Crazy for Herodotus

A Greek classic gets a walk-on part in The English Patient: suddenly it's a hot item. John Lyttle on the trend-setting power of the movies

David Campbell, publisher of Everyman books, cannily saw it coming. "We'd been wanting to publish Herodotus's Histories for a couple of years, and, as you know, the book has a ..." Campbell pauses. "A big walk-on part in The English Patient."

Indeed. The romantic hero Ralph Fiennes is seldom without his battered copy.

"So when we knew the film was coming out in the States, we were ready. We sold 10,000 copies. In Britain we're trying to persuade bookshops to place the Histories beside the various English Patient editions in their displays."

Expect them to sell out, then. Movies have been exerting their simultaneously blatant and subliminal trendsetting influence on mass appetites, low-brow and upscale, since the silent superstar Mary Pickford made ringlets de rigueur for little girls the world over, and De Mille's porno-historical epics had even Bible Belt housewives howling for a sunken bath. For good or bad (taste), movies are the world's most effective shop window.

No surprise, then, that some 90 years later dog breeders should know enough to start shouting when Disney announced its live action remake of 101 Dalmatians. Hadn't the appearance of Asta, the wire-haired terrier in the Thin Man movies, caused demand to outstrip supply, with the dogs quickly abandoned when the novelty value wore off?

Movie trends do burn out fast - they seldom last longer than a picture's first-run release - but can be profoundly embarrassing while they last, because they sneak under the radar into the murky fantasy life, and strip owners naked. The punters buying The Histories probably believe that their purchase will somehow render them "tragic" - and they're absolutely right. But certainly no more tragic than the sensible people who started popping two cigarettes into their mouths, lighting them, and passing one to their partner, as Paul Henreid did with Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, or those who took to flaunting Liz Taylor's Cleopatra eye make-up in public.

But this stuff, unlike the precision of product placement, can't be controlled - though David Campbell might beg to differ. Faye Dunaway's Bonnie and Clyde beret had factories in France working overtime to produce copies for wannabe bad girls, but that was after the fact, as was Flashdance's ripped sweatshirt, the dim beginning of grunge. No one expected these fashions. Public imagination can't be safely predicted (witness The Hudsucker Proxy's failed attempt to relaunch the hula hoop), or what will spontaneously tap into it. Did Powell and Pressburger think The Red Shoes would send millions of little girls off to ballet lessons? No. Did the makers of the Bond pictures realise that vodka Martini would be the swish Sixties drink? Hardly. Could the writer Richard Curtis have known that his selection of Auden's "Stop all the Clocks" as Simon Callow's loving send-off for Four Weddings and a Funeral would send sales of the collected poems skyward? A double negative.

So unpredictable is the phenomenon, it's effective even as it backfires. When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night to reveal that he wasn't wearing a vest, the American market for that particular undergarment more or less collapsed overnight. We're more sophisticated now, thank God, or heaven knows what havoc Basic Instinct could have wrought ... Or perhaps we aren't, as those 10,000 copies flying off the shelves rather provesn

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