One of the smart children I met on World Book Day asked whether I preferred seeing a film before I’d read the book, or afterwards. I said I always like to read the book first – I expect most people do. The pictures in a film – at least a good film – have a way of taking over from your own mental images. Hard to imagine Hogwarts or Narnia in any other way now than the way they appear on screen. Luckily a bad film usually just falls into a rubbish chute in your brain – the number of bad Jane Austen or Bronte adaptations I’ve seen, which have just vanished without trace, I’m glad to say. (though I fear I’ve irrevocably lost ‘my’ Darcy to Colin Firth.)
I’m thinking of this because the film of one of my favourite childhood books, The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff , is coming out on Friday, and I know I shan’t be able to resist seeing it. I’m betting the Romans have American accents, of course. But I have hopes of it.
Because I wanted to make sure that ‘my’ mental pictures were firmly fixed, I’ve just been reading the book again, and have been enraptured by it.
It first came out in 1954; I must have read it very soon afterwards, when I was twelve or thirteen. It left me with a passion, which I’m sure I shared with many others of that period, for history in general, and the Dark Ages in particular. Later on, as a writer, I was convinced I’d discovered the Dark Ages and their magic, for myself – looking back, I can see that Rosemary Sutcliffe discovered them for me. I read all of her books as they came out, I think, and it was especially those like The Lantern Bearers, Warrior Scarlet, Outcast, set in periods of history that no-one else bothered with, that made their mark on me.
Writers didn’t have websites then of course. We knew nothing about them. They were remote and magical figures. The Eagle of the Ninth brought Roman Britain as alive to me as my own memories of places and people – I imagined that she must have travelled widely to have such intimate knowledge of so many places – I didn’t know until much later that she was crippled by a childhood disease and virtually housebound – all that vivid description had come from her imagination. I think of that now, as I research details – often, these days, the lazy way on-line. Getting things right is important – but the imaginative validity of what you write, your ability to make a scene tangible and alive to the reader, the sharpness of your senses, all that is far more important. Many writers have travelled far more widely than Rosemary Sutcliffe could ever have done – and failed to bring their material to life. In her wheelchair, she created worlds.
The Eagle of the Ninth isn’t perfect. To modern readers, her Romans – who were fairly beastly people – seem , well, too romantic. Marcus our hero, is conveniently injured after the British uprising in his garrison, so that he doesn’t have to carry out the fearful reprisals that the Romans would have inflicted on the natives. There’s clearly a love affair going on between Marcus and his slave – maybe Miss Sutcliffe didn’t see it, but the modern reader certainly can, and it slightly skews the story. The Roman soldiers are altogether a bit too manly and marvellous, and her view of them is rose-tinted.
But none of this matters. It’s a wonderful book and still shines out today. Wouldn’t it be great if the film were to bring modern children back to historical novels? Let’s keep hoping.