10 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: Braveheart

By Blythe Gifford

Most of the blogs you will read this month will talk about how wonderful the movie is and how much the author loved it.

That is not this post.

Yet 1995s Braveheart is a movie loved and admired by many. Scottish author Lin Anderson credited the movie with mobilizing Scotland's national spirit, helping to lead to re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture.

Yet I find myself arguing with the screen right up until the end when I burst into tears and reach for a tissue.

For those who haven't seen it, Braveheart tells the legend of William Wallace, one of Scotland's national heroes, who rallied the people to fight against England, achieving one of Scotland's few, and one of its most noteworthy, victories at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

Ultimately (SPOILER ALERT!), he was captured by a fellow Scot, turned over to the English, and killed for treason, murder, thievery, and sacrilege.

I will not belabor my problems, and those of many others, with the movie. Suffice it to say they include homophobia, Anglophobia, a plodding pace (it's nearly three hours long), a somewhat tedious overuse of medieval violence (which led to an "R" rating), and a blatant, even proudly aggressive, disregard for historical accuracy.

Screenwriter Randall Wallace (yes, THAT Wallace) has said he did not research until he had completed his work. It shows. The film should come with a warning label of AHH-17: "Abandon hope of history, all ye who enter here."

In addition, since it stars and was directed by Mel Gibson, one watches through a haze of subsequent accusations of anti-Semitism, domestic violence, racism, and drunkenness.

Still, the movie works. And as a writer, I have some thoughts on why, and they are traits that, I think, can also make books work for the reader.

The hero is magnificent. William Wallace is the epitome of the term "larger than life." He's a warrior without equal. A natural leader of men who is handed leadership he does not seek. He seeks (or claims to) nothing more than a wife, children, a home and a quiet life. (To be a good dad!) He has a sense of humor. He speaks four languages. He's good with women, but he's a romantic at heart who loves beyond the grave. He is true to his own code, never swayed by anyone else's, and dies holding fast to it. And when he is lead to execution he is strapped to a cross. Really.

Did I mention he leaps tall buildings at a single bound?

Gibson did not receive an acting nomination for this role, but he did make it live.
It's personal, not political. Some of the most memorable scenes in the movie feature stirring cries of freedom for Scotland, but it's really the story of Wallace's search for revenge. First, he seeks vengeance against the English who killed his wife. Then, it's retribution against the nobles who abandoned him at the Battle of Falkirk.

We feel the betrayal and rejoice at his revenge. Even when he traps English soldiers in a cell of wooden sticks and burns them alive we do not wonder whether this is as heartless as any crime of the English.

The script pays lip service to Wallace's desire to bring political peace. He is unwilling to compromise, however, so he cannot be the one to bring it. But as viewers, we do not care about the greater political good. Like Wallace, when wounded, we want to strike out. We want an eye for an eye. And this film gives us that.

Emotion. Emotion. Emotion. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve. Panoramas of the landscape? So beautiful we want to be Scots. Music? Should have won an Academy Award. It stands up to repeated listening and I should know, since I used it as a soundtrack when I wrote HIS BORDER BRIDE. The good, like Wallace's wife, are very very good. The evil, like the English king, are horrid. Romantic interludes at the appropriate points. There's even steadfast friendship and just the Shakespearean amount of comic relief. The audience is played like a harp. Which is exactly what we want when we enter a story.

So while I may spend two hours and fifty minutes grousing at the screen, I still cry at the end. As the screenwriter said, "it spoke to my heart and that's what matters to me."
How about you? Are you a Braveheart fan or foe?

Blythe Gifford has written five, 14th century medieval romances for Harlequin Historicals featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket, most recently HIS BORDER BRIDE in May 2010. The Chicago Tribune called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." She is working on her next book, which will again be set on the Scottish Borders.