Six Ways of Filming Boccaccio’s Decameron

The First Way:


It’s America ten years from now, or maybe five depending on how fast things fall to pieces, and we’re all under siege. Suicide bombing and terrorism are the daily norm, and no one bothers to guess anymore whether the perpetrators are Muslim fundamentalists, or Christian fundamentalists who’ve become mirrors of those they most loathe, or government-sponsored death squads run amok with the pleasure of destruction, or teenage kids gone berserk from having to deal with so much hopelessness for so long.

In a small mountain town—Colorado or Vermont, or some other place equally hippie and yuppie—five childless couples have holed up in the palatial hillside mansion of the richest members of their circle. The house is off the grid, running on solar cells, wind, and emergency diesel generators, and there’s an endless supply of clean, potable water from a nearby stream. Unbeknownst to their friends, the hosts are hardened survivalists who know exactly how long ten people can last on their supply cache (sixteen months, three weeks, two days). For three years they have heatedly debated which couples to take in when the chaos came, inviting dozens over for trial “sleepover” weekends. Their Decameron is a planned event, and they have gone so far in preparation for it as to place fine leatherbound translations of Boccaccio’s original on each couple’s bedside table. The couples, all honored to be chosen, eagerly comb through their lives for the ten tales that will distinguish them most from their fellow man.

But something happens on the first night of this Decameron: after a few blithe stories, a heavily-bleeding soldier knocks on the door and passes out in a heap. The two doctors among the guests save his life, removing six bullets from his abdomen. When he regains consciousness and tries to radio his fellow soldiers with his coordinates, the assembled couples stop him; they only have so many supplies, after all, and soldiers would not only devour their food but turn their off-the-grid palace into a garrison. So they kill the soldier, suffocating him with pillows en masse so that no one feels solely culpable, and bury him in the wildest corner of the estate.

Their Decameron then resumes. But since the guests are all guilty of murder, the stories now have a darker flavor. They confess to other murders, to illustrious fucks behind their spouses’ backs, to petty thieveries from one another’s houses. And they do so without guilt or shame, for they have all felt the same beast breathing inside them. They are all free to let the truth of their souls bloom, no matter how putrid the flower.


The Second Way:


The first blazingly hot day of summer in Manhattan’s Central Park—the Sheep Meadow, to be specific. Rumors persist that the temperature has broken 102°, but everyone is having too much fun to check a thermometer. Among the crowd are hundreds of 18- to 25-year-old women soaking up the rays in their bikinis; a certain percentage of them are inevitably blonde, and a certain percentage of those inevitably fall asleep while sunbathing. Of these sleeping blondes, ten are awakened by masked men attired like Chiapas guerillas, who race up and dump icewater on them. TV cameras record the blondes’ visceral shock as the icewater hits their bodies and springs them into various forms of entertaining panic. The ten women are then hustled into waiting vans and brought to a dingy police station, where they are assembled in a windowless cell to await arraignment.

But arraignment does not come, nor does any indication of their supposed crimes. No one visits them, they are not granted their one phone call, and they do not have the opportunity to question the guards who shove food and water through a slot in a wall. The blondes learn about one another, bond, and begin to tell ten stories each—not tales of love or adventure or obstacles successfully overcome, but tales of oppression by America’s patriarchal culture and government. By the end of the hundred stories, they have transformed themselves (and one another) from image-obsessed sunbathers into radical feminists with an unshakeable commitment to their cause, as well as a shared conviction that violence in the pursuit of that cause is acceptable.

Once the blondes’ Decameron is complete, the ten “Chiapas guerillas” who had dumped icewater on them arrive at the jail dressed in tuxedoes and carrying a dozen roses each. The whole stunt is revealed as part of a reality TV show called “The Power of Forgiveness”; the ten men, all gorgeous, rich, and upstanding citizens aged 22 to 28, have come to atone for their bad behavior and woo these women into marriage. The would-be husbands are then locked in the cell with the blondes they had so cruelly doused, and a period of improvisational mayhem—which is allowed to go on for as long as the director and legal authorities allow—then ensues.


The Third Way:


This one’s a classic Broadway musical via West Side Story—call it “Boccaccio meets Bernstein.” The “Jets” and “Sharks” in this case are two rival camps of abstract expressionist painters led by Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, respectively (although neither, for legal reasons, is explicitly identified). They’re in the middle of a turf war over primacy in the downtown Manhattan art scene, over international fame and fortune, and of course over the stunningly exotic woman who serves as muse to each gang’s leader. This woman is related by blood to a high-ranking “Jet” but in love with a low-ranking “Shark,” which maximizes potential conflict not only between gangs, but among the ranks of each. There are ten major players, each singing ten songs—except maybe for the heroine, who steals a few from the minor characters. But it’s ten times ten, however you slice it, and therefore a Decameron.

One problem, however: Who the hell is going to sit and listen to a hundred musical numbers? That’s too much even for people with nothing better to do. We could cut down on the songs, but then it wouldn’t be a Decameron anymore and we couldn’t use the name, which would rob us of half our selling power. One possible solution: only the “greatest hits” of the hundred songs appear in the show, while the balance can be downloaded free online. This allows us to use the Decameron brand name without torturing our audience. Fine print on the poster should suffice to explain.


The Fourth Way:


Flash forward a few years to when our decades of research and experimentation on language acquisition by apes has made communication with them de rigueur; even the least educated yokel is now bored by TV shows featuring apes who can talk using sign language. So primatologists devise a new strategy to keep their government grant money rolling in: they gather together ten apes trained in slightly different methods of communication—two chimpanzees, two gorillas, two orangutans, two gibbons, two bonobos—in the hope that they will collectively develop a unique, trans-species language.

The ten are sequestered at a remote primate research center, where they are doped up to prevent violence. After six weeks nothing seems to happen; their disparate communication styles preclude anything but mundane and rudimentary conversations about food, copulation, defecation, the weather. Yet the primatologists assiduously observe their subjects, ever hoping for a breakthrough. One night a freak tornado isolates the research center; the observer on the next shift can’t get there, and the one currently on duty must leave to heroically rescue his entire hometown from disaster.

Once the apes are left alone and loosed from the shackles of constant observation, they let their hair down and speak their minds. Finally! Six weeks of banter about eating, fucking, shitting—it was really getting to them! Now they can do what they’ve been waiting to do ever since this “Ape Summit” was announced: tell the great ancestral stories of their species’ origins, their rise to the peak of their respective evolutionary lines, and their cruel oppression by the brigand Homo sapiens.

Nine times through the order, they regale one another with these ancestral tales that have been passed from generation to generation. But the last time through, each ape tells a previously untold tale: one of hope for freedom and revolution, of escape from the confines of human science, of escape from the ever-deeper encroachments of mankind onto the privacy of their collective mind.


The Fifth Way:


Environmental art is all the rage these days, and there’s no reason our Decameron project should miss out on that trend. This version takes place in one of the northern “M” states (Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana) where the government, in collusion with a Big Power company, plans to dam a lusciously wild river. This river turns out to be incredibly popular with kayakers despite the fact that so many of them have died there—ninety-nine thus far, to be exact.

One fine spring day, number one hundred comes along. Let’s call him Paul for the hell of it. He’s the Grand Poobah of his kayaking crowd, one of those “sponsored athletes” testing out a new rig provided for him free by the manufacturer. He’s having a grand time enjoying all the wild scenery, doing his Eskimo rolls or whatever kayakers do to hot-dog, when he gets sucked into an undertow and drowns. [Production note: Is it still called an undertow if it happens in a river instead of in an ocean?]

Once he enters the afterlife, Paul finds himself surrounded by the ninety-nine other kayakers who have died in this river. They’ve been waiting for the magical hundredth victim to arrive so they can assemble and tell their stories of love for the water that took their lives. Paul’s story is the last of the Decameron, and his fellow kayaker ghosts burst into a righteous uproar when he tells them about the impending dam. They decide, without dissent, to stop it at all costs.

About here I run out of steam on this particular version, since I can’t figure out exactly how ghost kayakers would stop a river from being dammed. Sabotage, blowing things up? That’s not what ghosts do, and there’s no true danger in it for them because they’re already dead. Sneaking into offices to shred paperwork? Boring! This scenario has the potential to turn violent and vengeful by default, and I don’t think the world needs another cheesy revenge-driven ghost story. I’m accepting inputs on this one.


The Sixth Way:


This flick, however, is my baby—mess with at your own peril. We start with a woman and her eight-year-old daughter being abandoned on an island in a driving rainstorm. We don’t see the captain of the boat that takes them there, but we do see the gangplank (or whatever you call it) being drawn down by invisible hands, and we see the mother and daughter exiting the boat in blank-faced terror. Nothing but the wet clothes on their backs, no memories of any kind. They’re amnesiacs, and all they know is that they’re here now, getting off a boat on an island in the rain.

So the mother and daughter wander around this island, having all sorts of creepy experiences with unseen presences. (No, this is not a Lost ripoff, although marketing should certainly capitalize on the resemblance.) Maybe these experiences aren’t all creepy, but they should at least be spooky. The presences could save them from a predator, a mudslide, something like that. To prove their goodwill, prove to audiences that they might be benevolent and all-knowing—which audiences seem desperate for these days.

And all the while, it keeps raining. The mother and daughter eventually learn to accept the rain, even love it a bit, and once they do we finally see who these “presences” are: eight other women of various ages, every single one of them mute. Not intrinsically the stuff of great cinema, I know, but we can compensate with close-ups, body language, makeup, some avant-garde bells and whistles.

The mother and daughter start teaching these women to talk again—a torturous project we gloss over quickly. Months pass in minutes of screen time. Then one by one the eight formerly mute women begin, clumsily at first but with increasing articulateness, to tell ten stories each from their pasts. Their refusal to abide by society’s expectations, the hard choices they made in the name of personal freedom, the way they were cruelly stripped from their families as punishment for their non-conformity and brought to this horrid, rain-drenched little island.

As the mother and daughter hear these eighty stories they start to remember their own lives, their own tales of hardship and reprisals for refusing to kowtow to the whims of others. Their alternating stories comprise the last twenty of this Decameron, and although they start off with perfect diction, their voices grow less comprehensible as they reach their eighth tale, their ninth. Eventually their powers of language devolve so fully that their final tales are little more than guttural grunts and half-formed words:



It’s absolutely primal. Actors and audience are shaken to their core. At the film’s conclusion all the women—the original eight, plus the mother and daughter who held the key to their collective memory—walk mutely through the rain as one, and all their stories are forgotten forever.




Steven Wingate is a multi-genre author whose award-winning and internationally-exhibited work ranges from fiction to interactive digital media and gaming. His short story collection Wifeshopping was selected by Amy Hempel as winner of the Bakeless Prize in Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; it was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008 and translated into Bulgarian in 2012. His interactive memoir daddylabyrinth premiered in 2014 at the ArtScience Museum of Singapore, and his interactive film Talk with Your Hands Like an Ellis Island Mutt premiered in Hong Kong in 2016. His interactive novel Boulderpeople is forthcoming from Choice of Games in early 2018. He is currently an associate professor of English at South Dakota State University.