Lions tigers and bears, oh my
While I was at university, I discovered the film 13th Warrior and it quickly became a solid favourite. It’s a fun film with horror elements, fantasy elements, monsters, Vikings, and adventure. I enjoyed it as a film for a long time before I was even aware that it was based on a book by Michael Crichton called Eaters of the Dead. Crichton even did some of the directing on the film and was one of the producers.
So naturally, my enjoyment of this story has led me to want to include it in my series Books v Film. I was also interested to see if my preference for the film or book differed as this is one of the rare occasions where I watched the film before, I read the book.
Story Summary (Spoilers!)
In the film Ahmad is the court poet but is exiled (dude couldn’t keep it in his pants), heading out as ambassador to the Northern Barbarians his group is rescued from an attack by Norsemen whom he then travels with. There’s a lovely little fight which establishes Buliwyf as the dude in charge, the old king having died.
A kid turns up with the news that there are scary monsters attacking other tribes, a wise woman says everything will be fine so long as thirteen warriors go to deal with it. She also stipulates that the thirteenth warrior must not be a Norseman (guess who gets to be the lucky dude).
On the way to face the scary monsters, Ahmad learns to communicate with the Norsemen (handy). There’s a bit of mockery as Ahmad is smaller than the other men (so is his horse) but he is respected for his ability to write and be generally clever.
They arrive at the tribe under attack and the enemy is identified as Wendol (anyone else getting really big Beowulf vibes here?) During the first night they lose two of their men to the monsters. As the investigation goes on the group learn that the monsters aren’t monsters but men, admittedly men who eat other men (grim) and think and act like they are bears.
Things go from bad to worse and lots of people die. The group (what’s left of it) heads out to kill the head cannibal. They are successful but Buliwyf is injured. They head back to the town and prepare for a final confrontation with the cannibals. The attack comes and injured Buliwyf kills the cannibal’s warlord but dies doing so (bummer, he was cool).
Ahmad heads home after Buliwyf’s funeral and writes the story.
The book and the film follow each other very closely, however, the main difference is in the narration and it’s understandable why this change was made.
In the film we see the story through Ahmad’s eyes, he is, like the viewer, new to this world, confused as hell and learning as he goes along. There’s a little bit of verbal narration from Ahmad at the beginning and end of the film but mostly we see what happens as it happens.
The book, however, is a story, of a story, of a story (think like The Woman in Black is a play, about a play, about a series of events). The book is a scientific study of an ancient manuscript (a translation of the original manuscript penned by Ahmad). During the book, the narrator, who is reading the manuscript, talks about possible mistranslations and effectively how these mistranslations make the whole story a bit like Chinese whispers. So, the story effectively has several tellers, there’s the narrator, the translators and Ahamd. Also, just for good measure, Ahmad gives his own accounts of stories told by other people.
Overall, I really enjoyed both the book and the film, though for different reasons. The film is fun, fast-paced and exciting while the book is interesting, explores the art of storytelling and examines how stories change from teller to teller.
I’d recommend both!