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.”
Legendary Pictures chairman and chief executive Thomas Tull wryly remarked back in the March 4, 2007 New York Times article on the Paradise Lost film project that his initial reaction to the prospect of making Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem into a movie was, “Well, that’s going to make a lot of older folks relive bad college experiences.” Yet he came to believe that the film could be made appealing to a broad audience “if you get past the Milton of it all,” in the words of Tull, who explained, “if you get past the Milton of it all, and think about the greatest war that’s ever been fought, the story itself is pretty compelling…” Making a film adaptation of Milton’s masterpiece and proceeding to try and “get past the Milton of it all” was certainly a suspect sentiment, but what did Tull mean by this?
Milton’s Paradise Lost is certainly Milton’sParadise Lost, which is to say, although the Puritan poet was retelling literally the oldest story in the book—the Fall of Man at the dawn of Creation—Milton’s presentation of this age-old tale in Paradise Lost was unique unto him. For one thing, as Milton states early on in the poem, his ambition was to outshine the classical epics of the Greek Homer and the Roman Virgil—“to soar / Above th’ Aonian Mount” (I.14–15)—with his own Christian-themed English epic. A byproduct of this aspiration was challenging the pagan epics on their own ground, Milton setting out to demonstrate that pagan heroism pales in comparison to Christian virtue—as personified in none other than God’s Son, “By Merit more than Birthright Son of God, / Found worthiest to be so by being Good, / Far more than Great or High…” (III.309–11). Thus, Milton declares in the proem to Book IX that he dismissed for his Christian epic the traditional epic subject of warfare, “hitherto the only Argument / Heroic deem’d,” which lamentably left “the better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom / Unsung…” (IX.28–29, 31–33). Milton opted for the subject of “Man’s First Disobedience” (I.1), a subject he found “Not less but more Heroic” (IX.14) than those found in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and the Aeneid of Virgil, for through the primeval disobedience of Adam and Eve, the Son of God becomes the glorious savior of disobedient Man. This, for Milton, completely eclipsed the classical heroes’ martial valor, assumed in Paradise Lost by Milton’s Satan, “the proud / Aspirer” (VI.89–90) who is “by merit rais’d / To…bad eminence…” (II.5–6). (Of course, Milton’s demonization of the classical virtues via imbuing Satan himself with them was part of what made Milton’s Devil far more appealing than intended.)
As if Milton’s theological aspiration wasn’t task enough, the poet included in Paradise Lost a significant political component as well. Paradise Lost was composed during the Restoration, the republican Milton writing—or dictating, actually, as Milton was at this point completely blind—amidst his dashed dreams of an English commonwealth free from the bondage of monarchal tyranny. Paradise Lost was subsequently infused with a strong antimonarchical message, and while Romantic radicals saw the regicidal Milton reflected in his arch-rebel Satan, who fashions himself as the “Antagonist of Heav’n’s Almighty King” (X.387), Milton repeatedly suggests that earthly monarchy came straight from Hell (II.672–73; IV.381–83; XII.24–74) as a sinful imitation of “Heav’n’s matchless King” (IV.41).
These complex literary, theological, and political positions embedded in Paradise Lost are part and parcel of “the Milton of it all,” but one would imagine that a film adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost would jettison these weighty issues in favor of the grandness of the story and the cosmic conflict of its outsized characters—“the greatest war that’s ever been fought,” as Tull put it—which would surely make for plenty of onscreen spectacle. Yet even certain aspects of Milton’s presentation of his story and characters would likely prove puzzling to modern-day film audiences. For instance, Milton prolongs his War in Heaven into a three-day conflict, Satan and his rebel angels, after suffering a terrible loss on the first day of battle, inventing cannons to even the odds on the second day (VI.469–634). Milton is at his most peculiar in Paradise Lost, however, when he (via the archangel Raphael) goes out of his way to explain the complexities of angelic anatomy and physiology (VI.344–53), including angelic digestion (V.404–13) and sexual intercourse (VIII.620–29).
Speaking of supernatural intercourse, one would have to imagine a film adaptation of Paradise Lost would excise the Satan, Sin and Death episode, wherein Satan’s daughter Sin explains that when she burst full-grown from her father’s haughty head (II.749–58), Satan saw in his offspring his own “perfect image” (II.764) and in turn “Becam’st enamor’d” (II.765), copulating with Sin and inadvertently creating Death, Satan’s “Son and Grandchild both” (X.384). Death, Sin relates, tore from her womb and proceeded to rape his mother, deforming Sin’s lower half into a serpentine monstrosity (II.761–802). Paradise Lost’s incestuous and monstrous unholy trinity is surely part of “the Milton of it all,” but would a film adaptation dare to go there? Well, as revealed by the demonic concept art of Dane Hallett and the Milton on Film book by Paradise Lost’s script consultant Eric C. Brown, Sin was set to appear in the film, albeit in an altered dynamic (Milton’s devoutly loyal angel Abdiel was recast as “the Angel of Death,” who would surely replace Sin’s incestuous son). What’s more, it is safe to assume that Tull’s comment about “get[ting] past the Milton of it all” was not necessarily about Paradise Lost’s challenging language—seventeenth-century English epic verse rife with Latinisms—as Sin, according to Brown’s book, “was so insistently Miltonic in her speech as to be dubbed ‘like Yoda times a thousand.’ ”1 Perhaps the Paradise Lost film was more Miltonic than Tull anticipated?
Yet perhaps the need to “get past the Milton of it all” pertained more to the character of Milton’s Satan than to his Sin or Death. “The depiction of Satan may be a polarizing one among scholars,” noted Michael Joseph Gross in his 2007 New York Times article. “Some, in line with Romantic poets like William Blake, will want the dark prince to be the hero; others won’t be happy unless Satan is a self-deceiving hypocrite, and the story an education in virtue and obedience.” The latter was certainly what Milton the Puritan set out to accomplish, but the former was undeniably what Milton the poet ended up achieving. “Milton gives the Devil all imaginable advantage,” observed Percy Bysshe Shelley in his unpublished Essay on the Devil and Devils (ca. 1819–20), Shelley questioning Milton’s status as a Christian and speculating that he may have masked his Satanic sympathies within a literary work so as to evade the inevitable persecution such heresy would call down, given the oppressive climate in which Milton was writing: “Thus much is certain, that…the arguments with which he [Milton’s Devil] exposes the injustice and impotent weakness of his adversary are such as, had they been printed distinct from the shelter of any dramatic order, would have been answered by the most conclusive of syllogisms—persecution.”2
Shelley’s extreme position that Milton was a conscious Satanist is unwarranted, and the more plausible (and frankly more intriguing) theory is derived from the infamous dictum of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93): Milton was “of the Devils party without knowing it[.]”3 Either way, the Romantic Satanists’ reading of Paradise Lost, to be fair, did “get past the Milton of it all” insofar as they liberated Milton’s Satan from the Christian confines of Paradise Lost—an epic poem designed by Milton to “justify the ways of God to men” (I.26)—which enabled the fallen angel to ascend as a Promethean Romantic hero. Then again, as far as the Romantic Satanists were concerned, Milton had with his Satan created a character—inadvertently or otherwise—so sympathetic and sublime that he was destined to break free from the pages of the poem. “As if misplaced in the ideological structure of Milton’s epic,” notes Peter A. Schock in his study of Romantic Satanism, “the figure of the fallen angel invited his own excision and insertion into different contexts,” and as a result
Milton’s Satan assumes in the Romantic era a prominence seen never before or since, nearly rivaling Prometheus as the most characteristic mythic figure of the age. A more active and ambiguous mythic agent than the bound, suffering forethinker and benefactor of humanity, the reimagined figure of Milton’s Satan embodied for the age the apotheosis of human desire and power.”4
Considering Milton’s Satan “the hero of Paradise Lost”—a phrase employed matter-of-factly by the Satanic School’s Byron and Shelley5—was for the Romantic Satanists entirely central to “the Milton of it all.”
If, in the end, “the Milton of it all” refers to the theological Puritanism of Paradise Lost, and if a Paradise Lost film that “get[s] past the Milton of it all” means that Milton’s Satan could be translated to the big screen as “the apotheosis of human desire and power” for our own age, as he was for the Romantic age, then from the perspective of a neo-Romantic Satanist it is to be wished that a Paradise Lost film “get past the Milton of it all.” It remains to be seen, however, whether the film adaptation of Paradise Lost—should it ever make it to theaters—will deliver the complex ambiguity of a Miltonic-Romantic Lucifer or Legendary’s Thomas Tull simply meant that Milton’s masterpiece would be reduced to a superficial angelic action film.
1. Eric C. Brown, Milton on Film (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2015), p. 332.↩ 2. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essay on the Devil and Devils, in Shelley’s Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, pref. Harold Bloom (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988), p. 267.↩ 3. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, rev. ed. (New York: Anchor Books,  1988), p. 35; pl. 6.↩ 4. Peter A. Schock, Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and Byron (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 3.↩ 5. Lord Byron, quoted in Jerome J. McGann, Don Juan in Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 25; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Prometheus Unbound (1820), in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York [2d rev. ed. 1977]: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002), p. 207.↩
Pioneer of Romanticism (and Romantic Satanism1) William Blake famously theorized in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93) that the sublime grandeur surrounding Satan in Paradise Lost makes sense given that Milton, as “a true Poet,” was “of the Devils party without knowing it[.]”2 It appears that infernal inspiration lies behind all the arts, as Alex Proyas, the onetime director of the Paradise Lost film, recently revealed that his effort to bring Milton’s masterpiece to the silver screen made him realize his own place in the Devil’s party.
“While attempting to make Milton’s Paradise Lost into a movie,” Proyas wrote in a Facebook post on October 24th,
I had an epiphany of sorts. I’m obviously not the only guy who has had it, but it felt very personal at the time. Can good exist without evil? Further to that, it seems the God of Paradise Lost actually manipulates Lucifer in such a way that his only recourse is to become Satan, and thereby He invents the very notion of evil itself. There was no good before God made it, and therefore no evil either. And that is why Paradise Lost was considered so blasphemous when it was written and continues to be challenging even today. That is one of the reasons why the movie was never made.
Proyas had made a similar comment concerning the real reason for Paradise Lost’s cancelation prior to production via Facebook back in December of 2015, when he was still working on his ill-fated Gods of Egypt (2016) film: “…[T]he [Paradise Lost] project fell over not because the budget was too big (as reported in the media),” Proyas claimed, “but because I really do think the material is just too out there for Hollywood. Let’s not forget Milton himself was branded a heretic for writing it.” In any event, the director’s analysis of Lucifer being forced to become Satan—the heavenly Morningstar compelled to become the hellish Prince of Darkness—was but a more subdued variation on the analysis the Satanic School’s Percy Bysshe Shelley offered in his unpublished Essay on the Devil and Devils (ca. 1819–20).
As far as Shelley could see, because Milton’s Satan possessed an “unconquerable Will” and the “courage never to submit or yield” (I.106, 108), the fallen archangel “was so secure from the assault of any gross or common torments that God was considerably puzzled to invent what he considered an adequate punishment for his rebellion; he exhausted all the varieties of smothering and burning and freezing and cruelly lacerating his external frame, and the Devil laughed at the impotent revenge of his conqueror.” Given how remarkably undaunted Milton’s Satan remains in the face of his damnation, Shelley explains, Milton’s God resorted to corrupting the fallen angel’s “benevolent and amiable disposition,” the omnipotent tyrant diabolically coercing Satan to corrupt the innocent Adam and Eve, thereby magnifying the intensity of his own suffering:
At last the benevolent and amiable disposition which distinguished his adversary furnished God with the true method of executing an enduring and a terrible vengeance. He turned his good into evil, and, by virtue of his omnipotence, inspired him with such impulses as, in spite of his better nature, irresistibly determined him to act what he most abhorred and to be a minister of those designs and schemes of which he was the chief and the original victim. He is forever tortured with compassion and affection for those whom he betrays and ruins; he is racked by a vain abhorrence for the desolation of which he is the instrument; he is like a man compelled by a tyrant to set fire to his own possession, and to appear as the witness against and the accuser of his dearest friends and most intimate connections, and then to be their executioner and to inflict the most subtle protracted torments upon them.…Milton has expressed this view of the subject with the sublimest pathos.3
In his radical reinterpretation of Paradise Lost, Shelley lays the blame for the Fall of Man on God Himself—just as Milton’s Satan does (IV.373, 386–87)—and while this particular apology for Satan appears on the surface of it to overstate the Devil’s case, it ironically has the most textual support. After all, we are reminded early on in Paradise Lost that it is none other than the Almighty who frees Satan from the burning lake of Hell so that “with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation” (I.214–15), as well as garner greater glory for God, for Satan’s “spite still serves / His glory to augment” (II.385–86). In Eden, Milton’s Satan sheds tears for the human couple whose ruin he must precipitate in order to avenge himself and his fallen brethren on God and divide the Deity’s Empire by conquering the “new World” (IV.388–92). It appears quite safe to say that the Paradise Lost film was going to be faithful to the spirit of this uniquely sympathetic Satan imagined by Milton.
As I have explained, I became a believer in “the guy from The Hangover” playing Lucifer not only because of Bradley Cooper’s heartfelt love for Paradise Lost but the unabashed passion for Milton’s Satan that the actor expressed, Cooper having openly asserted that he “fell in love with that character because I couldn’t believe how appetising he is in that poem. Satan is the hero.…It’s about the father [God] betraying the [Satan] character.” Regardless of what the other filmmakers had in mind for the presentation of Paradise Lost, that Cooper was clearly going for a Romantic portrayal of Milton’s Satan was to me rather reassuring back in late 2011/early 2012. I am now further impressed—and in turn further disappointed that the film never made it to the production phase—to see that Proyas shared a Romantic vision of the poem and acknowledged that his cinematic version would be just as “blasphemous.” To be fair, during preproduction Proyas had shown that he intended to stay true to the deep ambivalence of Milton’s Satan when he related that “Lucifer was the brightest and smartest of the archangels, and even as he descended into evil and evolved into Satan, he’s not just some black-and-white villain,” which is yet another variation on Shelley: “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil.”4
As promising as Proyas’ pitch was a half-decade ago, to now hear from the director that working on Paradise Lost induced a Satanic “epiphany of sorts” is quite a reminder of the power and influence of Milton’s epic poetic treatment of the rebel angel. It’s a shame that the film fell through, and I can only hope that Hollywood will eventually muster the audacity to bring Paradise Lost to the big screen—with Milton’s fallen Morningstar as the Satanic star of the film. Proyas estimates it will take Hollywood another half-century to do so, the diabolical director promising, “I will haunt the cinemas at that time to make sure they’ve done it right.”
1. See Peter A. Schock, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake’s Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix,” ELH, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 441–70.↩ 2. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, rev. ed. (New York: Anchor Books,  1988), p. 35; pl. 6.↩ 3. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essay on the Devil and Devils, in Shelley’s Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, pref. Harold Bloom (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988), p. 270.↩ 4. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821), in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York [2d rev. ed. 1977]: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002), p. 526.↩
Lucifer was to be the lead role in the film adaptation of Paradise Lost, the Morningstar the true star of the picture. With the stakes as high as possible, the actor destined to become this distinguished Devil would need “Atlantean shoulders” to bear the responsibility of such a titanic role. Daniel Craig and Heath Ledger were originally eyed for the part by producer Vincent Newman, according to the March 4, 2007 New York Times article on the Paradise Lost project, but it wasn’t until the film was under the direction of Alex Proyas that Heaven’s preeminent angel was given a face. That face belonged to Hollywood’s rising star Bradley Cooper.
Known mostly for his roles in comedy dramas, Cooper made for an unlikely Lucifer, even if he possessed a convincingly diabolical image: a tall, athletic physique crowned with an oblong visage, punctuated by a mischievous smirk and star-bright eyes. (The devilishly handsome actor would be chosen as People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” in the fall of 2011.) Cooper became famous for his performance as Phil Wenneck, the selfish, slick, smooth-talking rake of the 2009 comedy hit The Hangover. As peculiar as “the guy from The Hangover” playing Lucifer may have seemed to people, the actor’s passion for Paradise Lost undeniably infused tremendous energy into the project.
It was announced on May 4 of 2011 that Cooper would likely be stepping into the role of Lucifer, and when the actor appeared on Charlie Rose three weeks later to promote the anticipated sequel to The Hangover, he leapt at the opportunity to advertise Paradise Lost. Speaking about Milton’s epic with great enthusiasm, Cooper expressed that he “loved” the poem, which he studied at Georgetown University under Jason Rosenblatt, a former president of the Milton Society of America. “I just loved the idea of Lucifer being a very charismatic guy who you agree with,” Cooper told Charlie Rose, reasoning that Milton’s Satan “makes a very sound argument in that poem.” Cooper found that the spirit of the sympathetic Satan was carried over into the screenplay adaptation, which presented him with the story of a father and two sons: the father explains to his sons that he “love[s] the family dog” more than them, and in fact wants to enlist his sons in the dog’s service; one son is blindly compliant, but the other son believes the father has gone insane, this indignant son challenging his sheepish brother on account of “the betrayal that he feels.”
What Cooper alluded to is surely the cosmic sibling rivalry between the archangels Michael and Lucifer, set in motion by Almighty God, the eternal Father who subordinates His angelic sons to a creature inferior in the Creation: Man. (A significant departure from Milton’s text, wherein Satan’s rebellion is set in motion by the Son of God’s exaltation to universal kingship and orchestrating the Fall of Man is merely an afterthought—a means of bittersweet revenge against the God who damned the rebel angels to Hell.) While this cosmic conflict might seem larger-than-life, Cooper found the story rather down-to-earth and relatable: “I just liked the simplicity of it. I…felt a hook into that.”
As psyched as Cooper was about the possibility of scoring the role of Milton’s Satan in a mega-budget Hollywood adaptation of Paradise Lost, the actor was not quite met with equal excitement by Legendary Pictures. While his role in The Hangover (also produced by Legendary) launched him into the limelight, Cooper became crystallized as Phil—or simply “the guy from The Hangover”—and Paradise Lost director Alex Proyas had great difficulty imagining the actor stepping into the titanic role of Lucifer, the great adversary of Almighty God. Cooper painted Proyas’s reaction rather perfectly to Charlie Rose: “The guy from The Hangover is not Lucifer. I just can’t see it.” Cooper was no stranger to this response, relating on another occasion that he’d previously pitched the idea of him playing Lucifer to Thomas Tull, chairman and chief executive of Legendary Pictures, Cooper paradoxically begging to play the Prince of Pride. He was not prepared to back away from the challenge of convincing Proyas he was right for the role of the ultimate rebel.
As underestimated as he was, Cooper at no point expressed frustration with the lack of confidence people had in the prospect of the guy from The Hangover as Lucifer. Instead, Cooper voiced his thankfulness for being a part of The Hangover ensemble, which afforded him the success and recognition needed to score bigger and better roles, the most significant of which was Eddie Morra in 2011’s surprisingly successful Limitless. Cooper explained to Charlie Rose that his performance in the modern-day Faustian bargain tale of sorts convinced Proyas that he could carry a movie, yet the question remained: “But can he carry Lucifer?”
What made Proyas a believer in the guy from The Hangover as Lucifer, according to Cooper, was an extremely informal test performance in the actor’s kitchen, filmed on a flip camera by a friend. The performance was apparently transformative for Cooper, his booming, echoing voice (in “mid-Atlantic accent”) immersing him in the fantastical scene. “It just happened,” Cooper related to Charlie Rose. “I just found it.” Cooper would go on to add that “that experience in my kitchen will give me the confidence to go anywhere with that character.” The impressiveness of the performance was not lost on Alex Proyas. When Cooper and his friend e-mailed the homemade film clip to the director, they received a promising e-mail back from Proyas, who quoted that famous Satanic line from Rosemary’s Baby: “Satan lives!”
And so it was: the guy from The Hangover was Lucifer. When Proyas and Cooper appeared at the San Diego Comic-Con in July of 2011 to promote Paradise Lost, then in preproduction, the director was straightforward about his confidence in Cooper as “the most extraordinary character that we’ve never seen on film before”: “…[M]eeting Bradley and seeing what he was capable of blew me away. It’s been a very unexpected turn, I think, for the character, but I think it was meant to happen.” Cooper, speaking of the project with characteristic enthusiasm, in turn expressed his trust in Proyas’s vision of the film:
It is early days, but it’s been living with me for a long time…I relate a lot to this character and this story. To me, it’s a very small movie, actually; it’s a very small story about an intimate nuclear family—about two brothers and their father and what happens when one son feels utterly betrayed. So, to me, I think that there are a lot of…personal ways into this character, which is what makes it so exciting to do it with this kind of scope and with a director that has the kind of vision that Alex does. See Dark City or any of his movies, you know that this is the right guy for the job.
When asked by the Comic-Con presenter what the Paradise Lost project offered that struck a chord with him, Cooper once again humbly emphasized his deep desire to play this iconic character in this classic story, which he has had such a strong affinity for since his undergraduate days: “It was more of Alex’s choice, me begging for it. I studied Paradise Lost in college…and I always just loved the poem and the depiction of Lucifer as a very sympathetic character, in my estimation…” Cooper clearly possessed the proper mindset to step into the role of Lucifer, and Proyas would go on to assert his belief that the persistent actor possessed the complexities and the acting chops to pull off the performance of Milton’s multifaceted fallen archangel: “…Bradley is the most charming guy you’ll ever meet, with this extraordinary charisma. Lucifer was the brightest and smartest of the archangels, and even as he descended into evil and evolved into Satan, he’s not just some black-and-white villain. Bradley brings extraordinary depth to that journey.”
Cooper, along with Proyas, was surely profoundly disappointed when his opportunity to star as Lucifer was lost with Legendary Pictures’ cancelation of Paradise Lost in early 2012. Non-believers in the guy from The Hangover as Lucifer, on the other hand, were relieved, especially when Cooper reminisced about the project in an interview for GQ in December of 2013. While he was apparently “moved to something close to joy, recall[ing] his first encounter with Paradise Lost,” Cooper proved to be far less deep than Proyas painted him:
Milton, bro? Milton. Fuckin’—that was the end of it. Motherfucker’s 57 or whatever, blind, dictating it to his fucking daughter-nurse—Paradise Lost? I mean, I just couldn’t…That poem fucking killed me. Satan? That character was un-fucking-believable. I could taste him in my mouth, dude, reading that. I really, really, for some reason, connected with that poem.
As embarrassingly superficial as this rant might have been, to be fair to Cooper it was a rare moment in an otherwise promising journey to fleshing out the fallen angel of Milton’s magnum opus. In most of his discussions about Paradise Lost and his relentless determination to star in the film adaptation of the epic poem, Cooper undeniably proved to be surprisingly insightful and poised to play Milton’s apostate angel, Lucifer.
Some would never be convinced by the guy from The Hangover as Lucifer—perhaps at least until they saw his performance. After all, while there have certainly been notorious examples of miscast leads, there have also been underestimated actors who blew people away with iconic performances which doubters never anticipated. For instance, when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman in the 1989 film, comic book fans exploded into a furor, but Keaton’s brooding performance as the mysterious Dark Knight quite simply awed audiences, many fans still considering Keaton’s the definitive Batman performance. Similarly, when Tom Cruise was cast as the vampire Lestat in the 1994 film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, author/screenwriter Anne Rice expressed her lack of confidence in the Hollywood heartthrob’s performance, describing the casting as “so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work…” Yet when she saw Cruise in the role, Rice was ultimately compelled to assert that “Tom was Lestat for me.” I was hopeful that filmgoers would be just as overawed by Bradley Cooper’s performance as Lucifer.
I became a believer in the guy from The Hangover as Lucifer not only because of Cooper’s heartfelt love for Paradise Lost, but also because of the actor’s unabashed passion for Milton’s Satan. Cooper explained in an interview with Metro in December of 2011 that he “fell in love with that character because I couldn’t believe how appetising he is in that poem. Satan is the hero. It’s a story we can all relate to.…It’s about the father [God] betraying the [Satan] character.” Whatever the other filmmakers had in mind for the presentation of Paradise Lost, Cooper was clearly going for a Romantic portrayal of Milton’s Satan, which was tremendously reassuring.
If the Paradise Lost film is ever revived, I know I will be hoping for Cooper’s return to the role of Lucifer. If, however, the Devil assumes a new form, I can only hope that the actor who replaces Cooper shares his enthusiasm for the Miltonic Lucifer and the endeavor of bringing that most iconic character to the silver screen.
After the years of silence which followed preproduction of the Scott Derrickson-directed Paradise Lost film, it was announced on September 16 of 2010 that Alex Proyas—the visionary director behind such films as The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998), and I, Robot (2004)—had been given the directorial reins of the Paradise Lost project, described as “the story of the epic war in heaven between archangels Michael and Lucifer, and…crafted as an action vehicle that will include aerial warfare, possibly shot in 3D.” The prospect of a 3D Paradise Lost film seemed far too gimmicky to me, but the goal was obviously to follow in the footsteps of the groundbreaking Avatar (2009), immersing IMAX audiences in the fantastical world the filmmakers create—which, in the case of Paradise Lost, would take moviegoers on a promising cosmic tour through Heaven, Hell, and Eden.
Under Proyas, Paradise Lost began picking up steam in ways the project never had with Derrickson at the helm, especially when news broke on May 4 of 2011 that rising star Bradley Cooper would be playing the Miltonic Lucifer himself, Cooper wasting no time to enthusiastically advertise the project on media outlets like Charlie Rose when promoting The Hangover: Part II. In July of 2011, Proyas and Cooper appeared at the San Diego Comic-Con to promote Paradise Lost, then in preproduction, the director expressing his aspiration to live up to Milton’s epic poem:
Basically, this film is based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, a seventeenth-century epic poem. We’re pretty much going to live up to that. We’re going to make this incredible, epic film about the war of the angels, Lucifer’s fall from grace, his battle with the archangel Michael. So it’s a pretty big canvas, and I hope we can live up to that.
Proyas demonstrated that he was the first person attached to the Paradise Lost project to truly understand the gravity of the endeavor of adapting Milton’s vast vision to the screen:
We try to stay as faithful as we can. In fact, we have one particular Milton scholar [Eric C. Brown] who’s been working with us, to keep us in check, to make sure we’re doing the right thing. But I think we achieved a great narrative within the scope of Paradise Lost. It’s been a bit of re-editing the flow of the story, but I think it’s working very well now.…When you go into something as deep and as beloved as Milton’s Paradise Lost, you try to be as respectful of the source material as possible. We were actually surprised by how respectful we had been. We were very pleased by the reception that the script got. So that was a real great surprise.
As overjoyed as Proyas was about the onscreen supernatural spectacle he would be able to play with, the director expressed that he was far more enthused about the opportunity to bring one of English literature’s greatest characters to life on the silver screen: “The story and the characters are really the thing for me…That’s what gets me excited, and I think particularly with Lucifer we have a really wonderful opportunity to create the most extraordinary character that we’ve never seen on film before.”
Despite the heartfelt excitement expressed by both Proyas and Cooper, as well as the considerable progress the audacious project had made, the Paradise Lost film was once again simply not meant to be. Discussing the technological innovations required to properly adapt Paradise Lost to the medium of cinema, Proyas ominously stated, “This film couldn’t have been made a few years ago, and in fact we’re not even sure we can make it now.” The Comic-Con crowd laughed along with Proyas, who reassured the audience, “We’re hoping we can,” but the would-be Paradise Lost director’s words rang true. While the project continued to advance, with casting news popping up throughout the summer and fall of 2011—Benjamin Walker as the archangel Michael, Djimon Hounsou as Abdiel (here “the Angel of Death”), Casey Affleck as Gabriel, Camilla Belle as Eve, Callan McAuliffe as Uriel, Dominic Purcell as Jerahmeel/Moloch, Diego Boneta as Adam, Sam Reid as Raphael, and Rufus Sewell as Samael—principal photography for the film was repeatedly delayed at the tail end of 2011. There was talk about attempts to reduce the cost of the production so that it would not exceed $120-million, but Legendary Pictures finally pulled the plug on Paradise Lost in early 2012, and the project has remained in limbo ever since, bits and pieces of concept art and storyboards emerging every so often to show viewers what the film might have looked like.
I imagine my former Miltonist Professor from about a decade ago was relieved. “Miltonists have not traditionally been interested in popularizing, in the way Shakespeareans have,” explained Milton in Popular Culture co-editor Gregory Colón Semenza to Michael Joseph Gross in his March 4, 2007 New York Times article on the Paradise Lost film. Semenza added, “there’s the sense that Milton is the last figure that can be protected from the tentacles of pop culture, so there is some resistance to this movie…” To a certain extent, I understand this, particularly as someone who is concerned with preserving the Miltonic-Romantic Lucifer’s legacy. Having Milton’s sympathetic Satan dominate the silver screen as the star of a blockbuster film is an incredibly thrilling notion, but of course there is the risk that the filmmakers will fail to do the Devil proud, which is reason enough for me to be somewhat apprehensive. (After all, consider what happened when Vertigo Comics writer Mike Carey’s Lucifer was brought to the small screen.)
There were certainly reasonable concerns that “the tentacles of pop culture” threatened the endeavor of a Paradise Lost film. (Watching the tragic Fall of Man with 3D glasses on just doesn’t seem appropriate to me…) What’s more, that this mega-budget attempt at bringing Milton’s multifaceted masterpiece to the big screen was being headed by several filmmakers who were either novices or whose films were hit-or-miss was cause for concern as well. Failure to properly bring Milton’s Lucifer to life would transform the prime example of the fallen archangel’s current cultural ascension—what I identify as a nascent neo-Romantic Satanism—from a blessing into a curse. And as far as the Miltonic-Romantic-Satanic tradition is concerned, a misguided film adaptation of Paradise Lost would be a lasting blemish, as, once released, a remake of Paradise Lost emerging any time soon thereafter would be highly unlikely, and even then there is no guarantee a subsequent attempt would get it right either.
It’s been nearly a half-decade since Legendary Pictures shut down Paradise Lost, but I imagine the project will reemerge at some point within the next half-decade. (Producer Vincent Newman apparently made an attempt to start things up again in 2014, “determined to finish it ‘sooner than later.’ ”1) Despite the apparent danger of making a movie out of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I still believe this film is something that needs to happen at some point, as the Miltonic-Romantic Lucifer must at long last stake his flag on cinematic soil, which has up to this point been predominantly saturated with Satans either medievally monstrous or lightheartedly comical. I can only hope that the Milton scholar employed as a script consultant on the film was as impressed by the project’s faithfulness to the spirit of Milton’s poem as Proyas claimed he was.
1. See Eric C. Brown, Milton on Film (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2015), p. 332.↩
John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) is widely revered as one of the greatest masterpieces of English poetry, Milton’s Satan one of the greatest characters in all of literature and mythology. Yet no one in the century-plus history of cinema has been able to bring Milton’s sublime vision to the silver screen. While there have been many visual and verbal allusions to Paradise Lost and its critical reception in a myriad of movies,1 Milton’s epic poem itself has never made it to theaters. Over the past decade or so, however, filmmakers have come as close as ever to translating Paradise Lost to the big screen, but the endeavor ultimately failed, and the rise and fall of the production made for a devil of a decade.
I first heard about the Paradise Lost film back in a March 4, 2007 New York Times article by one Michael Joseph Gross, “It’s God vs. Satan. But What About the Nudity?” I was an undergraduate student, taking a “Bible and Later Literature” class, which was the first time Milton’s Paradise Lost was assigned reading in my college career. My Miltonist Professor—who was both impressed by my knowledge of the Bible and the Miltonic-Romantic tradition and horrified by my fervent insistence on the tyrannical nature of the Judeo-Christian-Miltonic God and my promotion of the Romantic reading of Milton’s Satan as hero—had rather low expectations about the prospect of a Paradise Lost film, but I was overall optimistic. After all, what could be a more glaring example of the fallen archangel’s current cultural ascension than Milton’s sympathetic Satan as the star of a blockbuster film?
Gross’s article revealed that a spec script for Paradise Lost had been pitched to big-time Hollywood executives back in 2004 by two novices by the names of Philip de Blasi and Byron Willinger, the writers explaining that the reception they received was less than enthusiastic, to say the least. Yet their own enthusiasm for the ambitious aim was less than stellar, Willinger remarking matter-of-factly, “We figured someone’s going to make a movie of it someday, and it might as well be us…” It’s certainly not what you’d expect someone taking on the monumental responsibility of at long last bringing Milton’s magnum opus to the screen to say.
Nevertheless, in 2006 the de Blasi/ Willinger script for Paradise Lost was purchased by independent film producer Vincent Newman, who, according to the article, had been fascinated with the story of the War in Heaven since he stumbled upon the biblical Book of Revelation amidst the boredom of Sunday school. Newman was captivated by Revelation’s story of the celestial battle between Michael and “the great dragon…, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” (Revelation 12:9), and Milton had given this war to start all wars its most magnificent poetic treatment. With a Paradise Lost film project now in his hands, Newman successfully enlisted the co-financing help of Legendary Pictures, whose chairman and chief executive, Thomas Tull, wryly remarked that his initial response to the project was, “that’s going to make a lot of older folks relive bad college experiences.” Tull came to realize, however, that “if you get past the Milton of it all, and think about the greatest war that’s ever been fought, the story itself is pretty compelling…”
Getting past the Milton of it all is a very suspect sentiment, but Newman was on the same page as Tull, requesting alterations to the original screenplay, which was apparently a bit too faithful to Milton’s text for his taste. Newman believed a Paradise Lost film should have “less Adam and Eve and more about what’s happening with the archangels,” not only because the revolt of the angels and their fall from Heaven, along with their vengeful rise from damnation in Hell, is more exciting material (and would make for a promising SFX-heavy $100-million action epic), but because “In Eden there’s the nudity problem,…which would be a big problem for a big studio movie.” Despite the many challenges and potential pitfalls, Newman was enthusiastic: “This could be like The Lord of the Rings, or bigger…” Gross was right to point out in his article that it would seem Newman’s “passion is more for the idea of the poem than for the poem itself,” even if “he speaks of the project with unflagging enthusiasm…”
Newman plainly explained that Paradise Lost would be “a war movie at the end of the day,” while also emphasizing that his aim was for the angelic war film to be “made with total adherence and respect to any of the three religions’ involvement in the story of God, the Devil and the archangels…” Reshaping Paradise Lost so as to make it more of a universal story for a broader audience would inevitably involve alterations to Milton’s unequivocally and unapologetically Christian story. Yet while Newman maintained that the film was not “a Christian endeavor or Christian movie,” Stuart Hazeldine, who in 2006 penned the second draft of the Paradise Lost screenplay (which would undergo additional revisions by Lawrence Kasdan and Ryan Condal), was hopeful that his treatment would prove to be pleasing to Christian crowds: “I’m adapting Milton, and then Milton’s kind of adapting Genesis, and I wanted to make sure that for the faith audience, I guess, that they will see it more as The Passion of the Christ than The Last Temptation of Christ…” This is to say, essentially, that the Paradise Lost film should not simply be an epic fantasy action movie, but also a religious film insofar as it invests the faithful in the theological sentiments beneath the spectacle—which could prove disastrous for the film’s presentation of Milton’s Satan.
Gross acutely observed in his “It’s God vs. Satan” article that Paradise Lost may have more than a nudity problem; the film may have a Satanic problem: “The depiction of Satan may be a polarizing one among scholars. Some, in line with Romantic poets like William Blake, will want the dark prince to be the hero; others won’t be happy unless Satan is a self-deceiving hypocrite, and the story an education in virtue and obedience.” That I would prefer the former depiction (which would be myPassion of the Christ) hardly needs to be noted, but I would be open to a film version of Paradise Lost which, like the poem itself, was fundamentally ambiguous in its presentation, allowing for radically different interpretations. Yet with the anxiety over appeasing rather than potentially offending “the faith audience,” there was room for doubt that this would be the Paradise Lost the filmmakers would bring to the big screen. What’s more, Scott Derrickson, the man highlighted as the likely director for the film, was a fervent Christian. Hazeldine explained that the endeavor of a Paradise Lost film would ultimately prove “a challenge for people like Scott and I, who have a faith, but we just love movies…We often find that we are wondering, are we too worldly for the church and too churchy for the world?”
To be fair to Derrickson, his 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose did present the kind of ambiguity a Paradise Lost film could benefit from. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is at its core a courtroom drama, centering on the death of the titular young lady, which occurred during a prolonged exorcism conducted by the priest on trial in the film. The audience is repeatedly shown two versions of the same flashback events—one from a religious or supernatural perspective and another from a scientific perspective—leaving much open to interpretation. This sort of openness did appear to be at the heart of Derrickson’s vision of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, as he voiced in an MTVNews interview back in July 2008:
What’s interesting to me is that you cannot help but feel that his initial feelings of being disgruntled are merited, and I feel a lot of empathy for the Lucifer character in the beginning of the story…I would want the audience to be sympathetic with him at the beginning, and what happens — what he’s up against and what he’s wrestling and struggling with — you certainly feel that.
Derrickson added that Paradise Lost “would not be an easy movie to make, but it would be groundbreaking…It’s really worthy of the attempt.” Indeed, but the attempt would not ultimately rest with Derrickson.
1. See Eric C. Brown, Milton on Film (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2015).↩