Compare Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini

The end of the 14th century in the English literature was highlighted by creation of one of the most famous works, which not only brought popularity to the writer but also became a turning point in the development of the English language. With the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer the period of Middle English commenced, on the one hand, and on the other hand, various vices of the society especially the church were exposed.   Chaucer tells twenty-four stories through the eyes of a group of pilgrims who take part in a storytelling contest.

Six centuries later in 1972 an Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini directed his ‘own’ Canterbury tales (I Racconti di Canterbury) inspired by the original narrative poem. Totally different cultural and intellectual situation developed a base for creation of a unique reflection ‘distorted as in a dream’ of the medieval text (Blandeau). A very controversial adaptation was the second film in ‘Trilogy of life’, which comprised two other medieval works: ‘Decameron’ and ‘Arabian nights’. The core of the film consisted of eight stories taken from the original book. However, it is Pasolini’s alternations of some of the stories what makes the film so different from Chaucer’s creation. The Canterbury Tales by Pier Pasolini won a Golden Bear at the 22nd film festival in Berlin and at the moment remains the single full-length version of the medieval story.

So the aim of this research is to answer a question what differs the modern story from the original one except for the difference in the amount of the written and covered stories.

First of all, being not a medievalist Pier Pasolini managed to offer a visual reading of Chaucer’s creation, having depicted the characters from his own point of view. So the core difference lies in using the opposite technique for creating the new interpretation. In other words we visualize the scenes not with the help of our own imagination but through the eyes of the filmmaker.

An important point to consider is that Pasolini does not include a pilgrimage frame and does not follow the structure of the narrative. He screens only those stories which are based on sex, greed and deception, thus turning the film into a sexual and political manifesto. In other words, all scenes in which sex is only alluded to or slightly described in Chaucer’s ‘Tales’, are vividly pictured in Pasolini’s version. Originally Chaucer’s aim was to expose a double-faced nature of the clergy, who condemned human vices but at the same time were ready to sell a purificatory document which would make their conscious and soul clear and untouched again. The hypocrites who were as twice sinful than those who were reproached by them were the main target of Chaucer’s satirical poem.

Pasolini supports anticlerical views of the medieval writer and what’s more, enhances the effect rewriting some scenes and introducing a pornographic element in his story.   Kathleen Forni indicates that ‘Pasolini was the first to explore and exploit the “queer” subtext of Chaucer’s poetics’ (Forni). The meaning conveyed by these words is simple and adapted to the modernity. While watching the film the first thing that strikes imagination is numerous depictions of the naked human body. The director keeps within bounds and does not turn the whole film into a pornographic act, but clearly insinuates that primitive desires of flesh seen as pornographic by the prudish ruling elite in the film are at the same time exploited shamelessly in the consumerist advertising.  So both Chaucer and Pasolini expose vices of the society taking into account the epoch they are living in.

As it has been already mentioned Pasolini omits Chaucer’s framing narrative, where the pilgrims tell their stories on the way to the city. Instead the narrator in the film is Geoffrey Chaucer himself represented by Pier Pasolini, who pictures other travellers from memory. Opening and closing lines refer to this character.

One of the brightest elaborations of the original writings is considered to be ‘The Friar’s Tale’ which is presented one of the first in the film and appears to be the most revealing story. The basic theme of official corruption is maintained, however Pasolini expands the plot by introducing a scene with two men caught in a homosexual act by a summoner. Here rises another theme of social stratification: while the wealthy man can buy his way out of the sinful did, the poor one is bound to be ‘roasted on a griddle’, in other words to be burnt alive mostly in front of the dressed out aristocracy and clergy (film).

Another curious alternation appears in ‘Cook’s Tale’. Originally this story was not finished by Chaucer and was cut abruptly on the 58th line. Linguists and medievalists still argue whether it was deliberately done or not. The Italian director completes the story and makes it one of the lightest and cheerful of all eight. Perkin is clearly presented here as orgiastic Charlie Chaplin. The overall grim tone of the film is lightened by incorporated slapstick comedy. Ninetto Davoli’s facial expressions and manners are grotesquely humorous and his odd clothes – small coat and bowler hat dilute this exposure of true human’s nature. However, the character’s vivacious self did not follow the mainstream of the society and thus was considered as a vice which must be eradicated in a pillory.

‘The Summoner’s Tale’ is the last one to be told in the film. It depicts a greedy friar who makes money on everything he can lay his hands on. He earns his punishment having ended up in hell taken there by an angel. Satan, Sodom orgy and obsession with buttocks are the main distinctive features of the final story. A horrifying vision of the Summoner’s hell probably inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ parodying Chaucer’s Retraction becomes a closing scene.

Pasolini playing Chaucer’s part states in the end that ‘here end the Canterbury Tales told for the sheer pleasure of telling them’ (film) whereas the original story is concluded with the words ‘all that is written is written for our doctrine’ (Chaucer). Such diversity in the closing lines can be explained by different times. The medieval writers were not so free to air their views in opposition to the church and government while freedom of speech in the XX century let the authors tell the stories for the mere pleasure.

Thus, Pasolini’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ may not be an accurate reflection of the original version, both of them are aimed to uncover human’s darkest corners of his soul and reveal double-faced nature of moral principles what remains urgent throughout all the times.


Works cited

Agnès Blandeau. ‘Pasolini, Chaucer and Boccaccio: Two Medieval Texts and Their

Translation to Film’. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 2006

Canterbury Tales. 21 October 2013


Geoffrey Chaucer. ‘Canterbury Tales’.

< >

Kathleen Forni. ‘A Cinema of Poetry: What Pasolini Did to Chancer’s Canterbury Tales’.

Literature/ Film Quarterly. January 2002. 21 October 2013

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

[Accessed: January 20, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016.

[Accessed: January 20, 2022] (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
Available at:

[Accessed: January 20, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: January 20, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: January 20, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: January 20, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: January 20, 2022]
Haven't found the right essay?
Get an expert to write you the one you need!

Professional writers and researchers


Sources and citation are provided


3 hour delivery