Imagine the most evil creature that ever existed, a villain who commits atrocity after atrocity, who has scarred the world and each and every creature in it, a scoundrel so heinous he makes Heath Ledger's anarchist Joker look like Mother Teresa. Now imagine that you like him.
Director Scott Derrickson says that when you see his upcoming adaptation of "Paradise Lost," the epic 17th-century poem by John Milton about the Fall of Man, you won't be able to help but have sympathy for its bad guy: the devil.
"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," said Derrickson, who wrote and directed "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." "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."
The poem, praised by secular and religious scholars alike, opens with Satan's fall from heaven. He is surrounded by utter darkness before coming to rest in the fiery pits of hell. Defeated in his war against God, and with like-minded fallen comrades in his service, Satan soon concocts a plan to belittle the Creator by desecrating his most recent, and most prized, creation: mankind.
Given that setup (a remarkably futile one at that, since Satan can never actually defeat God), how is it that so many people most identify with the devil? It's a complex theological explanation that Derrickson can only sketch in the film but one that, if you are Christian, essentially boils down to this: "Because you are fallen too."
"In the movie, Satan goes from being a completely good being [an angel] to becoming the most heinous kind of evil, and you really have a hard time knowing exactly where he crossed that line because you were with him," the director said. "What is interesting about that story, in the way Milton laid it out, is that people jump off with him at different points and some never at all. Properly done, it's a story that tells readers a lot about themselves.
"You have to respect that Milton created the first anti-hero with that poem, and certainly this was preserved in the script," Derrickson added. "At what point does love turn to jealousy, jealousy turn into hate and hate into evil?"
For Milton, and for religious thinkers who follow similar beliefs, that point comes when Satan commits the sin of pride, when he begins to set himself up as separate from and in opposition to God. It's a transgression that is mirrored later, of course, by Adam and Eve. Much later, actually: Milton's sprawling poem isn't just dense, it's remarkably long as well, spanning tens of thousands of lines.
Fitting the entire poem into a movie is actually one of the biggest challenges, Derrickson said, but one he hopes to accomplish.
"The screenplay takes aspects of the entire arc," he said. "What it 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. But it really covers end to end the basic events of the poem."
That means showing not just the highlights, but also the building of Pandemonium (the chamber for the devil and his minions), the revolt of the angels and the battle of heaven. At this stage, much of Derrickson's work on the film is in trying to figure out how to do exactly that, he admitted.
"That's a big part of the process I'm in right now in terms of working on both artwork and just conceptualizing how to do something," he said. "There's CGI and then there's versions that are blends of the two, live-action and CG, and I think the best version of the movie is going to have a lot of blending in it."
Add up all the challenges — the evil character at its heart, the theology, the visuals, the epic story line — and adapting "Paradise Lost" is no easy task. For his part, though, Derrickson can't wait for the opportunity.
"It would not be an easy movie to make, but it would be groundbreaking," he said. "It's really worthy of the attempt."
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