2016 not only marks 400 years since the death of England’s national poet Shakespeare, but also 400 years since the death of Spain’s national writer Miguel de Cervantes. On April Fool’s Day I attended an event at the British Library exploring the impact of Cervantes’ Don Quixote across four centuries. Don Quixote in Words Pictures and Film featured broadcaster and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, Oxford University academic Edwin Williamson, and University of Birmingham academic Rob Stone (it was also supposed to feature graphic novelist Rob Davis, but he was ill).
Andrew Graham-Dixon spoke about the character of Don Quixote, remarking that he is one of the greatest comic characters in literature. He also talked about the character’s influence on later writers and artists, including Picasso, Dali and possibly Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey is a novel in which the protagonist is heavily influenced by a fictional fantasy world). Don Quixote is apparently the second most illustrated book in the world, after the Bible.
Edwin Williamson explored how the novel was created and its impact on literature. It has been regarded as the first modern novel, and has had a huge influence on subsequent fiction. As a Catholic in the Spain of the Inquisition, Cervantes was taking a risk writing the novel, but the madness and delusion of the central character helped him to get away with it.
Cervantes wrote the novel as a parody and a burlesque in order to criticise books of chivalry. His target was not the original books, which gained popularity during the medieval period, but later sixteenth century versions, which were extremely popular in Cervantes’ time and which were simplistic and poorly written. While the first book, in which Don Quixote goes in search of adventure after reading dozens of books of chivalry, was a superb achievement, the second, written several years later, was even better: as Don Quixote journeys on he meets several characters who have read the original book, an interesting twist which takes the story to another level.
Rob Stone discussed the films which have been made about Don Quixote, of which there have been around fifty: the book is a compelling and retellable story, and it is impressive how many different kinds of films have been made all over the world, including a Western version, Don Quickshot of the Rio Grande, a soft porn musical version, and a recent Chinese version with incredible special effects. I was intrigued by how many Russian films have been made, reshaping the Quixote tale into different aspects of Russian culture. The Russian equivalent of Spitting Image even portrayed Boris Yeltsin as an alcoholic Quixote. Some of the most fascinating Don Quixote films are the ones that never got made: we were shown the one surviving scene from the unfinished Orson Welles version, and heard about Terry Gilliam’s more recent failed version.
I really enjoyed the evening and it’s left me with the desire to read Don Quixote again: I originally read it over a decade ago, so I’d like to give it another go and see if I feel any differently about it.