In an age where we lack action heroes and recognition factor is key for franchiseability (a new made-up word), Hollywood is turning to history for new characters. In addition to all the King Arthur stories that are brewing, Leonardo DaVinci, Marco Polo, and Harry Houdini are quickly being reworked into the 21st century's Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes.
As Eugene Novikov reported earlier today, Warner Bros is looking at making the actual Leonardo DaVinci into the star of his own DaVinci Code type of movie. Last week, Variety reported that they've also hired Francis Lawrence to develop an action movie starring 13th century adventurer Marco Polo. Most people only know Polo as a cheesy pool game, but he was an extensive traveler who was one of the first Europeans to travel throughout Asia. He wasn't the first, but his journals exposed many Europeans to the Far East, and really kicked off the obsession with finding trade routes there. A straight-up adaptation of his journal would be enough for a movie, but Warner Bros wants to make it a fantasy adventure. "We see this as something that takes place in the Orient of our imagination amid the cultural clash of the East and the West," says Adam Cooper, one half of Marco Polo's screenwriting team.
Last March, Summit began lining up its post-Twilight ducks, and decided one of them could be Harry Houdini. As Monika reported last year, they purchased rights to William Kalush and Larry Sloman's controversial The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. Kalush and Sloman concocted a theory that Houdini was a spy for England, was asked to advise Tsar Nicholas II, and may have been murdered by a cult. I believe most of the book was debunked, but Summit has the idea of running with its sheer, crazy fiction and creating a Houdini action franchise.
You may have also noticed that literary mash-ups are all the rage. Abraham Lincoln is a vampire hunter, Jane Austen documented zombie attacks, Queen Victoria hunted demons. Those are all quite camp and humorous ideas, but they're sprung from the same idea that history is neither sacred, not free from a little blood and fun. Surely, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Beethoven aren't too far behind? (There may be some rumblings in that direction. Roland Emmerich is working on a thriller about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays!)
At first glance, this is all the height of silliness and desperation. Is Hollywood so desperate for ideas, so eager for name recognition that they'll pillage dusty shelves and do a bit of graverobbing in order to concoct a hero for a new age? Why can't anyone write a new Indiana Jones without basing him on Leonardo DaVinci? Isn't it insulting to the real figures and their accomplishments to re-imagine them as pulp heroes?
The answer may be yes to all those questions. But it might also be not really. In all honesty, civilization has a long history of reworking history and mythology in the name of entertainment. The Greeks loved spinning myths into new stories and poems; playwrites took stories of the Trojan War cycle and reworked them into epic, terrifying works that could stand alone of Homer and myth. If you're thinking "But that's mythology, not Abraham Lincoln!", remember that to the Greeks (and the Romans), this was history. They believed Zeus and Hera were real, and they believed the Trojan War had happened. One could argue that whatever actually happened in historical Troy -- and yes, it seems to have existed and at one point destroyed by war -- was spun into a pretty incredible poem. Maybe this was the first example of historical fiction. We don't know.
Medieval Europe was also notorious for taking historical events and figures and working them into all kinds of stories. Attila the Hun figures largely in early Germanic and Norse mythology such as the Volsung saga and the Niebelungenlied. His conquests made such an impact that he figures largely in fiction, and portrayals of him differ as widely as the historical accounts. Julius Caesar appears in some Arthurian myths as a lover of Morgan Le Fay. King Arthur and Camelot were "real" too. (And yes, Arthur is currently accepted as having some historic basis.) Dime novels took real life figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Davy Crockett, and Jesse James and reinvented them as all kinds of action heroes to the point that separating the fact from fiction has been very difficult for many Americans.
Mystery authors love doing this as well. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Jack London, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, and a dozen Hollywood stars and starlets are all out solving murder cases. Apparently, if you were brainy and cool at all in life, you're kicking even more (fictional) ass in death. It's either disrespectful or a nod to their gumption, and people see it both ways. Mostly, they eat it up. No one gets upset. Now, I'm not suggesting anyone is upset now, but I can imagine the eye-rolling and forehead slapping when Leonardo DaVinci or Marco Polo move beyond the trades, and actually start fighting the supernatural.
So really, why should anyone invent heroes when you can borrow the real ones, and write new adventures for them? Frankly, what's surprising isn't that Hollywood has decided to do go the historical adventure route, but that it hasn't happened a lot sooner. (If you count all the Westerns that spun guys like Jesse James and Davy Crockett into heroes who did everything asked of them -- and I would -- it already has.) Their reluctance to delve into the world of real artists, explorers, and magicians suggests they have a higher respect of history as being untouchable than any of their critics (including myself) thought!