John Milton’s Paradise Lost is widely considered to be one of the greatest poems in the western canon, spanning more than ten books and ten thousand lines of verse. You’ve probably seen, read, heard, or quoted pieces of it yourself without even realizing it, with phrases like “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” being part of popular culture, music, and art centuries after it was written. I’ve actually had the pleasure of studying the literature decades back as part of my undergrad, where I learned that Milton went blind before the work’s completion and that much of the poem was written, in fact, by his daughters—to whom he would dictate the verses after compiling them in his mind.
Taking such a renowned and epic poem and creating a minutes-long short film is more than challenging; it’s downright impossible. Writer Laura Sweeney and director Jeremiah Kipp decided that they would foolishly attempt the impossible and actually created something quite artistic and respectful of the original work, something akin to an homage.
The language used seems to be taken directly from the source material with the opening lines starting from line 158 of the poem, then grabbing stanzas and verses from more popular parts of the literature. It is interesting to note though that although some argue that Paradise Lost is the greatest work of English literature, writers like T.S. Eliot and Samuel Johnson considered Milton a butcher of the language and were very open critics. Regardless of your stance on the matter, Sweeney follows the diction faithfully, keeping the style of the dialogue very poetic and using extracts to compile her screenplay.
The short film is shot in black and white, with the setting, characters, and attire all modern-day aside from the dialogue. There is very little to fault visually, with the settings simple and the budget humble. The acting is hard to gauge as the lines are delivered by all in a very Shakespearean playhouse style with the actors embodying (literally) the most stereotypical of characters. For lack of a better word, I’d say that everything was “safe,” with no envelope-pushing in sight. Safe isn’t necessarily a bad word though, as the cinematography and score complimented and played off each other quite beautifully.
As someone who has a background in the arts (Who ever said I’d never get to use that bachelor’s degree?!) and has read the poems, I found myself enjoying the shortest of short screen adaptations, though I expect that anyone with a fundamental knowledge of the Christian cosmology could do the same. It’s something that I’d be excited to share with a class of learners, but probably not something I’d recommend for a horror festival. It has a very artistic atmosphere, almost stiflingly so. I’d have loved it if Kipp’s modern adaptation had had a little more of that Romeo + Juliet (1996) flair, giving the characters a bit more fluff for the fun of it, keeping the language but punking up the attitudes and attire a sliver more. Hell could have been something far more interesting than a dark and gloomy basement—perhaps a prison or a boardroom (sticking with the style of the jacket and suits).
It’s a good short from many standpoints. It’s technically sound, coherent and easy to follow, and the pacing jumps from scene to scene rather briskly. The i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. I just wanted something with a bit more of a bite rather than a satisfied smirk…this is the fall of man after all. Thanks for reading and as always, stay sordid.
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