I spent much of 2016 drafting a screenplay for a movie that will never be made.
Let’s say, probably never. It’s less depressing, and the project has always needed a dash of foolish hope. Probably is the word that started me going, though I knew the length of the odds, and probably is the word that keeps me tinkering with it even now, reconceiving the plot and conflict.
Probably allows me to stay obsessed. I have faith in probably, because probably has created the space in which my entire career has come to exist, elbowing its way outward until “writer” became my identity. Writing a screenplay would be no different.
I wasn’t ignorant. I knew the common wisdom, which says that the first step in selling a screenplay is to move to Los Angeles. I knew and know myself as well. I am not going to give up my home or profession. I don’t have the people skills necessary to pitch or to hob nob, both traits necessary for a career in Hollywood. Besides, I didn’t want to write screenplays. I wanted to write a screenplay.
The idea had been percolating since some time in the late 1990s when I had first played Sid Meier’s Civilization II. I have never been much of a gamer, but when my college boyfriend brought home a sale-discounted copy, I was pulled in. The premise was simple: you chose a famous historical leader and built a culture, erecting cities and monuments and pursuing technological and scientific advancements, all in the hopes of beating the other, computer-played cultures to colonize space. I’d played a bootleg copy of the original, but the new version had fleshed out the world. More importantly, it included additional female leaders to the list of those you could play, including one I had never heard of: Boadicea.
Curious, I looked her up—I may even have googled her on that new search engine, but more likely I searched Yahoo or Excite. I found a few different spellings of her name (Boadicea, Boudicca, Boudica) and a spotty but compelling story. The sites told of a Celtic “warrior queen” who led her people on the most successful British revolt ever launched against the Roman Empire, driving the colonizers from Iceni (now Norfolk) to Londinium (London) in a series of brutal victories. Before the revolt, she and her husband Prasutagus, a local chieftain, had lived peaceably with their colonizers. In return, the Romans allowed Prasutagus to maintain his kingdom and guaranteed it to his heirs, who would rule in conjunction with Rome. Yet when he died, the Romans reneged on their bargain, seizing total control of Iceni and plundering the kingdom. Boudica protested, but rather than acquiescing, the Romans flogged the grieving widow and raped her daughters, sparking a ferocious maternal outrage that would manifest in war.
I could see it all unspooling on film: part Gladiator, part Braveheart, but woman-centered. I saw Boudica standing on a cliff’s edge, the coastal wind whipping her red hair, the bucolic British countryside rolling behind her, dotted with thatch-roofed round houses. I saw a spear clutched in her hand, her wool cloak fluttering, the Celtic knot of her broach. I read the tragic nobility of her expression and the determination to win her country back against rapists and cheats, against colonizers, against an all-male Roman army. Sure, she lost in the end, but so did William Wallace. So did Rocky. So did virtually every hero from a Shakespearean tragedy. Defeat wasn’t a problem so long as the writer laid in an alternate victory to be read in its ashes.
For years, I wanted someone to write her movie so that I could go see it. Sometime during grad school, I began to wonder if by “someone,” I meant me. I imagined a blockbuster, but one unlike any blockbuster I’d ever seen. This was a movie about female power. More than a decade before Wonder Woman would make the vision a reality, I saw ass-kicking women fighting alongside men. Better still, this story was not some Marvel or DC fantasy. Boudica’s story was true.
Or, at least, the bones of the story were true. The thin history left ample room for invention. Perhaps too much. Only two ancient writers, Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Cassius Dio, captured Boudica’s story. Both were Romans, both writing decades and a continent removed from the woman herself. Their histories are creative and contradictory and deeply biased. Roman historians are famous for inflating the odds against their countrymen, stoking the sense of Rome’s military greatness. As contemporary historians Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin point out, “Tacitus used events in Briton to moralise about the state of the Empire in more general terms” and “Dio’s account of Boudica has been characterized as ‘inventions and inversions’ of Tacitus’s writings.” They wrote with agendas that were truer polestars than fact.
I was indebted to Tacitus and Dio for capturing Boudica’s story, but I worried over the paucity of information as well as its unreliability. Though later scholars would try to fill in the gaps, there remained an abundance of unknowns. In all the histories, Boudica’s daughters had no names. I didn’t know her age or theirs. The references named her husband, but disagree about his relationship with the Roman colonizers. In some accounts, Prasutagus is respectful and amiable. In others, he is a spendthrift who was deeply in debt to the Empire, giving them some hold over him and the right to seize his kingdom upon his death. In one version of the story, I read him as a fool. In another, he matched Boudica’s intelligence and strength. Either version was a portrait in broad strokes that left most of the canvas blank. How did he die? Was he tall or short? Charismatic? Caring? Loutish? Funny? Did they share an equitable marriage or was it troubled? Was he an absent father or an involved one? Did he rule fairly? Did he own pets? Ride horses? Hunt? What was his favorite food? Favorite memory? Favorite hobby?
And then there was the matter of the names themselves. Boudica and Prasutagus didn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Film audiences might be used to Roman names, but the Celtic ones added a new level of strangeness. The sounds of “Boudica” made me think of a lowing cow rather than a beautiful, strong, or intelligent woman. I could see why Sid Meier had gone with the Romanized version, Boadicea, but I wanted to honor the Celt she was.
Finally, there was the question of money—a question I preferred to ignore but that tickled in the back of my brain. My sister is a filmmaker and I know from watching her career that financing even a small, low budget film is a challenge. I had planned an epic, a potentially multi-million-dollar project that would require armies and horses and specialized settings. I was—I am—a nobody, but what I imagined was not a nobody’s film.
In spite of these qualms, I plunged into the project. As I read about the Iceni Celts, I was struck by how forward-looking they were. Both women and men wore pants. They worked together, building round houses with thatched roofs and weaving plaid wool like proto-grunge bad asses. Historic Britons may not have had written language (the Romans had them there), but they had discovered iron and produced a good deal of intricate art. Celtic women fought alongside men and held leadership positions. The Romans used these facts to stress the barbarity of those whom they conquered, citing women warriors as evidence of a lack of civility, but from my twenty-first century vantage point, the Celt’s gender parity seemed eons ahead of chivalrous but patriarchal Rome.
The more I read, the more convinced I was of my screenplay’s potential. Even the history seemed to have three acts, and the Roman texts were oddly cinematic. Centuries before cameras or human flight, Tactitus begins his section on Boudica with a helicopter shot, zooming us in:
On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair disheveled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralyzed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands.
The words sail us over the landscape and into scene just as Randall Wallace’s would bring us in over the Scottish Highlands to meet Mel Gibson. Not only that, but Tacitus had even written a rallying speech in which Boudica urged her people to fight: “It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters.” It might not have the same ring as Wallace’s “They might take our lives, but they will never take our FREEDOM!” but it was something I could work with.
Cassius Dio said that Boudica was tall and that a “great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips.” He described her dressed in a tunic of diverse colors “over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.” I saw Cate Blanchett in the role: beautiful, deep-voiced, unflappable, intelligent, commanding. Boudica would have wit, I thought, but not a raucous one. I imagined a character that would push back against the Roman label “barbarian.”
Boudica was the movie I had waited all my life to see. She was a feminist icon centuries before a feminist movement existed, and her story deserved to be told.
In his classic text The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri insists that plays (and by extension, screenplays) must have a premise—a message, a point, a reason for the story to exist. As a fiction writer first, this felt overly simplistic to me. I believed Flannery O’Connor’s stricture that a story “isn’t really any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” Egri’s “premise” sounded too much like the moral at the end of one of Aesop’s fables, the lesson spelled out, reduced to a sentence, the bow neatly tied. Even so, I conceded that a story, whether written in prose or as a screenplay, should have a core question at its heart if it is to be relevant, and I gave this matter some thought.
As a reader and writer, I understood that historical fiction was as much about the culture and biases of the time of its writing as about it was about the time in which it was set. Boudica lived in the Iron Age, but I inhabited the twenty-first century. In the early 2000s, I was interested in the violence of her story and how a colonized woman fought to retake her homeland. Shaped by the trauma of 9/11, I leaned into the problems I saw around me: how vengeance could skew sanity, how nationalism superseded the desire for peace, how violence spurred violence.
I imagined scenes that reflected these concepts, pitting the Romans and the Iceni in a game of brutal one-ups-man-ship that neither could ever really claim to have won. I envisioned murdered Roman children hanging from trees like limp fruit. I saw Celtic villages raised, scattered with the blackened bodies of the innocent. How callous would one have to be to look on such scenes and feel triumph? What would push a person to the point where they forgot their own humanity? And, more importantly, what would allow them to come back to some degree of sense? What would it take to allow a person to accept the losses and walk away, rather than instilling more pain on their enemy?
The questions fascinated and fueled me. For over a decade, I had gathered material, squirreling away information and ideas while I worked on other projects. I wrote two novels and dozens of stories, poems, and essays while Boudica loitered in the back of my mind. I read books on screenwriting, getting a sense of its rigid formal constraints (not so different from some poetry) as well as the basics of formatting. I got a copy of Final Draft, and, when I was awarded my first sabbatical in fall of 2016, I decided the time had come to stop gathering and start writing the thing I would never be able to sell.
What I didn’t expect was that the world would tip beneath my desk as I wrote, or that the rules for politics would change, or that I would wake up on the morning of Wednesday, Nov 9, 2016 to the knowledge that my country hated women. I had known that too many people in power turned a blind eye to sexual and racial assault, but I didn’t know that I lived in a country that would condone assault once it had been made public, let alone reward its perpetrator with our highest office. I could not fathom the depth of so many Americans’ hatred for people of color. In the immediate aftermath of the election, I listened to stories of church bombings and Islamophobia and I listened to the president-elect’s silence about those terroristic attacks. I listened as he, instead, ranted incoherent diatribes demonizing Latinx immigrants. Until that election, I had not realized that my country was a festering wound or that we would spend the coming years wading through its pus.
That is to say, I awoke that morning in an entirely different historical moment than I had inhabited the day before. Drowning in the depth of my own naiveté, I turned to my project and saw it through a new lens. I knew from my reading that Boudica wasn’t the only Celtic woman leading her tribe. Cartimandua led the Brigantes in the north of what is now England. Others were unnamed or unrecorded, mentioned in Roman histories only as evidence of the Briton’s backwardness. The fact hit me with new force: Celtic people had always been equitable when it came to gender and war. Women fought, died, and led. I noticed stories on the periphery as well—Germanic women fighting alongside men. I read with renewed awareness the stories of Asian and Middle Eastern women buried with weapons, suggesting that fighting was part of their identity. The Romans called this barbarism, but I could not agree. We had an oaf in the Oval Office wearing suits and long ties, the dressings of civilization that went no deeper than the skin. Barbarism and civility had been badly, wrongly defined.
Before, I had pictured the Roman conquerors exactly as history and popular culture had given them to me: rational, well-meaning men who bequeathed us the very idea of democracy. In my mind, they spoke in the British accents of those early full color epics. Now, democracy itself seemed to be a long con.
Of course I knew victors write history, but I hadn’t read enough slant. Boudica’s ire was driven by machismo and toxic masculinity. The same forces that stretched their roots through the history of the Roman Empire now bloomed in our own democracy. Our president-elect channeled Hollywood’s mafia man, that modern Roman. He shaped himself as Godfather to the country, demanding loyalty and favor for favor, and I began to wonder if, at the same time Rome spread a more people-centered form of government, it simultaneously spread a sexist culture that would limit the role of women in “civilized” countries for centuries to come.
Rome’s underestimation of both Boudica’s intellect and fight—their underestimation of a woman’s abilities—was their downfall. Or their temporary downfall. What worried me was this: in the end, the sexist, limited thinking won.
“Defeat wasn’t a problem so long as the writer laid in an alternate victory to be read in its ashes,” I wrote earlier, but I could see no alternate victory. Rather, Boudica’s story was a tragedy that would continue to manifest again and again through historical timelines.
I wrote and rewrote a third act that refused to work. Boudica got sick or took poison, the histories said, but which? Of all the things for history to be fuzzy about, this was a big one. Central characters are supposed to take agency over their lives, to act. As I faced the options laid out by my Roman historians, I had felt my choice to be clear: Boudica poisoned herself. In her final moment, she had agency and control.
Yet in every version I wrote, the scene refused to make sense. Self-poisoning in the face of defeat was a common trope of Roman stories, but, though they read the act as noble, it seemed disconnected with what I knew. No matter how I imagined her character, no matter how cornered, I couldn’t see a motivation for her to drink the vial. The odds were always stacked against the Iceni. The loss of one battle wouldn’t make her so desperate. Boudica was a woman who had seen her daughters raped and who herself was beaten, but she came away from the experience like a wrathful god, wreaking destruction on the Roman armies. What could Rome do to her that had not already been done? What changed?
And that’s where I left the draft. The year ended, and with it, my sabbatical. I laid the screenplay aside to focus again on my essays and novel. We could almost say this was the end, a tragedy, if not for the fact that Boudica lives with me. I’ve continued to reimagine the screenplay. I’m still working.
In the intervening years, the problems of the ending have returned me to the story’s beginning: In the draft I wrote in 2016, in the absence of information, I wrote the death of Boudica’s husband as a murder that emptied a throne so that Rome could take the land. The motivation for this action wasn’t totally clear. As I had written things, Seutonius’s absence had created a power vacuum in which a murder could transpire, but in the decades of Roman occupation, surely there had been other opportunities. Why murder Prasutagus now?
In the past year, I’ve returned to the possibility that I had rejected: sickness. If Boudica had become ill, she would have caught the illness from someone. Prasutagus, most likely. It would explain his death. The timing made sense. Centuries before antibiotics, the Celts’ only option would have been to turn to the Druids for help, and they would have no real cures to give. I saw Boudica leading an army through the English drizzle, unsleeping, plagued by the nightmare of her daughters’ rape, the virus taking hold. The physical and emotional stress must have been enormous—more than a body could bear.
I had been wrong in thinking that Boudica’s agency lay in taking poison. The story of Boudica was a story of ferocity and mental toughness, but at the end of the day, the fiercest fighter, male or female, inhabits a fragile human body. Boudica’s agency lay in confronting Rome. Her defeat need not come from their hands or hers but from a microscopic virus transmitted from her husband. Love and infection were bound together and each could corrupt the strongest person. The seeds of the ending lay, as always, in the opening scenes.
In high school, I was often frustrated with history textbooks. They felt disconnected from me, centered as they were on men’s stories. Beyond that, I struggled with the approach to narrative itself. The first paragraph of a chapter would paint a vivid scene, but before we could inhabit it, the focus would change. We would telescope backwards to the big picture. We would get the numbers of the dead, the maps of battlegrounds, the end results. I was interested in the smaller, human picture.
The value of creative writing—even if no one ever reads the work—is that if I approach it honestly and curiously, it allows me to live one person’s history. To be my characters, even temporarily, I have to ask questions, to notice when the logic and motivation don’t add up, to see the parts of personality that remain true and unalterable by time or culture or circumstance. I knew so much more than I had when I started—about screenwriting, about Rome, about fragility and strength, about democracy and sexism, about what it is that makes a person into a warrior. I began to think that perhaps the most important gender battle in history happened in 61 A.D. and was decided, not by a contest of strength or intelligence, but simply by the bad luck of catching a cold.
The question haunts me: What if Boudica had won? I think about the ripple effect of one moment in time. When I mention my project, most people have never heard of the Celtic warrior queen. Her story was nearly buried by time and by historians who couldn’t see its value. It’s still slipping away. In spite of statues and paintings and Sid Meier’s Civ II, I fear she’s becoming largely lost to us.
Boudica is a story about bodies: male and female, sick and well, colonized and colonizing. It’s a story about power and possession. I need to jump back to the thing I haven’t really discussed. It, too, is at the beginning, and it, too, may lead me to the end.
During my sabbatical, struggling with a fizzling third act, I emailed a draft of the screenplay to my sister. I knew I could trust her to be honest and bring the flaws to light. She would see the problem ending, but she might also be able to follow its roots back, finding the place in the story where I had first gone wrong.
Megan was enthusiastic, especially about a few of the side characters that I had invented and the love story I laid into their subplot. I had mostly gotten the formatting correct (thank you, handbooks) and she didn’t raise any major questions about the structure, though she agreed that the ending wasn’t as epic as it needed to be. Perhaps more importantly, she raised a question that I was blind to, that of how to handle the rape scene.
How many had I seen in my life? I couldn’t number them. Rape, murder, and other violence against women so often spurred a film’s action. Rape scenes had become a cliché of inciting incidents, sexual assault compelling male saviors to action. Perhaps only seduction scenes rely more heavily on the male gaze. Even the most sensitive rape scenes don’t capture the horror of the experience. Instead, too often, they offer a perverse sympathetic pleasure for male viewers inclined to align themselves with the rapist rather than the victim.
When the election results were in and history changed, my depiction of sexual assault, locked in the models of the past, had not. If my movie was to be a story of female power, I needed a new way to show rape.
The camera keeps viewers necessarily externalized. It objectifies the woman, just as her attacker does. Shown from this perspective, the rape scene, and thus the movie itself, participates in violence against women. Wired magazine’s article on the topic [https://www.wired.com/2015/06/rape-scenes/] concludes with a definitive tip: “Do not write a rape scene. While there are exceptions to this, everybody tends to think they are one of those exceptions, when more likely they are the reason the advice exists.”
I felt the wisdom of this advice, but also resisted it, wanting, like everybody, to see my screenplay as an exception. Cutting the scene seemed akin to denying the existence of the story’s crux. I didn’t want to rewrite history. I didn’t want to silence the generating moment of a story that had already been too silenced. Rape was essential to the sex, gender, and power issues running throughout Boudica’s story. Formative. The outrage committed warps every character, male and female, bending them towards new and unimagined violence. In that initial act of hatred against women, we see the social attitudes that will ultimately prevail, that still prevail.
In the United States, our best estimates show one in six women are raped, though barely over a third of rapes are reported. In spite of #MeToo, it remains a largely hidden epidemic. As our country confronts and too often dismisses or excuses its president’s assaults, I am recommitted to writing a story that probes the silence. Rape isn’t one moment in time but a successive line of violences. Rape is a living brutality that persists both within the woman who survives it and within the society that permits rape to occur. My characters were not unscathed. Rather, their trauma erupts from the heart like Ridley Scott’s alien, uncontainable and bleeding acid.
To leave the scene as written would be to make the audience voyeurs to sexual violence. To move it off screen would be to erase the horror that sparked a war. One made me a traitor to my sex, the other a traitor to her story. The scene requires a reimagination of how to write the camera’s gaze, and I continue to mull possibilities, even as news of other high-profile rapes roll in: Christine Blasey Ford telling her history with Bret Kavanaugh, Christine Miller confronting Brock Turner. I watch the women ridiculed; I see the men exonerated. And, powerfully, steadily, I watch women stand, speak their stories, fight. This is the story we still have yet to see celebrated on screen and the perspective I most forcefully need to inhabit: the assaulted woman who makes herself a warrior.
In AD 60 or 61, a Celtic woman led the largest and most successful revolt ever launched against the Roman Empire on British soil. She fought until her body failed. However, when one body dies, the ideas and ideals it stood for do not die with it. By telling the story, we allow the dead to rise. Today, I watch as the United States vacillates between calling out reprehensible behavior and apologizing for it. In the face of this aggression, women could give up, but we won’t. We can’t. That’s not what warrior queens do. Rather, we take up the battle. Thinking of those who came before us, we hoist their flag with our own living arms, and carry the fight forward, knowing the history and the odds, towards the possible but yet unrealized victory.