When Bradley Cooper signed on to play Satan in the forthcoming big screen adaptation of John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost," he took on a far more nuanced role than you might expect.
Hollywood has portrayed Satan as everything from a bright red, cartoonish beast to a very human-seeming trickster, but he's generally a one-note character. You may remember Al Pacino's suave lawyer (notably named John Milton) in The Devil's Advocate, Elizabeth Hurley's gorgeous temptress in Bedazzled, or Trey Parker and Matt Stone's decidedly insecure character in South Park.
But Cooper will have a tougher task in trying to bring Milton's character to life. Milton's portrayal of Satan has been a subject of debate and some discomfort for centuries. While his epic aimed "to justify the ways of God to men," God comes off as a sort of tyrant at the poem's start, and Satan, in many ways, seems the more appealing character.
Why is Milton's devil so tempting? In his book The Statesman's Manual, Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained that Milton's Satan possesses a remarkable single-mindedness and strength of will, or as he put it, "the fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all other motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed." While Satan's chances of success against an omnipotent God are nil, he refuses to give up. Faced with impossibility, he tries to reframe reality, claiming that he "can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n," or paradoxically stating "Evil, be thou my good." Coleridge believed that "even men of honest intentions too frequently become fascinated" with such attitudes.
And Coleridge didn't have to look hard for examples. Fellow Romantic poet William Blake famously stated that Milton wrote "in fetters" in describing God and his angels, and wrote much more freely in depicting Satan and his fallen army, because "he was a true poet and of the devil's party without knowing it." Percy Bysshe Shelley stated, "Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil." And later, "Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God."
Cooper, for his part, seems aware of the nuances of the role. He recently told Entertainment Weekly that he'd enjoyed studying "Paradise Lost" in college, and that he'd vied for the role of Satan for three years, even filming an unsolicited audition in his kitchen. Asked what he thought of Milton's devil, he offered,
I just fell in love with that character. Satan is kind of the guy you agree with -- I don't know if you agree with him, but you understand his argument and he's very compelling. Hopefully we'll be able to maintain the integrity of that.
I hope they can, as the temptation for readers to fall for Satan (and to, essentially, fall with him) before realizing his faults is one of the more extraordinary aspects of Milton's poem. Women, at least, should have a hard time resisting, as Cooper revealed that Satan will look just like him: "I don't know what that says about how satanic I look but, yes, it will be me." Hopefully we all fall for him a bit at the beginning of the movie. At least that's how Milton would have wanted it.
Paradise Lost is scheduled for release near the end of 2013. Alex Proyas, whose credits include Dark City and The Crow, will direct the 3-D blockbuster.