While the Paradise Lost film continues to flounder in development hell, it was announced yesterday that a TV adaptation of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem is in the works, with Dancing Ledge Productions bringing onboard as executive producer Martin Freeman, star of The Hobbit trilogy (2012–14) and the acclaimed British TV series Sherlock (2010–present). That Milton’s Satan may at long last make his debut on the small rather than the big screen is a surprising twist of fate.
Other than the prestigious SFX company Framestore attached for the presumably ambitious visuals, details about the Paradise Lost TV series are scant, but Dancing Ledge CEO Laurence Bowen explained the project as follows: “Paradise Lost is like a biblical Game of Thrones, transporting the reader into an internecine world of political intrigue and incredible violence. At stake? The future of mankind…There’s never been a better time for big, original, bold drama series, and Martin and I both feel incredibly inspired by the material.” As for Freeman himself, his remarks indicate a potential Romantic vision of the Satanic star of Milton’s magnum opus: “Paradise Lost is epic, exciting, and surprisingly modern. And maybe the first time the devil gets all the best tunes!”
The sanguinary political intrigue of Game of Thrones is not only reminiscent of the world of Paradise Lost, but also the world of its author. Milton experienced firsthand the English Civil War (1642–1651), responding to the public execution of Charles I—which shocked and horrified the European monarchies—with his defense of the regicide, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), Milton subsequently serving as Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell’s government. For this, he’d be imprisoned for a time during the persecution of the regicides that followed in the wake of the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II having assumed the throne in 1660, two years after the death of Lord Protector Cromwell. His republican dreams of an English Commonwealth dashed, Milton, amidst the shattered remnants of his political vision and the complete loss of his actual vision, composed Paradise Lost, his protesting voice, as Milton writes in the poem, not “hoarse or mute, though fall’n on evil days, / On evil days though fall’n, and evil tongues; / In darkness, and with dangers compast round…” (VII.25–27).
Paradise Lost was undeniably informed by Milton’s political experiences, and the poem does present what Bowen calls “an internecine world of political intrigue and incredible violence”: the “Apostate Angel” (I.125) Satan is imagined as the “Antagonist of Heav’n’s Almighty King” (X.387), responding to the Almighty’s exaltation of His Son to universal kingship (V.600–15, 657–71) with celestial insurrection, leaving “Unworshipt, unobey’d the Throne supreme” (V.570) and scorning “Knee-tribute” as “prostration vile” (V.782); defeated in the cataclysmic War in Heaven and exiled to Hell, the fallen archangel and his rebel hosts raise “Pandæmonium, the high Capitol / Of Satan and his Peers” (I.756–57), and in this infernal Parliament vote to avenge their damnation by ruining the newly created mortals designed to take their emptied seats in Heaven (II.284–389); Satan makes the heroic journey all alone from Hell to Eden for “public reason just, / Honor and Empire with revenge enlarg’d, / By conquering this new World…” (IV.389–91). One could go on with the “biblical Game of Thrones” aspects of the poem.
Many have argued that Milton, unconsciously or otherwise, invested his sympathetic and sublime Satan with much of his own fiery rebelliousness, and of course the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Romantic radicals applauded the republican Milton and championed his heroic Satan in the revolutionary and post-Waterloo periods. Paradise Lost is, as Freeman stresses, “epic, exciting, and surprisingly modern,” and indeed Milton’s epic poem is incredibly relevant in our current political climate. I would argue it is an ideal moment for a Paradise Lost adaptation, but is the small screen preferable to the big screen? I suppose that remains to be seen, but one would imagine the benefit of a TV series is the capacity to do justice to the vastness of the narrative and its events by telling a prolonged, episodic story. Indeed, Scott Derrickson, the original director attached to the Paradise Lost film project, remarked in an interview for MTVNews back in 2008 that “What [the film] encompasses is still a fraction of the poem and has to be, because you could make a 50-hour miniseries out of it if you wanted to.”
If nothing else, perhaps this Paradise Lost TV series will revive the Paradise Lost film, and perhaps at least one of the projects will live up to its poetic counterpart and indeed give the Miltonic Devil, as it were, “all the best tunes.”