Despite its popularity as literature, the Arabian Nights has proven sporadic on film. There have been only a handful of straight adaptations of the collection in itself Universals pedestrian Arabian Nights (1942) with Sabu, Jon Hall and Maria Montez; A Thousand and One Nights (1945) with Cornel Wilde; the Japanese tv series Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad (1975); Pier Paolo Pasolinis beautiful and erotic adult version Arabian Nights (1974), the French 1001 Nights/Scheherazade (1990) with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Scheherazade and Arabian Nights (2015), a three-part Portuguese film that loosely conducted the story in the present day; as well as distaff animated parodies such as 1001 Arabian Nights (1959) featuring Mr Magoo and Scooby Doo in Arabian Nights (1974). Mostly though, cinema has been happy to appropriate individual characters and stories from Arabian Nights such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad, who have all undergone numerous screen adventures, or else borrow the generic milieu as a fantasy setting as in the original likes of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Arabian Adventure (1979).
This adaptation of Arabian Nights was made as a four-hour tv mini-series by Hallmark Entertainment, the production arm of the US Hallmark cable channel. Hallmark have also made a number of big-budget productions of various classic stories (see below). They brought in as director Steve Barron. Steve Barron has a long association with the fantasy genre with films like Electric Dreams (1984), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Coneheads (1993), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996) and Rat (2000). Indeed, Barron had previously directed Merlin (1998), Hallmarks adaptation of the Arthurian legends, and went onto make the excellent Dreamkeeper (2003) for Hallmark, which does the same thing as Arabian Nights but draws from American Indian myths.
The mini-series changes the tales around somewhat, although one can hardly regard this as a betrayal of the source material as the number of stories included in the Arabian Nights change markedly from translation to translation. Notedly though, the two longest adaptations and most familiar stories in the mini-series Ali Baba and Aladdin are taken from Antoine Gallands stories, which most scholars agree were probably made up by him. The mini-series adapts three other lesser-known tales The Story of the Humpback, The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy and The Sleeper and the Awaker changing odd aspects here and there.
The most notable change is the strengthening of the central narrative. Indeed, it is the story of Scheherazade and the Sultan Schariar that becomes the strongest aspect of the mini-series, whereas it only served as a framing device in the original. There have been a number of essential changes made to this gone is the character of Scheherazades sister Dirnazad who she tells the stories to first and who marries the Sultans brother at the end. Even more noticeably, the character of Schariar has been made much more redeemable where in the original he marries a woman every night and kills her in the morning, all because of his wifes infidelity and conspiracy with his brother, here he is merely contemplating such acts and is of course persuaded out of his ways by Scheherazade at the end of the story. One of the cleverer aspects of the teleplay is the way that it intertwines the process of the storytelling in with the stories themselves Scheherazade changes the telling depending on the mood of the Sultan and the script nicely weaves aspects from all the stories back into the finale.
Hallmark gave Arabian Nights a $30 million budget, which is usually that of a feature film rather than the average mini-series. The extra budget makes for an incredibly lavish production and Arabian Nights emerges as one of Hallmarks finest productions. The series was shot on location in Yemen and Turkey, which gives the stories a lavish and richly textured look of historical and cultural authenticity, while also retaining the opulent colour expected of the production. As a result, Arabian Nights more than successfully leaves behind the cardboard studio-set bound look of classic Hollywood Arabian Nights fantasies. Unlike most of the prosaic Hollywood Arabian Nights fantasies barring odd exceptions like the aforementioned versions of The Thief of Bagdad and Ray Harryhausens two spectacles The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) Arabian Nights opens up and lets the production fly with a full flight of fantastic imagination with dragons, duelling genies and flying carpets. Director Steve Barron has a directorial grace that weaves and dissolves in and out of the fictions and narrations with a breathtaking fluidity.
One of the standout aspects of the series is the casting. Jason Scott Lee makes for an appealingly perky Aladdin and Rufus Sewell a fine Ali Baba. The scene-stealer of the show proves to be John Leguizamos turn as the two genies of the lamp, which often seem like cousins to the sinister clown he played in Spawn (1997). Leguizamo and the script play the roles for comedy, often throwing in a number of modern colloquialisms. Unlike Disneys Aladdin (1992), this does not grate with the tone of the story and Leguizamo lights the show up with his entertainingly over-the-top playing. Dougray Scott gives a suitably melodramatic portrayal of the Sultans madness and despair. Although the true strength of the show is Israeli actress Mili Avitals Scheherazade. Mili Avitals beauty and elegance proves a real strength and is the element that holds all of Arabian Nights in place with captivating potency.
Hallmarks other works of genre note are: the sf mini-series White Dwarf (1995), The Canterville Ghost (1996), Gullivers Travels (1996), Harvey (1996), the Christmas musical Mrs Santa Claus (1996), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1996), the childrens horror Shadow Zone: The Undead Express (1996), the medical thriller Terminal (1996), The Odyssey (1997), the cloning thriller The Third Twin (1997), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997), the monster movie Creature (1998), Merlin (1998), the sf film Virtual Obsession (1998), Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1999), Alice in Wonderland (1999), Animal Farm (1999), A Christmas Carol (1999), the tv series Farscape (1999-2003), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1999), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Magical Land of the Leprechauns (1999), the modernised Hamlet (2000), Jason and the Argonauts (2000), Prince Charming (2000), the mini-series The 10th Kingdom (2000) set in an alternate world where fairy-tales are true, the medical thriller Acceptable Risk (2001), The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells (2001), Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001), The Monkey King/The Lost Empire (2001), My Life as a Fairytale: Hans Christian Andersen (2001), Snow White (2001), the series Tales from the Neverending Story (2001), the fantasy adventure Voyage of the Unicorn (2001), the Sherlock Holmes film The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire (2002), Dinotopia (2002), The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002), the Christmas film Mr St. Nick (2002), the Christmas film Santa Jr (2002), Snow Queen (2002), the modernised A Carol Christmas (2003), Children of Dune (2003), the American Indian legends mini-series Dreamkeeper (2003), the childrens monster film Monster Makers (2003), Angel in the Family (2004), A Christmas Carol (2004), Earthsea (2004), 5ive Days to Midnight (2004) about forewarning of the future, Frankenstein (2004), King Solomons Mines (2004), the Christmas film Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus (2004), Dinotopia: Quest for the Ruby Sunstone (2005), Hercules (2005), the thriller Icon (2005), Meet the Santas (2005), Mysterious Island (2005), the disaster mini-series Supernova (2005), The Curse of King Tuts Tomb (2006), the disaster mini-series The Final Days of Planet Earth (2006), Merlins Apprentice (2006), the bird flu disaster mini-series Pandemic (2006), the disaster mini-series 10:15 Apocalypse (2006), Black Swarm (2007), the psychic drama Carolina Moon (2007), the psychic drama Claire (2007) and the ghost story Something Beneath (2007).
(Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Mili Avital) and Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2000 Awards).