7 Books to Read Before You Watch ‘Napoleon’

I won’t say that Ridley Scott’s Napoleon bit off more than it could chew. I respect a film that trusts its audience—I truly hate an over-explanation. Still, Napoleon contains multitudes… and it was more than I could digest in one sitting. (And, yes, I still believe we should bring back intermissions for films that run over two hours, if only so that I can do a little bit of recon on the subject to inform my own viewing, while I speed-pee. I will die on this hill.)

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film—it’s truly epic. Joaquin Phoenix was absolutely the correct casting for Napoleon, and Vanessa Kirby truly brings Josephine to life in a wry, sexy disillusionment. I mean, what kind of stone-cold B giggles while she reads her divorce decree? Answer: one that I am obsessed with. Personally, I was as interested in Josephine as Napoleon. That’s probably not surprising, since I’m a woman, but I learned a lot from the times when she was onscreen, such as that the only way she thought she could survive imprisonment was to get pregnant because they would not behead a pregnant woman. Also, she somehow had two children by her first husband, but she could not conceive with Napoleon… what happened there? All that to say, I’d watch her movie.

Also, I don’t know how the marketing seemed to obscure this fact for me that now seems pretty obvious, but this is a war movie. It is violent af. The opening scene is Marie Antoinette’s march to the guillotine and subsequent incredibly tedious and gory beheading. All while a delightful, upbeat and ironically ominous French song plays over her execution. (This score truly has my whole heart.)

Truly, everything aspect is executed so well that I got past the inaccurate accents almost immediately—although they did cause me some trouble during the international conflict scenes (is that diplomat French? Or English? Oh, Austrian-I-mean-Prussian?), but then again, to my knowledge, the Romanovs’ first language was French, even as the Russian royal family, so that could just be my lack of education.

Speaking of which, I think the whole film would have landed more solidly for me if I’d had a better grounding of the historical events. I mean, I knew about the French Revolution against the aristocracy, and the subsequent release of the aristocrats from the Bastille and other prisons later… but I didn’t know how much later, what exactly happened in between, or just how Napoleon Bonaparte leveraged himself onto the scene as the French leader. That seemed especially impossible for me when he wasn’t even French, but Corsican (which was, at the time, a whole different country who did not want to be French). So, these books are the ones I wish I had dipped into before I saw the film because I think they would have helped me enjoy it more. (Still, I’m glad I listened to this podcast before I went to give me a survey of the territory.) I don’t know about you, but when I understand clearly what is happening, then I can better enjoy how it’s happening.

image credit: Roger Ebert

Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.