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Rose with thorns

Damian Hardung as Adso and John Turturro as William of Baskerville (SundanceTV)

Television

Rose with thorns

SundanceTV series The Name of the Rose explores spiritual themes, but explicit scenes mar the story

The late Italian literary theorist and semiotics scholar Umberto Eco, though not a believer in any religious doctrine, gave serious treatment to spiritual things. Thus, his novels often pop up on Christians’ lists of favorites. Theologian Michael Horton, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, and author and Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior all count themselves fans. When Eco died in 2016, Marvin Olasky wrote an extended obituary dealing with the contradictions and complexities in his thinking.

And yet, like a cross between Marcel Proust and Dan Brown, Eco included in his fiction plenty of pot-boiling intrigue rarely associated with works classified as “literature.” So, in today’s “peak TV” environment of marrying twisty plots to intellectual pretension, it’s hard to imagine a book better suited for television adaptation than Eco’s best-selling medieval murder mystery, The Name of the Rose

The classic Sherlockian plot of an uncannily observant detective (Friar William of Baskerville) solving a 14th-century “locked room” homicide with his faithful sidekick (the earnest and naïve novice, Adso of Melk) would be selling point enough. But the new SundanceTV series also capitalizes on the magnificent setting by filming on location at a mountaintop abbey in the Italian Alps—while trusting the audience’s intelligence and fleshing out Eco’s religious and philosophical themes. Almost shockingly for these days, the show allows appropriate historical attitudes to stand without accommodation for modern feelings. For example, when homosexual activity between two monks is mentioned (it is not shown), the protagonists never refer to it as anything but sinful.

In several ways, the series actually improves on the occasionally unwieldy novel, and it’s light years ahead of the 1986 Sean Connery film. 

John Turturro’s self-deprecating humor gives more likable shading to William’s know-it-all lectures. And additional subplots deepen the story’s appeal. Young Adso still sins with a peasant girl, but in this case the encounter is preceded first by friendship and then by a blooming romance. It’s both more realistic and more respectful toward women to give the girl a motivation beyond randy anonymous opportunism. 

Regrettably, the scene is as explicit as Eco wrote it and spoils an otherwise exceptional show (as do two other nonsexual scenes showing topless women). How many opportunities do Christian TV lovers have to see theological matters deeply debated, with the good guys making the more Biblical arguments? Where else is a viewer likely to hear the protagonist proclaim, “Christ did not come into the world to command but to be subject to the conditions He found”?  

William’s Franciscan brothers, acting as Martin Luther precursors, contend that although Christ owned all things, He relinquished His claim to wealth and power, therefore His followers should do the same. Meanwhile, their antagonists—Dominican envoys of a corrupt pope hoping to assert control over the emperor—heap up for themselves treasures on earth by putting vulgar price tags on absolution.  

Even Rupert Everett’s performance as Bishop Bernardo, who, with his slobbering and sneering at the foot of the crucifix, embodies the worst stereotypes of Christian zeal, can’t extinguish the light of those Franciscans. Their good-humored simplicity and deep Scriptural devotion proclaim a message: Though bad men abuse the gospel and roost in cathedrals for their own selfish ends, the true Church yet triumphs.

It all makes those fleshly scenes even more disappointing. As William of Baskerville himself observes, “Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could and perhaps should not do.”