stories, we can use them as a back door into the larger stories.



We've been watching Rome as well through Netflix, and are as captivated as you are. The focus on Pullo and Vorenus is probably the best artistic choice they made as a series. They can play with the characters, make them do things that are a little silly, make them bicker, and even if we the viewers know Roman history, we can still be surprised by them.

If the series had focused on Caesar and Antony as the central characters, and made them comically inept, then it would just seem like a farce, a parody of history. But the show gives the public figures a certain public dignity--except for Cleopatra, but perhaps that's another story.

It also strikes an ingenious balance between the familiar and the bizarre. Pullo and Vorenus are just like us, in many ways. But in many ways, they're living in a world that is not like ours. They're our way in, and I think we can accept a little more commentary from them than we can from other characters.

By Blogger Andrew, at 9:43 AM  

I like to think of Pullo and Vorenus as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of ROME.

By Blogger Andy Diggle, at 11:23 AM  

I've always thought of Pullo and Vorenus as the ancient Roman version of NYPD Blue's Sipowicz and Kelly. The bonehead who's totally loyal and the good guy whose internal compass only causes him more pain.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:31 AM  

I was interested to hear that they were real people -- the only footsoldiers that Julius Caesar mentions by name in THE CONQUEST OF GAUL. There's one anecdote about their friendship/rivalry that sets their characters and leaves them wide open for fictional development. A brilliant move to pick them up and run with them, IMHOP.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 6:45 AM  

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