The Epic Simile on Screen

I should have known, at least 4 years ago, that Paradise Lost, the movie, was eventually coming out.

Edition after edition of the epic poem are out there, and will continue to be out there. The book is going to sell thousands because of the movie, and whoever buys it is going to find a reading experience as bafflingly dense as it ever was.

It’s such an intense read; I hope your footnotes are there. Just try and read it with or without popcorn. There will be large, undigestible kernels. Some of the lasting forces the poem (more like baroque battering ram) unleashes on me, though, are the epic similes. These are reflective stoppages of time, where the poet “pulls back” and grandly embellishes an image. He riffs on it for a few lines, comparing it to other things: in history, in other poems. These similes are visual moments, and could be so outrageous on film.

Here’s one. Satan is lying on the lake of fire, talking to his buddies. It’s treacherous. His bulk is huge: so large, it’s like a whale that a fisherman mistakes for an actual island, and anchors his boat to the side it as if it were land. That’s what evil’s like: so invisibly massive, you’ll think that you’re in safe territory. You’re not. You’re on the exact opposite of safe territory.

In fact, this was one of the passages that bugged T.S. Eliot for being over-intense. “I am not too happy about eyes that both blaze and sparkle,” he wrote, “unless Milton meant us to imagine a roaring fire ejecting sparks: and that is too fiery an image for even supernatural eyes.”

This was before 3-D movies, though. I think overdoing it here would be quite called for.

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