It all started in 1897 with one French man and his absurdly large nose. The play Cyrano de Bergerac shows audiences that the worst thing imaginable in 1897, besides you know actual war in Greece and Turkey, was having a big nose. Written by Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac tells the story of Cyrano, a poet with a huge nose that makes him unlovable. To win his true love’s affection, Cyrano lends his words to a more attractive man, and cons the woman he allegedly cares about into falling in love with someone less hideous than himself. Cyrano de Bergerac is a classic tale that has been told countless times on the stage and on screen, most recently in 2021 with a musical film adaptation Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage. This play has led to the creation of a niche in the romantic comedy genre where anyone who does not look classically attractive could never be loved initially for who they are. Their only option is to fool the person they want to be with into loving someone else and then hope that initial love transfers when they are exposed for lying. The story of Cyrano’s deception is the basis of lots of film derivatives.. Because of Cyrano’s popularity, disabilities and lies have become a troupe. Despite there only being a few Cyrano de Bergeracs, there are lots of movies that center around a “monster” who must lie to get what they want.
The most derivative of the adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac is Roxanne, a film starring Steve Martin as a man with a large nose trying to win the love of the beautiful Roxanne by lending his words and voice to a more attractive fireman. It includes lots of homages to the source material but makes enough changes to stand on its own. One of the big things that separates it is all the jokes at the expense of Cyrano, or Charles as he is renamed in this film. Through Steve Martin’s comedic style and physicality, Roxanne almost teaches audiences how to make fun of someone with a big nose. It includes a scene where someone tries to harass Charles for how he looks. Unsatisfied with the insults, Charles bets the man he can come up with many more creative insults for someone in his condition, and he proceeds to insult himself for how he looks. It’s a bleak outlook on how someone unconventionally attractive is forced to view themselves and be treated by others. The issue is, Roxanne treats the big nose like a punch line. Wherein Cyrano de Bergerac the nose is a symbol of the inability of others to see Cyrano’s internal beauty, in Roxanne this symbol is watered down to basic jokes a person could make about someone else’s appearance. Roxanne turned an already problematic premise into an insensitive and problematic story.
The 19th-century play lends itself to lots of modern stories about romance. Even in movies that have seemingly no relationship with Cyrano de Bergerac, audiences can find traces of Cyrano in characters and storylines. In the superhero parody Megamind, the Cyrano-like character Megamind (Will Ferrell) has to use a disguise to be with the woman he loves. In this film, the Cyrano story is being played up for comedic purposes. Different from Roxanne, Megamind stays away from jokes about bodies and looks and makes fun of the trope in romance films where relationships are based on lies. Also being a children’s movie, Megamind makes sure to criticize Megamind for his deception and makes him learn from his mistakes before getting the girl in the end.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a movie where the issues with the Cyrano de Bergerac story arch become very obvious when applied to a modern setting with little to no changes. Because of her body, Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) does not believe anyone could actually be attracted to her. The movie then follows the Cyrano de Bergerac arch of disguises and lying to get what she wants. What is so interesting about this adaptation is it deals with real issues young people face. Cyrano de Bergerac gives the perfect outline to explore fatphobia and body image and how those things negatively impact young women in their relationships with themselves and others. The truth is, how we look and any diversion from skinny, white, able-bodied, beauty standard greatly impacts relationships and how people feel about their desirability. Sierra Burgess is a Loser was a fascinating twist on the classic Cyrano tale, modernizing it and exposing problems with the first story. Being “woke” was not a goal of Cyrano de Bergerac when it came out in 1897, or even of Roxanne when it came out in 1987. The play, and the subsequent film adaptation Roxanne, lacked awareness of how disabilities or diversions from classic beauty impact people’s lives in more serious ways than in love and dealing with bullies. When Sierra Burgess is a Loser modernized the story, the first thing that was done was make Cyrano a young woman in high school, opening up the film to conversations about how beauty standards affect young women the most. This was a great first step in making Cyrano de Bergerac a story that speaks to women’s fears about retaliation and violence against them when putting themselves out there. The movie then took about 100 steps back when it came to Sierra’s actions. She catfishes her love interest, pretends to be disabled, kisses someone without their consent, and violates other people’s privacy to get what she wants. Sierra Burgess is a Loser had the opportunity to expose the “lying monster” trope in romantic comedies but instead decided to dilute their message with regressive stereotyping that distracted from their goal of showing how young women act when they fear they won’t get the same respect as skinny girls.
Another modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac is The Half of Ita Netflix film. The filmmakers made Cyrano into a young girl named Ellie (Leah Lewis) struggling with sexuality, religion, and crushing on the same girl as her best friend. She lends her words to her friend who is trying to get the girl she is in love with which brings up a lot of feelings, tough decision-making, and, and when their plot is exposed, the film does not trap the characters in relationships based on lies, it uses the rouse to set the characters free of the things that burden them. The Half of It did a much better job telling the story of Cyrano in a modern way that did not exploit characters, fall prey to cliché storytelling, or reward characters for conniving to get what they want than previous adaptations have. This film also showed how Cyrano de Bergerac can still be a great story without bringing body image into the picture. To make Cyrano de Bergerac work, there just needs to be tension coming from something that makes the main character feel that they are unlovable like the internal struggle in The Half of It.
Cyrano de Bergerac is a window into romantic comedy tropes. Bodies as plot devices and relationships based on lies have all stemmed largely from Cyrano and his eloquence. Looking at the derivatives of this 19th-century play shows how much things have changed and stayed the same. Attitudes toward body image and objectification of bodies in relationships have stayed the same, but creative storytelling has allowed variations of Cyrano de Bergerac to expose the issues with the story and our cultural norms.