The Canterbury Tales Review

The Canterbury Tales, a 1998 television adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic, was produced by the team behind The Animated Tales of Shakespeare and Operavox. As with those series, various tales are rendered in animated form with each story being interpreted by an individual director in an individual style. Yet whereas the format had previously produced standalone pieces which could be watched in any order, The Canterbury Tales also adopts Chaucer’s framing device of having the various pilgrim’s narrate their tales on the way to (and back from) Canterbury. As such the three episodes build into one coherent overall piece.

Understandably then the adaptations of individual are much shorter. Each of the episodes runs to approximately 28 minutes, meaning that each tale (three per episode) gets a screen time of between six and eight minutes. Initially this would lead one to expect the same problems of truncation that accompanied the earlier Shakespeare and opera series, but then The Canterbury Tales is a higher malleable piece of work. Consider Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 adaptation which formed them into a coherent, if flawed whole, or the more recent BBC take which produced six individual and unrelated hour-long episodes. Though entirely different, both were mostly successful on their own terms and neither relinquished any of the flavour of Chaucer’s originals.

Indeed, there would appear to be little fear of error in producing an adaptation, but by going for a more overtly educational approach this particular Canterbury Tales plays it a little safer than most. As such much of the ribald humour stays in place whilst the choice of tales is undoubtedly dictated by the ability to fit them into such brief time slots. This may mean that less liberties are taken with the material - and, as a result, the series is perhaps less immediately accessible than either the BBC or the Pasolini versions - but entertainment exists in other areas. Firstly, there’s a quite extraordinary cast list, one that draws on a wealth of British talent from the stage and screen, and secondly, there’s the quality of the animation itself.

In contrast to the previous animated adaptations of the series’ makers, The Canterbury Tales doesn’t have the problem of presenting some works that seem overly constricted by the TV budget and brief production time. Instead the directors employed all adopt methods that are simplistic but never look cheap or in some way compromised, as well as being highly distinctive. The framing narrative is rendered in three dimensions, with the majority of mini-narratives being given the 2D treatment. As such there’s an overall unity to the work despite the number of filmmakers involved (some of whom are working in different countries to the others), one far more coherent than could be expected. The result of this is that the prospect of comparing the various component pieces to each is far less inviting which of course aids the series as a whole. That said, The Canterbury Tales does produce at least one genuine standout in the form of Joanna Quinn’s take on the Wife of Bath’s tale. The humour of the piece, as well as the style, is very much in line with her earlier work (Girls’ Night Out, Britannia) without losing a sense of either her own voice or indeed Chaucer’s. Its inclusion, though of course part of a bigger picture, easily justifies a purchase on its own merits.

The Disc

The Canterbury Tales has been treated to a worthy presentation on DVD. The original television ratio of 4:3 is adhered to as is the original stereo soundtrack and both aurally and visually the series impresses. Certainly, technically the disc offers no problem with the only blight being the occasional sign of dirt. Though the age of the piece may play a part in this, The Canterbury Tales is undoubtedly superior to Metrodome’s handling of The Animated Tales of Shakespeare and Operavox. As such it comes as a slight disappointment that the only extra is an admittedly detailed (approximated 700 words) biography for Geoffrey Chaucer.

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