All About Eve
"IT WON'T EXACTLY be First Tango in Eden," John Collier says, conceding that his new script for Milton's Paradise Lost will not be as fleshly as most film epics of our day. Collier is sitting in a rented house in London. He is a small, neat, wryly formidable man of 72, not unlike the short, chilly fantasies he writes—and he brightens up a bit as he adds: "I've steered clear of God. He was an incredible sadist. He created hell and that lake of fire—just over a little rebellion."
Since the aim of the blind poet in writing the most ambitious poem in English was to justify God's ways to man, no Milton lover at this point feels much like standing up and shouting, "Milton! Thou should'st be living at this hour." Neither, as it turns out, need any Milton lover be too greatly cast down. History (like Collier) has not been kind to the Fall of Man—a satisfying and perhaps necessary myth which the modern world unwisely tends to dismiss as simple misinformation.
For decades Milton's Christian epic has been known for a few showily majestic peaks, separated by vast stretches of doctrinal desert. In rendering it into pre-celluloid form, John Collier has left a great deal of highly expendable Milton on the cutting-room floor.
Gone, for example, are those interminable tête-à-têtes about the creation of the world, etc., between God and Jesus, and between God and Adam. Gone too are most of the lofty jawboning sessions with angels who tend to sound like an unfortunate blend of Dean Rusk and Charlton Heston. Collier skips the Creation entirely, as well as the war in heaven (in fact, most of Books III, VI, VII, VIII, X, XI), except for the fall of Satan's defeated forces toward hell. Where it suits his purposes, though, he uses Milton's verse verbatim—and with reverence. Collier has Satan and his minions in the burning lake repeat until all hell rings with their shout of defiance Milton's resounding expression of the power of men (and devils) to triumph over adversity: "The Mind is its own place and In itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
Describing the action for future cameramen, Collier creates prose that often matches and sometimes surpasses even Milton's great-ranging visual imagination. He sees the fall of the rebel angels at cosmic distance, as a golden snowfall that fills the firmament. After Pandemonium (the house of all demons) is created by magic, its central room becomes as black as night, or the inside of Satan's skull, and myriad rows of attendant devils wink like stars. Satan and his dark disciples fly toward the high gate of hell bound for the corruption of mankind. They look, Collier writes, "no bigger than a flight of hornets in the Dome of the Pantheon."
What Milton had that Collier hasn't is a sense of sin, and the overwhelming power and beauty of divine order. What Collier has that Milton hadn't is a sense of humor and a delight in the variety of chaos. For Milton the Fall was not merely revealed truth but a towering, tragic parable through which man could imagine how mortality and evil came into the world. Verse after Miltonic verse wrestles with the problem of free will and predestination, and throbs with the poet's knowledge that to survive humanely, men must paradoxically believe they are responsible for their own acts, despite all evidence (including the doctrine of divine providence) to the contrary.
That ingenious paradox Collier is not about to accept. If the Fall is a tragedy, Collier feels, as petulantly as the veriest college sophomore, then God is to blame. He was running the show, wasn't he? Even more fashionably, Collier looks on the Fall of Man as a liberation —from timeless, static perfection into the rich, brothy, changeful world of guilt and death, of love and squalor.
"God is crystal," Collier has fairly explained; "Satan is a virus. Crystal imprisons us in perfection. Virus is a source of death, and of all growth."
It has often been said that Milton was of the Devil's party without knowing it. For Collier, however, Satan is nothing less than a charismatic Che Guevara figure. He is so devilishly pleased with Eve's passion for life that he briefly contemplates making her the queen of hell. Milton took a dim view of women. (Eve to Adam: "God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise.") Collier's Eve is the durable and delicious heroine of the piece. In her innocence she mistakes Sin and Death for Love and Life, but Collier does not doubt her wisdom. She is snubbed by the Archangel Raphael, feels God is unfair to Adam and, wanting a child and the pulsing power of creation, escapes from a passive, vegetarian paradise into the flux of human history.
It may be argued that Collier is cleverly making a heaven of hell. But his film script, published in book form, is a symbiotic work of literary art, fast-paced, clever, well crafted, full of knowledge and delight. Everybody should read it, preferably with Milton as a trot.
The author is full of hopeful notions about how it should be filmed. "I don't think wings are desirable in a jet age," he says judiciously. "The music ought to be electronic, by disciples of Boulez, but with bits of Purcell for the Garden of Eden." He sees Adam clearly as stuffy, blond, Nordic—a Law-and-Order man. Eve, "the nicer part of human nature, not altogether reasonable, but charming," should be played by a dark girl, "perhaps a West Indian with a beautiful voice." But he grants that actors and voices might be a problem. "Great personages of the British stage," he notes disapprovingly, "speak in accents that are somehow very sterilizing. We need something universal.
But you can't have Archangels and Great Princes sounding like filling-station attendants, either."
One can indeed imagine Collier's Paradise Lost as a superflick, called All About Eve II, or 4560 B.C., done in the style of Stanley Kubrick. Collier has spent his 40-year literary career variously in England, the French Riviera and Hollywood. He has long believed that the cinema has not taken full advantage of its potential for fantasy, and he has thought about Paradise Lost as a film for years. "Milton was one of the greatest science-fiction and space-travel writers," he explains. "Satan flies through the whole universe, after all."
Briskly Collier rejects the claim, made to him by several film producers, that Paradise Lost would cost untold millions to do. "I've talked to the lab man," he says. "It's simpler to do 10,000 angels in the air, shouting, than to do the Garden of Eden. There are mosses and corals which can be blown up to a huge scale. They look at once natural and out of this world — because they have organic structure." He pauses, then adds, "I've got pictures of Arizona. One could make hell out of almost any corner of the Grand Canyon with a little mist or smoke."
Would the author of His Monkey Wife (1930) and Fancies and Good-nights (1951) care to work on the film on location? Clearly he would, but it is easier to return to fantasy. "That would depend on how close to hell they go," he says.