The announcement that Terry Gilliam was finally able to produce his passion project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, developed through Amazon Studios, after a disastrous road (captured in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha) and eight false starts over nearly 20years of development had everyone asking one question: what’s the big deal with Don Quixote?
For the record, Gilliamfirst attempted to film this project in 1999. Back then, it was budgeted at $32.1 million. Jean Rochefort, the actor set to play Don Quixote, however, suffered a herniated disc soon after they started shooting, while a flood also damaged the set severely. The story of how the film was eventually cancelled – but very obviously stayed in Gilliam’s mind – was released as a film of its own, the documentary Lost in La Mancha, in 2002. But it’s time to focus on Don Quixote himself rather than a film about him.
The First Modern Novel
To understand why the film has taken so long to get off the ground requires us to go back into the literary inspiration, Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615. The novel, actually titled The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, is generally considered to be the first modern novel. That’s not to say that stories didn’t exist beforehand, just that they weren’t arranged into novels in the contemporary sense of the word – as coherent documentations of fictional events, or even real events with changed names. According to the Financial Times, Don Quixotehas sold over 500 million copies in its 400-year run. The book is also credited with spawning dozens of offshoots, beginning with an unauthorised sequel in 1614 by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.
A Dialogue of Genres
Literary analysis posits that Don Quixote reflects humans and their place in the world and in history, a place subject to imagination on top of reality. The book is considered the first modern novel due to the different languages spoken within, which are referred to as “a dialogue of genres”. Don Quixote’s success came in part from Cervantes’s decision to make the protagonist an older man, and to give him a sidekick, Sancho Panza, who was his polar opposite in every way – even physically. The dialogue is between the pair and focuses on the epic vs the picaresque. Don Quixote and his memories of the past resemble the Homeric epic and other exhausting tomes, while Sancho Panza is the picaresque, the story following the wily rogue who survives by living on his feet. The blending of these two genres helped create the novel as we know it.
Cervantes’s Other Work
While Don Quixote may be by far his most famous title, Cervantes actually published a selection of other books, which furthered the idea of a modern novel. Adding to the light conversational style was Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novellas), a series of 12 novellas written between 1590 and 1612. Cervantes can also take credit for being one of the people who provided the first recorded accounts of the game of blackjack. In one of the 12 exemplary novels, two characters play veintuna, an early version of 21. Another of the 12 novellas, “La gitanilla”, helps bring the plot twist to storytelling, featuring a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be the governor’s daughter – while he turns out to be of knightly descent himself. La Galatea, published in 1585, was a pastoral novel that includes poems in cancion, iambic and trochaic style. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this shows how Cervantes adapted his style through his writing and the lyrical way in which he took themes and turned them into stories. While poetry did exist, the way Cervantes did so helped branch out a whole defining genre of Spanish poetry.
Paving the Way
Some even credit Don Quixote as being a handbook for life, showing the way and inspiring beliefs, identity, and politics. NBC News’ Arturo Conde explains that Don Quixote shows how we can try to improve on our past and memories from the past while trying to educate ourselves on who we want to become. Indeed, literature inspiration aside – and there is that aplenty – Don Quixote may also help us see how the world was viewed 400 years ago and how we can use this simpler outlook in the contemporary zeitgeist. Indeed, some even cite Don Quixote as inspiration for the Pixar flick Toy Story (1995). Indeed, Buzz Lightyear is obsessed not with medieval romances as Don Quixote is, but with science fiction and his quest to be the idealised image of the toy from the television, movies, and the box. The delusionary nature of the character’s arc reflects Don Quixote – with Woody appearing as a new-age Sancho Panza, the direct opposite to everything Buzz believes and stands for. Indeed, Toy Story 3 may even take this further with the plot of Buzz being reset – to speaking Spanish.
Criticism of Cervantes
However, Don Quixote is not free of its dissidents. Many argue that the book lacks the standard of a modern novel – recognizable archetypal characters, a strong overarching plot, and a linear narrative. But, the fact that the Don Quixote film has been commissioned and attracted such a strong following over 400 years after the publication date helps drown out any nay-sayers of Cervantes’s literary credence. Moreover, the fact that the book has been translated into almost as many languages as The Bible, and has remained popular in universities and libraries since its inception is testament to how powerful, influential, and meaningful Don Quixote actually is.
Don Quixote may only just be hitting the big screen in a way that most audiences can connect with, but the story, and its descendants in literature have been around for centuries. Had it not been for Cervantes and his way of storytelling, modern epics such as Game of Thrones, Agatha Christie, and even Harry Potter may not exist. Plus, with Terry Gilliam’s zany genius at the helm, the subject matter of the book will be properly addressed.
So, to answer the question “what’s the big deal with Don Quixote?”, well, without Cervantes’s story of the ex-soldier from a time in Spain’s ancient past, there may likely not be the same calibre of writing in our present.