I’ve just listened to the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Paradise Lost, with Ian McKellen as Milton and Simon Russell Beale as Satan. The adaptation, by Michael Symmons Roberts, is exquisite, but I had some thoughts on Milton’s work itself, and why it’s endured for so long. Yes, the poetry is transcendent, but it’s the storytelling that comes through beautifully in this adaptation.
Basically, Milton was a screenwriting don. Look at the evidence.
Start in the middle of the story
We open with Satan and his hordes groaning in the pit. How did they get there? What will they do once they’re there? We’re right in the story, with zero exposition.
Milton uses the demons themselves to explain Satan’s plans. One suggests war. One suggests doing nothing. One suggests revenge, in cold, hard verse. Guess which one the Fiend goes for?
Use flashback creatively
Raphael tells the story of the Fall to Adam and Eve, which allows Milton to absolutely go to town on describing the bloodbath (plasma bath?) on the fields of heaven.
Set up the what before the why
We know what’s going to happen to Adam and Eve. But Milton’s got a better plan to keep us on the hook. It’s not what they do, it’s why they do it. In fact, it’s not even why, but what in Heaven were you thinking, Father and Mother, given how clearly the danger had been laid out for you. The inevitability of the sin is remorseless. We’re locked into it as surely as Eve is. It’s cold and hard and awful.
So, if you’re thinking of trying your hand at an epic poem about Original Sin, the Fall, and the Birth of Humanity, remember this: it’s gotta have a story. However good your versification is.