Translating the Millennium

By Chad Galts / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
When CNN documentary filmmakers decided to adapt Felipe Fernndez-Armesto's 800-page best- selling book, Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, the author's reaction was that of many writers whose words are about to be made into a television show: "There is a certain pain that a scholar feels when his work is subjected to such a vulgarization," he grunted to a MacMillan Hall crowd in October.

A former research fellow at the John Carter Brown Library, Fernndez-Armesto visited campus in October for the world premiere of "Century of the Sail," the fifth episode of a ten-part CNN production airing this fall. Joining the scholar were CNN's Pat Mitchell and British filmmaker Sir Jeremy Isaacs, executive producers of the series.

"To tell the history of 1,000 years on television is certainly a big idea," Mitchell said prior to the screening. "And like most big ideas at our network, it originated with Ted." Ted, of course, is Turner '60, who suggested that they break the millennium into ten, one-hour segments, each covering 100 years.

Turner's formula proved an exceptionally good fit with Fernndez-Armesto's book, Isaacs said. The book's focus on very specific moments in history, as well as its clear deciphering of their relevance and its ability "to keep in mind what's going on in different parts of the world at the same time," Isaacs explained, made it the ideal source text.

Episode five, for example, is a telling of the fifteenth century that includes - but is not dominated by - the European Renaissance. Most Western histories, Issacs explained, treat that era as "the time when Europe is getting ready to export itself to other countries around the world." In the CNN (and Fernndez-Armesto) version of the 1400s, viewers also learn of the exploration of the Indian Ocean by the Chinese, the Ottoman siege of Constantinople, and the naval acumen of the Portuguese.

The greatest challenge in documenting 1,000 years of history on film, Isaacs explained, was finding a way to represent the nine centuries prior to the invention of the camera. The answer, he said, was to "shoot the present as the past. A camel train carrying salt looks much like it did hundreds of years ago, provided you don't get close enough to see their wristwatches." But the filmmakers' greatest ally was the computer, which helped create realistic footage for ancient Chinese exploration ships. "This is a very scholarly tome," Isaacs said of Fernndez-Armesto's book. "Ours," he added, "is a magic carpet ride."

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November / December 1999