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The Loss of Perspective in the Eleventh Grade
by Kyle Puetz

In my high school Spanish II class, my teacher recently had us watch the movie "Don Quixote," starring John Lithgow. She had gone on and on about how "Don Quixote," the work written by Miguel de Cervantes in the 16th century had revolutionized novels and even compared him to Shakespeare as a major innovator. She then asked us to write a paper about the importance of Don Quixote as a revolutionary piece in literary history. I would be fine with this. But then, since we had not read the book itself, she wanted us to treat the movie as if it were the book. So we had to note what was revolutionary about the book... just by watching the movie which is based upon it. I ended up writing the following. I will undoubtedly catch some heat for it (I've already received two weeks suspension for earlier writings this year), but here is what I'll be turning in tomorrow:

"Don Quixote is a certified classic, an enduring title by Miguel de Cervantes from which the modern novel is thought to have been originated. You'd think some seventeen-year-old kid's misgivings about such a classic wouldn't matter to anybody. Yet, I have been assigned to review and critique Cervantes's supposed masterpiece, give my opinion as to why it is so greatly acclaimed, and tell whether I share everyone's applause or hold some reservations. There's only one problem. I haven't read the book.

Don Quixote explores the life of a man who has become so bored with the routines of his life that he, intentionally or not, has adopted a new identity, who just happens to be a chivalrous knight. Unfortunately, the period of knight errantry has long ended, so he and his man-servant are set up for quite a few strange encounters with an array of interesting characters. All of this is at the dismay of Quixote's niece, who is desperately trying to get him to return. And as the misadventures grow steeper in incredulity with every taken step, Quixote finds himself fighting against the wishes of his friends and family, the butt of jokes throughout the land, and in a battle against his own wits.

To say that Cervantes was to novels as Shakespeare was to plays speaks volumes about the superiority and importance of Cervantes's works. If that analogy is correct, then Cervantes's work is to have a defining structure of eloquence and significance, not to mention a tangible influence upon subsequent authors following in his footsteps. Having not read the book, I am not able to judge as to whether this testimony is true or false. However, the movie, while not totally devoid of entertainment value, sorely lacks any of the significance associated with a book of apparently such high caliber. Replacing the supposed importance of the novel are misguided attempts at slapstick humor and dream sequences taken to the most ludicrous height by a severely deficient CGI. This is not necessarily, and most likely is not, the fault of the book. A great story can, and often does, deteriorate in the hands of one incapable of telling it properly. A movie, in the span of two hours, is just not proficient at creating compelling characters, producing wit, and portraying a theme nearly as well as a high-quality novel. On the other hand, of course, the book might just suck.

And therein lies the problem of evaluating one story in one medium while inspecting it in another. A book and a movie on the same subject often do convey drastically different results. Whether escapist fare like Jurassic Park or rich, theme-laden works like To Kill a Mockingbird, the quality between movies and their literary sources can fluctuate wildly. Thus, it is simply not a good idea to establish ideas or biases upon works like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, or Joseph Heller's Catch-22 based upon what you see in the theatres. Sometimes a movie transcends its source and sometimes it fails to capture its essence. It is very crucial while viewing another man's interpretation of an author's work that no matter how thorough or close they may follow their source of inspiration, their interpretation is undoubtedly different from that who penned it in the first place.

In conclusion, as a person who has viewed the film rendition of Don Quixote, I am just as qualified as a person who hasn't viewed the film Don Quixote to evaluate and pass judgment on Cervantes's book or explain why or why not it is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever to see the light of day. I can vouch that the film is saddled with such a campy exuberance, it is hard to not find some level of enjoyment in it, yet it is deeply flawed by its gratuitous penchant for slapstick and overwhelming absurdity, the languidly disjointed clustering of the plot, and the strange desire of many of the actors to yell their lines rather than speak them. But anything concerning the worth and importance of the book, I sadly cannot say and will be unable to do so until I actually read it."

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originally posted: 02/17/03 04:13:44
last updated: 12/30/03 16:05:49
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