The History of The Alchemist and the potential of adaptation
In the late 1980’s Paulo Coelho was an up-and-coming author who had recently put out his second book, The Alchemist. It told the story of a boy on a quest to find treasure, providing an allegory for the pursuit of one’s dreams. Along the way, the Boy encounters many people who teach him valuable lessons, most notably, an Alchemist. Just as the Boy searched for treasure, Coelho was pursuing his dream of becoming a great author. He felt so certain that this book would sell well that he went door-to-door trying to convince people that it was something great. 28 years, 56 translations, and 65 MILLION copies later, The Alchemist has become an immensely popular story. And with every immensely popular story, people want to make it into a movie.
In 2003, Warner Bros. bought the rights to The Alchemist with hopes to produce a smash hit. However, the project never made it past the scripting phase. The potential script greatly embellished a small skirmish that happens around the middle of the book, looking to turn it into a great battle sequence with 10,000 soldiers. This was made to be the centerpiece of the film. Coelho politely said that this was “not what the book was about,” and offered $2 million to buy it back. Then, in 2008, the Harvey Weinstein company bought the rights, and selected Matrix star Laurence Fishburne to direct the film and act as the title character. Weinstein said that his loyalty was “not to Laurence Fishburne, [his] loyalty is not to [himself], [his] loyalty was not to anyone but Paulo Coelho.”
So, the Weinstein Company is going to produce The Alchemist. Here’s a few reasons why that might not turn out so well.
The Obvious Problem (But Maybe Not?)
Given the social climate, the obvious problem would be whitewashing. From John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror to the entire cast of The Last Airbender, Hollywood has put white actors in roles they should not be. The title role was originally rumored to go to Laurence Fishburne, which would be pleasing to see, but given Idris Elba’s recent hot streak, it’s now rumored to go to him (because all roles are). So it’s nice to see that a character from North Africa would actually go to a black actor. What a concept, right?
But this isn’t the only role we need to look out for. The Boy (Santiago), hails from the Andalusia region in Spain. This makes things a little ambiguous, since Spain seems to be a little bit of a gray area in terms of race. It’s hard to say if the studio would be justified in casting someone of European descent, or perhaps someone Latino, or given Andalusia’s proximity to North Africa, perhaps they could even justify casting a black actor. (When trying to think of whom I would like to see in this role my first instinct went, due to his notable talents and boyish looks, Guatemalan-American Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel and Dope.)
So yes, there’s a lot of flexibility with Santiago, but less-so with the other characters. As the story moves through Morocco and across to Egypt, how many of the wonderful minor characters would stay African? The crystal merchant, the camel driver, Fatima? One might say that the issue of whitewashing is liable to go deeper than skin-level but beyond that there’s an issue of culture and religion. Let’s be generous and say that whoever is adapting the film gets everyone’s race right; do you think that, given today’s political climate, a studio would be willing to take such a gamble on film with so many Islamic characters? If the Crystal Merchant were to actually make the cut, I’m not sure his speech about Maktub or his pilgrimage to Mecca would. That brings me to my next point.
The Minor Characters
In the process of adapting a novel, some things are bound to be removed for the sake of time, even if the novel in question is shorter than 200 pages. Usually, smaller characters will be cut, even if they are adored, for example Harry Potter’s Peeves the Poltergeist. The issue with this adaptation is that book hinges on minor characters. Each of them teaches Santiago something about his role in the world, and my concern is that if any one character is missing, it will leave Santiago’s journey incomplete.
The ones that would absolutely make it would be Fatima and the Alchemist. The story doesn’t move without the prophetic Gypsy woman or Melchizedek the King of Salem, but who knows if the smaller characters like the Camel Driver or the Crystal Merchant, who are crucial to the Boy’s growth, would make it into the film. (Going back to Melchizedek – understand that this is supposed to be Melchizedek from the Book of Genesis. This allusion makes sense in the book, but would likely be less seamless in a film.) Another character that I expect would be cut out is the Englishman, but that might be all right because I suppose he really doesn’t bring that much to the table, other than hearing about the Alchemist before we see him.
All the wonderful digressions would be gone
The book opens with the prologue of the Alchemist reading an alternate version of the story of Narcissus, which ends with the (personified) lake that Narcissus drowned in weeping and the sky informing the lake that Narcissus understood the beauty of the world. And there are so many small anecdotes that I don’t quite want to go into in depth with. Point is, these things are necessary to the story.
It would likely come off as preachy
Coelho repeats a handful of phrases throughout the book. These are deliberate and constructive. The phrase “Personal Legend,” which is to say one’s quest in life, is used frequently throughout the book. This is all well and good, as it helps build a cohesive and interesting storyworld for the book. But imagine that phrase being used as frequently in a film. It would quickly become an excessive buzzword, and if done poorly, would make the audience roll its eyes it was uttered.
It doesn’t take a scholar to realize that The Alchemist is an allegory for life. Just as Santiago pursues the treasure at the Pyramids, we are supposed to pursue our own treasure, go on a quest of our own, live our life’s dream. And with each little thing that Santiago learns along the way, we learn it too, and will remember it when we embark on our own quest. The book is supposed to be didactic, it’s supposed to teach us. And sure, plenty of books teach us things. On the other hand, how many (non-documentary) films teach us something about the world? How many do it well? Very few, because it can come off as heavy-handed and campy, whereas the book allows this to happen organically.
Here is where it comes down to the difference between the two mediums; the film would be all about the grandiose excitement of the quest and and the thrill of treasure, whereas the book is meant to encourage the audience to learn during the process of reading, and find their own treasure along the way. This difference is why the original film was planned to have a colossal battle sequence (which was barely in the book) and why Coelho offered to buy back the rights.
Coelho, no longer in a position where he needs the money, just wants to see his story filmed properly. There are many obstacles to making a film that does right by the book.
It sounds like Coelho has pretty substantial control of the film, and he will only let it be made if it’s something special. And how much potential does this have? How amazing would the sequence be when the Boy becomes the wind? Can you imagine how freakin’ monumental it would be when we finally get a shot of the Pyramids? Laurence Fishburne directing is an interesting prospect, as he has given quite a few talented performances in his career, but this project really had me at Idris Elba as the Alchemist. Sounds great.
I’m not saying that these concerns that I’ve listed are definitely going to happen and are definitely going to ruin the movie. There’s a chance this movie gets made and there’s a chance it turns out to be something beautiful. It’s one of my favorite books, and I hope beyond hope that it makes a great film