Professor of English
Ph.D., Louisiana State University
B.A., University of Maine
“It’s been a colossal undertaking, partly because the history of Milton on film is also a kind of non-history. I think Paradise Lost is probably the most iconic work of literature never filmed, though there have been plenty of attempts. I have been exploring some of the reasons why this poem has proven both so appealing and so difficult for filmmakers,” said UMF Professor of English Eric Brown.
Brown is currently at work on a book that examines how John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, has been adapted for the cinema. The book traces Milton’s tale of the Fall of Adam and Eve from pre-cinematic entertainments as early as the 1600s through present day Hollywood blockbusters.
“I taught a course last summer at Harvard University on Paradise Lost in popular culture, and one of the first things we discussed was the radically different place Milton and Shakespeare have in the popular imagination. If you look at the number of academic books and articles written on, say, Paradise Lost and Hamlet, there is not a great divide. But when you look at popular adaptations and mass culture over the last century — there is no contest. Particularly in terms of the cinema, there is relatively little Milton. On the other hand, even Arnold Schwarzenegger has played Hamlet on the big screen,” Brown said.
Paradise Lost and Found
“As I started looking deeper, I found Milton depicted in entertainments that were forerunners of the modern cinema — magic lantern shows, dioramas, panoramas and Kinetoscopes. When these 19th century extravaganzas were looking for spectacle, they went to Milton first,” Brown said.
“Milton fills the Romantic imagination. He was the poet of the sublime. He was the poet of huge, vast expansive spaces — Heaven, Hell, cosmos and chaos — in a way Shakespeare was not. For instance, in the 1830s, there was a panorama show going in London that was very popular. It depicted the building of Pandemonium, a scene from Paradise Lost, where spectators could go in and feel like they were surrounded by Milton’s Hell,” Brown said.
Milton Goes to Hollywood
Fast forward to Hollywood where today Paradise Lost was recently being considered for the next 3-D blockbuster. Brown served as a script consultant on the film.
“It was packaged as angelic warfare in 3-D and it is that, but it’s also a deeper script,” Brown said. “Unfortunately the production has been stopped, but I think it still stands a great chance to be made down the road. I think it will be everything people fear it will be, but I think it will surprise some people in the way that it’s surprisingly loyal to Milton’s original work.”
“Such a film would be the big shift,” suggested Brown. “It would be a watershed for Milton. It would, for better or worse, introduce or reintroduce Milton to millions of people who know nothing more than the title. The story is familiar — Satan and the serpent and Genesis — but when you see Milton’s treatment of it, you see he’s really innovative and iconoclastic.”
It is not the first time Hollywood has tried to mount a production of Paradise Lost, according to Brown. An attempt in the 1960s fizzled, and others have cropped up periodically since then. Although Brown would like to see Milton’s work realized on the silver screen, he was not surprised when production of the latest film was suspended.
“One of the arguments in my book is that Paradise Lost has continued to prove resistant for a number of reasons to being successfully mounted on screen,” Brown said.
Brown is also the editor of Insect Poetics, an anthology of essays that examine how human intellectual and cultural models have been influenced by the natural history of insects. The book allowed Brown, who earned dual undergraduate degrees in English and Zoology, the chance to marry his lifelong interests in science and writing.
“I still to this day remember a fifth grade science field trip where we were out with nets catching dragonflies. That memory really sparked this process that ended with the book,” Brown said. The book, which earned favorable international praise, filled a unique niche, he explained.
“Originally I had wanted to do an anthology of writings in the arts on animals and animal studies. Animal studies has exploded in the last decade. The field has become a lot more sophisticated than it has been in the past. But as happens, many animal studies focus on those charismatic mega fauna — the whales, the panda bears — but little attention is paid to the millions of other species that constitute our natural world,” Brown said.
Learning to Love Shakespeare
Brown, who specializes in Early British Literature, regularly teaches an introductory course on Shakespeare, a requirement for UMF students majoring in English, as well as UMF Secondary Education students planning to teach English or Language Arts.
“I wasn’t a big fan of Shakespeare in high school or college and I share that with my students. It took a really good instructor in graduate school to show me what was happening and I reached a tipping point where I could get past the archaic language,” Brown said.
“I do understand how alien Shakespeare can sound when read for the first time. I understand my students’ resistance to Shakespeare. I sympathize with the hardship of reading something that takes a lot of time and creates some anxiety,” he added.
“I overcame my aversion by attending to the material and becoming more comfortable with the basic action. It helps not to race through it — you need to approach King Lear with a different reading rhythm than you do The Hunger Games.” Performing Shakespeare can also make his works easier to understand, and one class assignment is a collaborative group performance. While some students stage short live performances, there have been other creative outcomes.
“Over the years, students have put together short films that adapt Shakespeare’s works. One student, for instance, did an animated version of The Tempest and posted it on YouTube — it’s still on there — getting views to this day. Another student group put on a silent film version of Julius Caesar. I think one of the first was an interesting one called The Lear Witch Project, inspired by The Blair Witch Project, which featured different Shakespearean characters off wandering in the woods,” Brown said.
“I leave the nature of the project up to my students, but they have to include an element of performance. They have to shift into some other persona,” Brown said.
UMF’s Fulbright Representative
“UMF students, in general, are really motivated, independent, and sincere about their studies,” Brown said. “I remember coming here and being pleasantly surprised at how invested students were in their education.”
Brown was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bergen, Norway in 2007-2008, joining faculty members selected nationwide each year to lecture and conduct research abroad. Since returning, he has served as UMF’s Fulbright campus representative. He noted other UMF faculty members have been successful in participating in the prestigious education program, but he’s eager to see more students apply to the program.
“Students here at UMF are as good as any place I have ever been and yet there’s a bit of a disconnect when it comes to opportunities like the Fulbright program. I think one issue with many students here is that they don’t really know what they’re capable of,” Brown said.
Brown would also like to see more UMF students go on to graduate and professional schools. Some of his former students have pursued graduate degrees at the University of Chicago, Brown University, and University of Vermont.
Brown grew up in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, and was happy returning to his home state after getting his doctorate in Louisiana and teaching for several years in the Boston area.
“When the job opened up here it was natural to apply, although I didn’t know much about UMF or Farmington before I applied. I think thats typical — growing up in Maine, every little valley is its own community. There isn’t a lot of exchange. I knew about UMF’s teaching program and the nearby skiing areas,” Brown said.
“My family and I took a drive through the area before I applied. It was a very picturesque fall day, we loved the look of things, and I applied and got the job,” Brown said.
“That sort of homecoming is hard to find in academia because there are only a handful of positions in Maine for what I do, and when one opens up it’s a stroke of good luck,” Brown said. “I love being back in Maine. It’s a very comfortable spot for me.”