As promised, I have managed to get one review of the TV adaptations of The Roman Mysteries up while the show is still on! 'The Gladiators from Capua' was shown last Monday and Tuesday, but you can still see the last few episodes next week, starting with 'The Colossus of Rhodes' tomorrow morning on CBBC. Spoilers follow.
The Gladiators from Capua is my favourite Roman Mystery (so far) so this adaptation had a lot to live up to. This is complicated by the fact that it is almost certainly the adaptation that strays the furthest from the book, as the set-up for the television episode is completely different from the situation at the start of the novel. I’ve also reluctantly accepted that, since CBBC do not have the budget of Gladiator, it was impossible to set the story in the Colosseum, or to show the whole arena flooded to create a lake and filled with crocodiles. I am sad about this, but I accept that it is true.
Having said that, the arena set is impressive (especially on a childrens' show's budget) and the tiger even more so. The tiger provides a nice, neat solution to the problem of Flavia’s adventure in a flooded arena full of crocodiles, as a small arena with one tiger works just as well, even if it is a little less exciting, and the eventual solution – Nubia making use of her knowledge of African wild animals – is more or less the same (similar enough to feel right anyway). In the TV version, the other little girls survive – in fact, even the condemned criminal survives – which is probably also for the best, as the mass slaughter of little girls isn’t your usual family fare. There's only one problem with the action once the Games begin though – where are the audience?! Even I, Claudius managed to put in some sound effects to imply the existence of the audience we never see!
At one point, as the children escape, Domitian asks, ‘Was that meant to happen, Africanus?’ – someone’s been watching Gladiator! He even has a similar expression to Joaquin Phoenix as he says it...
For the most part, the story is reasonably well adapted. There's a subtle change to Caudex's character, from someone unwilling to kill in general terms to someone afraid of his own dark side and therefore unwilling to kill, and it works well enough, though you wonder why someone so ruthless as the gladiator trainer didn't just throw him to the lions (if this was Spartacus, he'd have gone straight to the Pits!). The way the trainer kidnaps Jonathan for the arena is a wee bit less plausible, as he’s just a child – Book!Jonathan was part of a special exhibition of child gladiators for the opening of the Colosseum, which made sense, but which isn’t the case here. On the other hand, the presence of Jonathan’s slave tattoo (from The Assassins of Rome) does make the idea of him being kidnapped by an unscrupulous slaver more plausible, and the trainer has good reason for it.
Some of the changes to the story are really extreme, partly out of necessity, since the mystery of the book doesn’t apply here. Trouble is, it’s hard to get too worked up about Domitian being under threat if you know how he turned out! But the gladiator who looks not unlike Neighbours Reject has a nice little speech where he says that they’ve been brought there to die, they might as well die for a reason, and his death was genuinely tragic. It also fulfilled the gap created by the survival of the girls and the thief by including death in the story's depiction of the arena, which it needed to feel realistic, but by giving the death to one competent, willing adult rather than a group of innocent, ignorent little girls, probably avoided a fair few complaints to the BBC. (In reality, gladiators did not die every time there was a fight, as even the Roman Empire could not provide that many highly trained gladiators! Often the fights were only to the point of surrender. However, some fights were to the death, and a modern gladiator story without anyone dying would probably feel strange to a modern audience who expect to see the extremes of the profession in a fictional representation of it).
Gladiators-eye-view of the arena at El Jem, Tunisia - I'm in the bottom left hand corner!
This is one of those cases where, because I've read the book and because the adaptation is so different, I really need to watch it twice to fully appreciate it, as the first time I spend the whole thing keeping track of all the changes that have been made (this is why I rarely read the Harry Potter books right before the movies come out). Even on a slightly confused first viewing, though, this was a good, solid adaptation and a satisfying story in its own right - if you discount the fact that the whole thing is about saving Domitian! Of course, our heroes have no idea how Domitian will turn out. He was one of the notorious 'bad' emperors, with a particularly violent temper, and may have been responsible for his brother's death - but I think the books cover that later, and I haven't read that far yet, so no spoilers please! Even if our heroes did suspect something, however, they would still have to save him - as several characters point out, they own a debt of loyalty to Rome, to the Emperor and, therefore, to the Emperor's family. Plus, well, if you allow a murder to happen you become partly responisble for it, and that's Bad, especially for children. So there's nothing wrong with this as a story hook - it's just a bit less satisfying for the viewer if you can't help feeling that they'd all be better off if they left him to it!