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Making the Unfamiliar Familiar through Film

by Mary T. Christel

Film versions of Cyrano’s story, based on Rostand’s play, go back as far as the silent era.  A teacher may choose to acquaint students with this highly accessible story of unrequited love and chivalrous service in the name of romance by screening one of the two best-known films that directly adapt the play.  The first is a Hollywood production starring Jose Ferrer in his 1950 Oscar-winning role. The second is the French language version starring Gerard Depardieu, a film which also won the best foreign film Oscar in 1990.  This “film as preview” method would present the characters, incidents and themes that students will encounter when they see CST’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac.  Neither of these films, however, may provide the optimum experience for students, who might be put off by either the black-and-white photography of the Ferrer film or by the burden of reading the subtitles of the French language film.  PBS’s Great Performances series offers the recent Broadway production starring Kevin Klein and Jennifer Garner on DVD.  Recognizing the drawback to viewing the static nature of the videography used to capture that stage production, this version does offer an opportunity to discuss two theatrical approaches to casting, staging, costumes and scene design once your students have seen Chicago Shakespeare’s performance.

Most contemporary adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac embrace the comic potential of the series of mistaken identities and misguided perceptions that comprise the original narrative’s development.  The films also play up a slapstick approach to the romantic misadventures of the central triangle and tend to temper the pathos of the source material, especially in how the narrative resolves itself.  Since “Hollywood” films, especially comedies, need to bring the central, romantic pair together, the Cyrano counterpart gains his beloved’s admiration and affection over his more romantically conventional rival.  And that rival gains some type of comic hubris to negate his bid to be the appropriate partner for the modern Roxane.

In order to assess one of a number of film adaptations inspired over the years by Rostand’s play, the following elements should be present in varying degrees parallel the source material:

Characters

  • an eligible, desirable young woman (Roxane) who attracts the attention of various competing suitors
  • a conventionally handsome suitor (Christian) who lacks the confidence and verbal skill to woo this woman
  • a more worldly, witty suitor (Cyrano) plagued with an easily recognizable flaw or impediment that rules him out as a viable romantic rival, though he has the verbal facility to express the extent of his sincere admiration of his beloved

Scenarios

  • the Cyrano counterpart writes poetically amorous letters on behalf of his rival, and becomes a confidant to both the beloved and her suitor
  • a ruse is created to allow that handsome suitor to woo his beloved with the words of his secret rival
  • the Cyrano counterpart must deflect taunts regarding his flaw with a lengthy catalog of witty, self deprecating verbal counterpunches

Recent films based on Cyrano de Bergerac have drawn on cultures and contexts--from the world of samurais to Bollywood to a Korean dating service--but the best-known version, Roxanne, starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, makes an engaging introduction to both the basic elements of Rostand’s play and the techniques of comedy (a genre sorely neglected in most English/Language Arts curricula).  The 107-minute film could be screened in full or as a series of excerpts to facilitate a discussion of character and plot, as well as the analysis of comedic techniques, which could include: hyperbole, incongruity, overstatement, understatement, caricature, grotesque, sarcasm, irony (verbal, situational, dramatic) pathos and bathos.

Written by its star, Steve Martin, Roxanne is set in the sleepy, bucolic town of Nelson, where a lovely astronomer, Roxanne, arrives to track the appearance of a new comet.  Her interest in astronomy is no fluke: the historical Cyrano (upon which Rostand himself first adapted his story) wrote about travels to the moon.  Also new to the town is Chris, a professional firefighter, on hand to train the local, bumbling volunteer fire company that serves as a counterpoint to Gascon Cadets in the play.  C.D. Bales (aka Charlie) is the fire chief who falls for the beautiful and brainy Roxanne, and becomes the romantic mentor to dimwitted and awkward Chris, who is unable to talk to Roxanne in a manner that measures up to her romantic ideal.  Ghostwritten letters become Chris’s entrée into Roxanne’s affections and romantic aspirations—letters that continue to stoke the flames of her desire when she briefly leaves town. Chris finds another young woman who allows him to speak for himself and moves out of town with her, which allows Roxanne and C.D. Bales to become a romantic pair—but only after the letter-writing ruse is revealed.

In order to preview the arc of the Cyrano story, students may view the following key scenes that introduce the main characters, the central conflict and the key complications:

Introducing C.D. Bales with swashbuckling panache
C.D. and Roxanne meet
Chris and Roxanne: love at first sight?
C.D.’s showmanship: self-deprecating 20 insults 
Letter-writing gambit
Chris’s first attempt at “assisted” wooing 
At the balcony 
C.D. and Roxanne’s confrontation over ruse revealed
Roxanne’s romantic resolution: reversal balcony scene

1:15   -    5:10
5:56   -  15:19
16:55  -   20:15
29:47  -   35:05
49:00  -   55:05
59:30  -   66:01
66:01  -   74:25
90:30  -   96:08
99:55  - 103:50        

 

The film employs a Hollywood “happily ever after” ending for C.D. Bales/Cyrano and his Roxanne, which is certainly antithetical to Rostand’s ending and could set students up for the added shock of Cyrano not “getting the girl” in the play.  The ending of the film could be screened after the students see the CST performance to discuss the appropriateness of the different endings in the play and the film.

As these excerpts are screened, students should apply the following questions for discussion of each clip:

  1. How does this scene accomplish one or all of the following: presents expository information about character(s); establishes a romantic or adversarial relationship between characters; creates or builds on the mistaken identity scenario?
  2. How does the sequence/situation establish a sense of status quo?  Which character seems to be the most interested in, or able to, maintain that status quo?
  3. How is that status quo disrupted?   Which character is responsible for creating that disruption?
  4. Which techniques are used to heighten the comic potential of that disruption?
  5. To what extent is order restored by the end of the sequence/situation?  If order is not restored, how are further complications set up that will need to be addressed in a later incident?

After students view and discuss the set of clips, they should be encouraged to consider what is  “realistic” about the romantic triangle set up in Roxanne that they will later encounter in Cyrano de Bergerac.  Obviously, no one has a nose immense enough to serve as a perch for a pet canary as C.D. Bales does, but what are the recognizable and universal traits that each character brings to their comic love story?  Ask students to identify other stories, films or television shows that remind them of the Cyrano story.

Unlike Shakespeare’s comedies that have become the fodder for teen-marketed films like 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man, Cyrano de Bergerac has not to date yielded many adaptations despite the basic premise seeming ideally suited for adolescent romantic “drama.”  (Perhaps that’s why a new Cyrano film adaptation is in development that shifts the story to social media.) A young James Franco appears in a little seen (poorly reviewed and difficult to find on DVD) film, Whatever It Takes (2000), that does situate the basic wooing triangle in high school, but the film’s marketing sells it with the following tagline: “How low will they go to get the girls of their dreams?” This film is probably not worth the effort to seek it out for classroom use.  

The twenty-something dating scene is the setting for The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), starring Uma Thurman, Janeane Garofalo and Ben Chaplin, a film that reverses the genders in the romantic triangle.  The plot relies on a series of mistaken identities as a seductive radio voice that belies a “plain Jane” exterior requires the Cyrano surrogate, a self-help talk show host, to hide behind her sexy friend.  The man in this triangle assumes the soothing, confident voice he hears on the radio matches the more physically attractive of the two women.  It is an engaging adaptation but, in my opinion, strays too far from the Cyrano plot and character template to be useful an introduction to Rostand’s work.  And, even though it is PG-13, one “phone sex” scene might make the film not particularly suited for classroom viewing. 

A more appealing youth-oriented adaptation comes from the Disney Channel in Let It Shine (2012, 104 min.).  Cyrus (think Cyrano) is an aspiring hip-hop artist who tries to express himself musically on two fronts: at his father’s conservative church as the leader of the youth choir and at a local all-ages rap club where he works as a bus boy.  One of his perceived rivals at the club (and later with Roxie, a childhood friend and famous singer) is Kris, who has the flashy performance style, or “flow,” but lacks the breakout lyrics to emerge as a true performance powerhouse.  Cyrus becomes Kris’s DJ and “ghostwriter.”  The basis for the romantic triangle and the characters’ names clearly make the clear connection to Rostand.  The script eliminates an extreme physical otherness that would further separate Cyrus and Kris.  Cyrus is seriously “cute” and his otherness is defined instead by his lack of bravado in contrast to Kris’s.  In order to further marginalize Cyrus, he is denigrated by taunts of being a geek, just a bus boy not a performer, at the club.  Like Roxanne, this film could be screened in full or in excerpts.

When approaching the film as a series of excerpts, students should focus on the physical attributes and musical abilities of the characters in the central romantic triangle, and upon how those qualities make them feel especially empowered or deficient in comparison to their romantic partner or rival. Unlike Cyrano, Cyrus has nothing to immediately stigmatize him as being physically unattractive or grotesque.  The similarity between Cyrus’s and Kris’s physical appearance is used to fool Roxie.  The inadequacy Cyrus feels in comparison to Kris is no doubt more realistic and relatable for a middle or high school audience. The ensuing comic situations seem less broadly played in contrast with some of the comic hijinks of Roxanne, where the star, Steve Martin, is showcasing his slapstick talents.

The arc of Let It Shine would be best showcased in the following sequences:

Cyrus counters bully’s abuse with witty self-deprecation
Kris and Cyrus respond to pop singer Roxie’s song challenge
Setup of Kris fronting Cyrus’s contest-winning lyrics
Counterpart to balcony scene (with a technology twist)  
Adult confidant’s advice for Cyrus 
Roxie claims a lack of worthiness, Cyrus challenges his father
Confrontation between Cyrus and Kris 
Cyrus’s ruse revealed

7:19  - 12:57
12:58 - 15:20
26:05 - 30:18
32:18 - 38:20
42:34 - 45:20 
64:40 - 69:12
76:40 - 79:00
86:45 - 91:35

As students view the excerpts, they might focus their discussion on any of the following questions:

  1. What exactly differentiates Cyrus and Kris in how each takes charge of a situation with their peer group or a one-on-one interaction?
  2. How does each young man confront an obstacle in developing and sharing their musical talents?
  3. What makes Roxie appear out of reach for each on professional and personal levels?
  4. How does Roxie differentiate between the two as a potential professional or romantic partner?
  5. Despite being a recording star, how is Roxie depicted as being vulnerable and insecure?
  6. How does Cyrus’s role as Kris’s “ghostwriter” lead to both dramatic and comic situations?
  7. When is adult intervention necessary?  What insights does an adult confidant provide to a member of the romantic triangle? How is that advice regarded?

Prior to attending the performance of Cyrano de Bergerac, students could explore the signature moment from the play--the balcony scene--by examining in that moment how Rostand distills the essence of the triangle (smitten beloved, inept wooer, hidden poet) through viewing three versions of that signature scene in any film version of Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as its counterpart in Roxanne and Let It Shine.  These films are easily acquired at local public libraries or streaming online through a video content provider.  The balcony scene from the Klein/Garner Broadway production is available on YouTube.  This direct comparison of three film treatments based on a print literary source addresses Common Core Standard RL 7.  Analysis of the “balcony scene” in Cyrano might also extend into a discussion on how it is either an homage or subtle parody of the interaction between Romeo and Juliet on her famous balcony.

Additional film resources can be found on page 9 of the Cyrano de Bergerac Folger Library Study Guide.

 

Mary T. Christel taught AP Literature and Composition as well as media and film studies courses at Adlai E.Stevenson High School from 1979 to 2012. She has published several works on media literacy including Seeing and Believing: How to Teach Media Literacy in the English Classroom with Ellen Krueger (Heinemann) as well as contributing articles to Teaching Shakespeare Today (NCTE), Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century (U of Ohio), For All Time: Critical Issues in Shakespeare Studies (Wakefield Press). Ms. Christel has been recognized by the Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for promoting media literacy education.

 

   

 

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