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A Ghost's Tale: Musings on the Film Scenario
Erat Athenis spatiosa et capax domus, sed infamis et pestilens. Per
silentium noctis sonus ferri et, si attenderes acrius, strepitus
vinculorum longius primo, deinde a proximo reddebatur. Mox apparebat
idolon, senex macie et squalore confectus, promissa barba, horrenti
capillo; cruribus compedes, manibus catenas gerebat quatiebatque. (Pliny
the Younger, 7.27, letter to Licinius Sura)
INTERIOR OF DOMUS. ATHENS. NIGHT. LONG SHOT, establishing that the
house seems to be deserted. Long shadows fall across the room. Background
SOUND, absolute deathly silence at first, then iron chains faintly
rattling and clanging together. The CAMERA tracks around the room slowly,
as if acting like a person looking for the source of the sound. Background
SOUND increases steadily until frighteningly loud. The CAMERA tracks more
quickly around the room, jerking about, finally resting suddenly on the
GHOST. MID SHOT, showing GHOST'S aged, emaciated and squalid appearance.
CLOSE SHOT on head, focusing on his long shaggy beard and bristling hair.
CLOSE SHOT on feet, showing that they are fettered. CLOSE SHOT on hands,
showing chains he's wearing and shaking, zooming in tighter and tighter on
the chains as the SOUND becomes unbearably loud. BLACK OUT.
Gareth Morgan once suggested in an article entitled "The Teaching
of Elementary Latin" (Texas Classics in Action, 1967, reprinted
Summer 1994, TCA website at www.txclassics.org
under Journal Excerpts) that some Latin can be interpreted successfully
and enjoyably via a method he referred to as writing a film scenario.
Gareth's words bear repeating:
More profitable, I think, as far as Latin poetry is concerned is the
writing of a film scenario. This is particularly useful in reading Vergil
(and I may say that you can read Vergil with your students at a much
earlier stage than is usual with the traditional methods). Take, for
example, the scene of the serpents coming across the sea to devour Laocoon,
or the scene where Sinon is surrounded by the inimical Trojans. If you go
back and reread these, you will find out, I am sure, how very suitable
they are for film treatment. The cutting between one face and another, the
cutting between the close shot and the long shot, they are all there. They
would delight any modern film director. And the greatest virtue of this
exercise is that it forces you and your students to take the Latin poetry
in the way in which it was written, and not to go around jigsaw-puzzling
at it, looking for a verb here and a noun there.
When I was reading Pliny's tale about the haunted house last Halloween
night, Gareth's words came to mind. I saw its immediate application to
this tale and began to explore and brainstorm about its practical uses in
the classroom. With delight I read and reread the passage, looking for
some clues in the Latin that would help me compose the script for my film
scenario. What form would this script take? What would be the best way for
students to approach this assignment? I finally decided upon my
instrument: notebook paper divided into three columns. The first column
would contain the Latin phrase(s) or sentence(s); the second column would
contain the film scenario; the third column (and perhaps the most
important column) would be for the explanation--what was found in the
Latin text to support the description of the scene. Of course, with this
third column you are doing nothing more than teaching students to provide
examples to support their arguments.
A delightful consequence of such a method for examining a text is
discovering style--discovering how Romans artfully used their language to
paint a picture. For example, the following demonstrates Pliny's use of
verb forms and other constructions in creating the atmosphere in this
quale ubique, silentium noctis; deinde concuti ferrum, vincula
moveri; ille non tollere oculos, non remittere stilum, sed
obfirmare animum auribusque praetendere. Tum crebrescere fragor,
DOMUS. ATHENS. NIGHT. LONG SHOT, showing the PHILOSOPHER sitting
quietly at his table with his lamp and writing materials,
everything around him is dark. Background SOUND, silence at first,
then iron chains faintly rattling and clanging together in the
distance. MID SHOT, showing the PHILOSOPHER at his seat unmoved.
Background SOUND, the noise from the chains gets louder and
closer. Quick LONG SHOTS in different directions in the house, as
if looking for the noise. Back to MID SHOT of the PHILOSOPHER,
then back to LONG SHOTS of the house, the pace of this matching
the increase in SOUND. CLOSE SHOT on the PHILOSOPHER,
demonstrating his determination not to look up, focusing only on
his work at hand.
moveri, tollere, remittere, obfirmare, praetendere, crebrescere,
adventare are all historical infinitives; they quicken the pace of
the story at this point and account for the added tension and
speed of the scene/camera shots. Most of these verbs are also
coming before their objects, giving more emphasis to the action.
|iam ut in
limine, iam ut intra limen audiri
SOUND of clashing chains is very loud now. Tighter CLOSE SHOTS of
the PHILOSOPHER'S calm face alternating with CLOSE SHOTS of the
GHOST'S chains, first against the frame of the doorway with the
GHOST on far side, then with GHOST inside door, then right behind
the philosopher's back. Hold CLOSE SHOT on the PHILOSOPHER'S face
while the SOUND from the chains become unbearably loud.
iam utů bring more urgency to the scene, as demonstrated by the
alternating close shots.
videt agnoscitque narratam sibi effigiem.
||MID SHOT of
the PHILOSOPHER and the GHOST. The PHILOSOPHER slowly but calmly
looks up. He views the GHOST with the detachment of a scientist,
although the ghost's haggard appearance (see opening description,
above) is definitely frightening.
videt, and agnoscitque (all present tense verbs) demonstrate the
calm, detached nature of our observer, the philosopher, who has
been steadfastly writing on his wax tablet the whole time without
looking up. The ghost's appearance is exactly the same as
described previously--we know this from narratam.
If I were a student and just translating the passage into English, I
doubt if I would pay attention to phrasing and word choices, much less
care. I'd be too busy just trying to get it "into English"
(however bad that might be) and finish yet another translation assignment.
But the creativity involved in writing a film scenario can motivate a
student to pay more attention to details and phrasing (even inadvertently)
and, as a result, to understand more of what the author is trying to
The writing of a film scenario is not necessarily limited to textual
descriptions. Students could complement the written assignment with
illustrations in the form of story boards, such as an advertising firm
would do when presenting an idea for a commercial. These could also be
displayed for other students, faculty, administrators and parents to see.
Some students might actually want to film the scene using a home
camcorder. The possibilities are endless.
THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
My friend Dexter Hoyos at the University of Sydney was fascinated by my
description for using the "film scenario" and decided to issue
me a challenge. He sent me the following sentence (with the preface),
which I learned later was Tacitus--a difficult author whose works I had
never read previously.
(Nero, planning to kill off his mom, has her to dinner first.)
iam pluribus sermonibus modo familiaritate iuvenili Nero et rursus
adductus, quasi seria consociaret, tracto in longum convictu,
prosequitur abeuntem, artius oculis et pectori haerens, sive explenda
simulatione, seu periturae matris supremus aspectus quamvis ferum animum
I confess that it took me several readings to comprehend the Latin,
after which I pondered how I would film it. A juicy piece indeed, which I
am now convinced that I can more compactly and effectively
"film" than translate into good English. Because of the
psychological and grammatical complexity of the passage, I broke down the
Latin into smaller phrases than I had with the tale of the haunted house.
I also tried to imagine all the things that aren't actually mentioned
directly, such as guests, slaves, the boat dock, etc.
VILLA AT BAIAE. LATE AT NIGHT. (Exiting TRICLINIIUM and going to)
BOAT DOCK (where the specially engineered boat, ready to fall
apart, waits for AGRIPPINA).LONG SHOT (from stage left), showing
NERO following AGRIPPINA out the door of the triclinium; SLAVES
cleaning up behind; Agrippina's SLAVES rounding up her things,
etc. (As the scene progresses, the CAMERA will circle around NERO
from stage right to stage left, with the final shot from the other
side-that side will be away from the GUESTS and viewing the boat.)
of this sentence is what Nero is doing now (iam). It is because of
this that I open my scene with a view of Nero, even though he
doesn't appear first in the Latin, but is the 7th word. I have the
scene set in the triclinium since this is a dinner party (convictu).
Convictu also indicates that there are witnesses present-people
who are watching this scene take place (and not just the ever
present but ignored slaves).
sermonibus modo familiaritate iuvenili
in the TRICLINIUM; the rest of the shots are on NERO and AGRIPPINA
walking out on the BOAT DOCK)FLASHBACK (with a kind of strobe
effect with the appropriate sound-like a camera flash-accompanying
it; more gentle with the first flashback, but increasing in
intensity with successive episodes), alternating MID SHOTS
(showing the room is cleaner and neater to indicate that it is
earlier in the evening) and TWO SHOTS of NERO and AGRIPPINA on
couches in the triclinium, telling stories to each other or
gossip, NERO feeding AGRIPPINA (maybe something he's eaten so
there's no worry of poison), whispering to her while other guests
talk, etc. FLASHBACK to this two or three times, allowing the
different food and drink on the table and neatness of the room
plus drunkenness of the other guests to indicate how much time has
||The use of
multiple flashbacks helps to create the image of pluribus
sermonibus-that they didn't just have one nice chat but many
throughout the evening. Gossiping, feeding each other, whispering,
etc., are indications of modo familiaritate iuvenili. I have
multiple guests here to help indicate when Nero and his mother are
talking just to each other-that there is some intimacy taking
place, some filial familiarity. Of course, we need other guests to
witness this scene. This whole sentence is about Nero's possible
state of mind, his reason for the pose (pectori haerens).
rursus adductus quasi seria consociaret
FLASHBACKS/MID SHOTS, this time with NERO discussing serious
matters of state, perhaps both with AGRIPPINA and his ADVISORS,
and OTHERS who are present.
During these FLASHBACKS, NERO and AGRIPPINA
continue to walk to the boat with AGRIPPINA leading the way. The
ubiquitous SLAVES are present and other GUESTS have followed NERO
and AGRIPPINA to see this grand gift (the boat). The CAMERA tracks
from stage left to nearly straight on, so that the GUESTS and
others can be seen behind NERO and AGRIPPINA.
and the last indicate two sides (of many?) of Nero's nature: his
tender, boyish side and the emperor/serious ruler that his mother
has helped him become. Both show his relationship to his
mother--his affection and respect. I have guests following them
outside because the text (further down) indicates witnesses to
these events--that people are seeing possible motivations for his
pose (artius oculis et pectori haerens). All of these subordinate
clauses and phrases go to Nero's state of mind. Was he just
striking a pose (explenda simulatione) or was he truly influenced
by the evening? Did it truly touch his heart? Was the one last
look at his mother a sincere look?
SHOT, showing another course being brought out (with his mother
protesting the additional food/dessert or, more likely, wine).
FLASHBACK/CLOSE SHOT, showing NERO making a toast and ordering the
mix of wine to water. FLASHBACK/LONG SHOT to additional
entertainment (DANCERS, POETS), etc, anything to make the dinner
party seem long and drawn out.
longum convictu is a natural flashback since it is an ablative
absolute. This is definitely something that has happened in the
past, something that sets the stage here. In longum is
important-it indicates, more than tracto, that the dinner party
had already gone on a long time, thus emphasizing how noteworthy
it is that Nero seems as if he might not want their happy reunion
(straight on) of Nero following AGRIPPINA to the end of an
elaborate boat dock (such as are seen in some frescos), garlands
and such everywhere for the occasion, torches lit, etc. GUESTS and
SLAVES followed them but are standing back. The CAMERA continues
to track, moving around to stage left, beginning to show the
water/boat in the background. CAMERA tightens on two shot of NERO
||Nero . . .
prosequitur abeuntem is the main clause in this sentence; it is
the current action; it is the skeleton that all the other
participles and subordinate clauses hang on. This is why we are
here: to watch Nero as he gives a fond (?) goodbye to his mother.
oculis et pectori haerens
showing NERO and AGRIPPINA standing side by side on the dock. NERO
faces AGRIPPINA and embraces her, gently kissing each of her eyes,
then dropping to his knees, burying his head in her chest,
clinging tightly to her gown, almost in a pose of worshipping her.
haerens is why we are here-this pose of Nero is what witnesses
saw. This is what they saw before Agrippina was almost killed. So
when they saw it at the time, after such a lengthy and seemingly
enjoyable dinner party, were they seeing true emotion, or was it
an act? This pose is crucial to the scene. It must be handled with
care. Tacitus does not have Nero groping his mother openly and
even though this is implied by other authors, we must not here. We
have been given, up to this point, reasons for Nero's
sincerity--reasons why he might be pouring filial love and
devotion on his mother. This is what we must portray.
SHOT with NERO posed, clinging to AGRIPPINA. Have Nero's SLAVES
gradually come closer, as if providing appropriate lighting for a
||If there is
a way to make this look feigned, we must demonstrate it. Nero was
an artist after all (artius in the text!)-thus the assumption that
people are expecting Nero to fake his affection (certainly when
thinking back to this scene later on).
periturae matris supremus aspectus
zoom to CLOSE SHOT on NERO. NERO sighs and looks up briefly at
AGRIPPINA. Resume TWO SHOT, showing AGRIPPINA fondly looking down
at him and stroking his hair.
possibility allows Nero to demonstrate somewhat sincere feelings
for his mother-that maybe he wasn't faking his feelings or maybe
he had a change of heart after such an enjoyable evening together.
ferum animum retinebat.
with NERO looking back down and then turning his head toward the
sea, all the while clinging to AGRIPPINA'S chest. And what does he
see? His boat! The boat that is rigged to fall apart and drown
AGRIPPINA. TIGHT SHOT on NERO'S face, from eyes to mouth,
revealing a subtle, evil smile ever so slightly creeping across
his face. NERO closes his eyes in relief that AGRIPPINA will soon
be gone from his life. LONG SHOT of boat. SLOW FADE TO BLACK.
||This is the
clincher-no matter whether he was just faking any show of
affection or whether he really felt some filial affection (that
all good Romans have), he's holding back his fierce nature. He's
not letting on (or so he thinks) to all others present what's on
his mind, what he's holding back, but we know as we see this final
After I completed the above film scenario, I decided to translate the
passage into English. With every attempt I grew more frustrated. I felt
inadequate, illiterate, uneducated, beaten. I questioned my understanding
of the grammar over and over. In contrast, when I was working on
interpreting this passage for the film scenario, I found my confidence
building. As I constructed the scene in my mind, each piece seemed to fit
together, each piece worked to create this complex psychological picture
of Nero. Tacitus' narration is intriguing, exciting, complex. But were I
to base my experience with Tacitus on my feeble English translation alone,
I would never want to read Tacitus again.
And I think that is the most important lesson to be learned here.
Surely our students become greatly discouraged when translating a piece of
Latin that doesn't flow easily into English, especially if they are
translating Latin day after day. No one likes to work on something that
makes him or her feel like a failure. Where is the motivation to become
better acquainted with the passage or to focus on Latin in its own word
order? Next time, when a particularly challenging passage comes along (or
when you just need a change of pace), consider whether a film scenario
treatment might be more productive than a translation. Put the SPOTLIGHT
where it should be: on reading comprehension. FADE TO BLACK.
* I owe a small debt of gratitude to the autobiography Clinging
to the Wreckage by John Mortimer, who demonstrates with humor how to
write and typeset a scene for a film script. Tibi gratias ago, Sir John.
May 21 , 2000
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