What I'm Watching: Arabian Nights
When people ask me what my favourite film is, I never have an answer. My favourite film depends on my mood, whether I feel like something light or something wordy, a romance or an adventure. Having said that, there's been a few films I've categorised as favourites throughout the years. At one stage it was The Parent Trap, at another it was Bride and Prejudice or 12 Angry Men. And for a good few years, my go-to watch was always Arabian Nights - a two-part mini series that went out on the BBC in 2000. I'd always loved the story of Scheherezade, and the series seemed to encompass everything that the eight-year-old me enjoyed in a good story.
Arabian Nights is a re-telling of the story of Scheherazade and her 'Thousand and One nights' - except here there's only three or four nights. Dougray Scott (Ever After) is Sultan Sharyah, the betrayed husband who, in his ensuing madness, decides to take a new wife only to have her executed the morning after their wedding night. Mili Avatal (who is great in the role, but I've never seen her in anything else) is the courageous Vizier's daughter who thinks she can change his plans. There are some changes from the original story to make it more palatable - Sharyah's first wife was sleeping with his brother and plotting to kill him (she didn't just remove her veil in public as in the original) and Scheherezade and the Sultan have, in this version, known each other from childhood. She loves him, and thinks she can draw him out of his depression and madness. In the Disney tradition, the film-makers have taken a fairytale and turned it into a real romance.
Scheherezade's stories are woven into the narrative, each one like it's own mini-film, with the story of her own life acting as a framing device. In between tales Scheherezade visits a storyteller in the market place, who gives her advice on how to keep her audience gripped.
"You're starting your story again. You have to hook your audience again."
Although the special effects now seem a bit dated, this is big budget for a T.V series, with fabulous costumes, realistic looking locations and a fantastic cast. From Rufus Sewell and Andy Serkis in Ali Babba to Jason Scott Lee and John Leguizamo in Aladdin to Alan Bates as the storyteller and Jim Carter as the Grand Vizier. Arabian Nights feels epic as a production, creating the world and weaving in the perfect amount of magic, adventure and romance.
I love the characters too, and there's plenty of strong women - as can also be said of the original tales, strangely enough. More so than in our European fairytales, anyway. Ali Baba's servant girl, Morgianna, Aladdin's mother (and the princess he falls for) and of course Scheherezade herself, are more than just (as Princess Jasmine would say) prizes to be won. They control their own destinies and fight hard for the things they believe in and the people they love. They also get to wear some gorgeous costumes - although the men's are hardly less elaborate. My one issue I suppose is that Scheherezade has that classic thing of thinking she can 'change' her man - which is always a dangerous game to play.
The other thing I love about this two-parter, is the way it promotes the importance of storytelling. The storyteller tells us that 'stories teach us how to live, and why' - that they can save us, like they saved Scheherezade. And when it comes to the stories themselves, surprisingly my favourites are the less well-known ones - especially the story of The Three Brothers, and the tale of Armin the beggar. All the tales though, are gripping and fantastical and the film overall has plenty of humour throughout. Although there's obviously some adult themes, as well as the odd bit of violence and some scary moments, this is pitched as a family film, that everyone can enjoy. (For full warnings see the IMDB page, here.) I'd recommend watching it in two-parts, as originally shown (as otherwise it's over three hours long) and taking your interval at the moment she tells him "just wait till tomorrow night!"