Sinbad Movie Largely Ignores Tale's Arab Origins

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 2, 2003
The sea monsters and seductive sirens battling Sinbad in the new animated movie, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, may not be the most formidable foes the swashbuckling pirate has had to face. To even get to the silver screen, the rogue adventurer first had to endure the test of time.

The story of Sinbad, a sailor born in Baghdad, and his seven voyages around the world, has survived for more than a thousand years. In its latest incarnation, a hip Hollywood production starring Brad Pitt as the voice of Sinbad, it's easy to forget that Sinbad's adventures are part of One Thousand and One Nights, Arabic folktales that have been handed down for centuries.

In these tales, Sinbad embarks on a series of voyages to restore his lost fortune. Landing in undiscovered countries, he faces cannibals and huge serpents, is sold into slavery, and even buried alive. Despite his misfortunes, he always manages to amass a fortune and return home a rich man.

The original tales were often dark and adult. The challenge to the filmmakers behind the new movie was to make the story suitable for kids.

"The original stories have great anthropological and literary appeal," John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for Sinbad, said in a telephone interview. "But most importantly, we wanted our Sinbad movie to be a fun ride."

Unknown Origins

The classic tome The One Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian Nights, as it came to be known, dates back to the 10th century, and could be seen as a valuable source of Middle Eastern social history. But the origin of the stories remains a literary mystery. No one knows who first told them—or where.

Despite its name, The Arabian Nights has its roots not only in the Arab world, but also in India and Persia (the region that is now present-day Iran). Some chroniclers believe the tales first appeared in Hazarafsaneh ("A Thousand Stories"), a collection of Persian folktales, though academic opinion is divided.

The tales—which include Ali Baba and the famous story of the 40 thieves and Aladdin and his magic lamp—may have originated from true stories, which were then embellished over time for entertainment value.

The stories of courage and strength became hugely popular in the Middle East. The exotic and romantic imagery also provided great inspiration for Western travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1858, British explorer Richard Burton, who once disguised himself as a Muslim to gain access to Islam's holiest sites, completed an English translation of The Arabian Nights.

The Swashbuckling Rogue

Sinbad popped up in several Hollywood movies in the 1940s and 50s, and he featured in Roy Harryhausen's cult classic stop-motion animated films.

"Artists are drawn to Sinbad because of his mythical qualities," said Logan. "He's such a fun character to write, the swashbuckling rogue who battles monsters of all kind. He's always this playful jester who finds nobility in his life. Our movie pays homage to the spirit of Sinbad."

The story in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas takes a detour from earlier interpretations. This time, Sinbad (Brad Pitt) is framed by Eris, the Goddess of Chaos (Michelle Pfeiffer), for stealing the powerful Book of Peace.

Sinbad must retrieve the book or else his best friend, Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), will be killed. Proteus' betrothed, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), sets sail with Sinbad, and the two encounter various monsters and obstacles during their journey into Eris' evil world.

The moral of the story, however, remains the same. Whether he's braving dangerous creatures or evil tyrants, Sinbad never relies on mere destiny. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands, finding solutions by using his ingenuity, diplomacy and strength.

"Like Odysseus, Ahab, and other mythological characters, Sinbad is a great archetype," said Logan. "In his quest, he gets to know who he truly is." Some scholars suggest that the tales of Sinbad's adventures influenced Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Transcending Cultures

Logan, who wrote the screenplays for Gladiator and the latest Star Trek movie, had never written a script for an animated film. He says he found the experience "wonderfully liberating."

"With animated movies, the sky is the limit," he said. "You don't have to worry about how you're going to fill the Coliseum [in Gladiator]."

Logan also enjoyed a great deal of poetic license. Rather than attempting to bridge the cultural or religious aspects of the original Sinbad adventures, he invented a new cosmology for the movie. The geographic locations in the movie are all fictitious. There are no theological references. The story even incorporates Greco-Roman mythology.

"It's a landscape of the imagination," said Logan.

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