This weekend, one of the most celebrated characters in the Western literary canon returns to the big screen. Peter Dinklage stars as the title character in Cyrano, Joe Wright’s musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 classic, with music by the National.
Such a beloved and accomplished actor as Dinklage would ordinarily have no trouble making the role his own. After all, he won international acclaim for portraying Tyrion Lannister, the most beloved character on one of the most successful TV shows of the 21st century. But in the case of Cyrano, there’s a truly astonishing amount of competition. If you think it’s a bit much that we get a new Batman every five years, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Over the past 125 years, Cyrano de Bergerac has been staged on Broadway and the West End countless times, with actors from John Gielgud to Kevin Kline to James McAvoy in the title role. It’s been adapted for the screen nearly as frequently. Just as it became fashionable at the turn of the century to adapt Shakespeare to a high school context, over the past 35 years Cyrano de Bergerac has nosed his (or increasingly her) way into settings far from the original 17th century France. We’ve seen this classic love story adapted for high schools (three times in the past four years) and a fire station in the Pacific Northwest. More than once, it’s been reenacted by space aliens.
So let’s lay out Dinklage’s competition for the best on-screen version of Cyrano. Even leaving out any TV shows and movies that steal one gag from the play (the execrable 2009 rom-com The Ugly Truth, for instance) and skewing toward more modern adaptations–mostly from the past 40 years, plus José Ferrer’s iconic performance in the 1950 adaptation–that leaves 13 Cyranos with whom Dinklage has to contend. The best of these performances fit certain attributes, detailed in the following scoring system:
- Wit: This is the play that introduced the word “panache” to the English language. Cyrano improvises a poem about stabbing a guy to death while he’s in the process of stabbing a guy to death, a man whose epistolary skill wins the heart of the most beautiful woman in the land. Any Cyrano worth the name has to be able to turn a phrase.
- Badassery: The “warrior” half of “warrior-poet” often gets overlooked, but Cyrano slays the Vicomte de Valvert in a duel, single-handedly sees off a 100-man ambush, and sneaks effortlessly through enemy lines during the Siege of Arras. Martial fortitude doesn’t necessarily translate to all adaptations, but Cyrano has to be gallant in whatever context the adaptation demands.
- Misery: Cyrano spends his whole adult life in love with Roxane, but instead of shooting his proverbial shot, chooses to mope about it. He’s just a miserable lovesick bastard, through and through.
- Messiness: Cyrano is, to borrow a phrase from a different literary context, a “messy bitch who lives for drama.” Rather than profess his love for Roxane, he helps his romantic rival win her heart. He risks his life every night to escape his besieged fort in order to send her love letters under Christian’s name. Time and again, he’s presented with simple choices; time and again, he chooses the most difficult, passive-aggressive option.
The Cyranos will be judged on how well their versions meet these four criteria on a scale of 1 to 10. Each can gain and lose extra points based on idiosyncratic elements of their own stories. A particularly clever rejoinder during the opening theater scene might gain points, for example. On the other hand, relentlessly pursuing a woman through deception is a gray area to say the least. So any character who crosses the line in that respect will lose points.
Without further ado, let’s get to the rankings.
13. Billy West as Philip J. Fry in “Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love?,” Futurama
Futurama’s adaptation of the Cyrano story features Fry as Cyrano and Zoidberg as Christian, with predictable results: funny, but totally inept. Zoidberg returns to his home planet to mate, and Fry helps him by feeding him lines under his love interest’s balcony. It doesn’t go well.
Penalties: Doesn’t give off incel vibes, but does have douchey vibes (minus-2); also loses points here because Edna falling in love with Fry provokes Zoidberg to challenge him to ritual combat to the death—generally, ritual combat to the death is something you want to avoid in a Cyrano-and-Christian situation (minus-20)
12. Jared Gilman as Cy Berger in It Takes Three
This mostly unremarked-upon 2021 film attempts to resituate the classic story into the milieu of a high school in the age of social media. Cy is a teenager with an ordinary nose who for some reason wants $40,000 worth of plastic surgery. His metaphorical giant schnozz is a viral video of a botched promposal. (The short version: Baggy pants are not your friend, teen boys.) It Takes Three is not a particularly coherent movie, and Cy isn’t a particularly easy Cyrano to root for—instead of a misunderstood genius, he’s mostly just an embittered nerd who’ll be much happier once he gets to college.
But the biggest mark against Cy is that he not only tries to break up the Christian and Roxane characters rather than nobly taking the L, he does so in humiliating and very public fashion, and earns every bit of the bloody nose he receives for the effort. We can do better.
Penalties: Is supposed to be a smart guy, but isn’t quick enough on the uptake to realize his best friend is throwing herself at him (minus-5); not only gets sucker-punched in the face at prom (minus-2), but totally deserves to get sucker-punched in the face at prom (minus-5)
11. Shannon Purser as Sierra Burgess in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser
This is a fairly ambitious movie with a great cast, led by Barb from Stranger Things, Netflix rom-com god Noah Centineo, and His Excellency Alan Ruck. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser has a lot to say—it’s a movie about catfishing, and artifice, and learning to love oneself despite unreachable social expectations. But it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Its message about social media ends up being muddled, and it doesn’t quite know how to translate a Cyrano character to high school in the 2010s.
Sierra ultimately gets her man and becomes comfortable in her own skin, but along the way she does a lot of sketchy shit: pretending to be deaf, betraying her friends, ducking in to kiss the hot guy while he thinks he’s kissing someone else. My knee-jerk reaction upon first viewing was, maybe Sierra Burgess should go to jail? It’s OK—even realistic—for a teenager to fumble her way to enlightenment, but it’s not necessarily heroic.
Bonuses: Writes her own music (plus-2)
Penalties: The kiss while holding Noah Centineo’s eyes closed was creepy (minus-2); put Veronica on blast in front of the entire school—NOT COOL SIERRA (minus-5)
10. Shane West as Ryan Woodman in Whatever It Takes
This is a movie in which James Franco plays a manipulative creep, with Kip Pardue as his sidekick. Somehow, that’s not even the part that has aged the worst more than 20 years on. Which is not to say there aren’t selling points to Whatever It Takes, such as a scene where a very young Aaron Paul and a very young Colin Hanks stand next to a 5-foot sculpture of a penis.
Shane West’s Ryan isn’t as clever as Sierra Burgess as a Cyrano character, but most of the time he seems like he’s trying to do the right thing, which is admittedly a low bar to clear.
Bonuses: Is quick enough on the uptake to realize his best friend is throwing herself at him (plus-2); can play “Play That Funky Music” on accordion (plus-10)
Penalties: While Ashley isn’t a nice person or anything, Ryan is kind of a dick to her (minus-5); he’s based on a character who’s supposed to be ugly while simultaneously looking like turn-of-the-century Shane West (minus-10)
9. Barry Williams as Greg Brady in “Cyrano de Brady,” The Brady Bunch
Peter Brady is smitten with the lovely Kerry Hathaway, but makes a fool of himself when he tries to ask her out. So, taking inspiration from Cyrano de Bergerac, he asks Greg for help. The plan is too successful—Kerry falls for Greg.
This raises an important question: Which Brady brother is the Cyrano in this adaptation, and which is Christian? You could make an argument that Peter—who falls for Kerry first and writes a letter that impresses her—is Cyrano, while Greg is just the pretty face. But Greg not only tries to win Kerry over on Peter’s behalf, as Cyrano did for Christian. He pulls the strings the whole way.
Greg doesn’t score high for badassery (it’s a family sitcom) or romantic misery (he’s Greg Brady, what the hell does he have to be miserable about?), but he makes up for those weaknesses with a cunning plan: Convince Kerry that he’s a “rat fink” by having a scorned lover (Marcia in disguise) interrupt their date. A novel ruse, if a little risky, but it all works out in the end. Kerry dumps Greg and ends up with Peter.
Bonuses: Goes to much greater lengths to help his brother than most oldest children would (plus-5)
Penalties: Hatches up a grand stratagem of deception that hinges on giving the impression that he’s hooking up with his step-sister (minus-5)
8. Dan Mintz as Tina Belcher in “Sleeping With the Frenemy,” Bob’s Burgers
When Tammy develops a crush on a boy from out of town (BFOT), Tina helps her friend(ish) by providing her with the words to spark the adolescent romance.
Tina doesn’t exactly revolutionize the Cyrano role, but she ghostwrites for Tammy for the right reasons—to win a merit badge for being selfless. In the realm of cartoon children, that’s the equivalent of fighting off 100 attackers.
Bonuses: The “Cyrano de Burger-ac” pun (plus-1)
7. Larry Brantley and Soccer the Jack Russell terrier as Wishbone in “Cyranose”
Wishbone dovetails the classic story of Cyrano de Bergerac, with a dog in the title role. It’s a modern adaptation about … umm … plagiarism, I guess, set in a wholesome 1990s Texas suburb. This episode, delightfully titled “Cyranose,” was a pivotal moment for every aspiring poet hooked on PBS. It’s obviously light on the physical combat and more complicated themes of the play—Wishbone is a dog, and has less than 10 minutes to get through a two-hour script—but it remains a classic adaptation.
Bonuses: Only gives three insults, but when I was in third grade I thought the delivery of “Do you love the little birds so much that you let them perch on your nose?” was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, and it’s still funny now (plus-2); made classic literature accessible to a generation of children (plus-10)
Penalties: Can’t write his own letters because he doesn’t have opposable thumbs (minus-1)
6. Michael Dorn as Worf in “Looking for Par’mach in All the Wrong Places,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek loves a literary adaptation, and this was one of the franchise’s best. In fact, it’s easy to get “Looking for Par’mach in All the Wrong Places” confused with “The Nth Degree,” a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which the crew of the Enterprise stages Rostand’s play, with Lt. Barclay in the title role. Worf appears in both episodes, but is only the Cyrano character in the former.
When Quark’s Klingon ex-wife (it’s a long story) shows up on the station, Worf attempts to woo her but is rebuffed. Instead, he and Dax tutor Quark in the Klingon customs necessary to win her over. Worf tells Quark what to say and even goes so far as to win a bat’leth battle for the Ferengi bartender. At the end, Quark and Worf both get the girl, as everyone’s favorite Klingon grouch realizes that Dax is in love with him. They get married a season later.
The laconic Klingon doesn’t win many points with his repartee, but few TV characters are more badass or more miserable than Worf. And while every version of Cyrano ghostwrites letters, Worf makes Quark wear a special device that allows him to control the bartender’s movements. That’s what you get when romantic literature meets Starfleet ingenuity.
Bonuses: Might not write his own music, but performs the hell out of some Klingon opera (plus-3)
Penalties: Is supposed to be a smart guy, but isn’t quick enough on the uptake to realize his best friend is throwing herself at him (minus-5)
5. Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu in The Half of It
The Half of It is the most successful high school adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac not because it’s the most faithful to the letter of the text, but because it understands how small the text is. The original play features numerous swordfights, companies of soldiers, and a battle, but it really only has four characters: Cyrano, Christian, Roxane, and the Comte de Guiche. Everyone else with lines is just there to bounce exposition off of. The Half of It, in contrast to Sierra Burgess, Whatever It Takes, and so on, is set not among pretty and/or high-achieving Southern California suburbanites, but in a dead-end nowhere town where there’s time and space to explore one’s thoughts.
Therein, Ellie Chu is cynical and frustrated as a smart teen in a small town, and the experience of falling in love with the unattainable Aster Flores shows her she’s capable of more than she realized. The Half of It also seizes on an aspect of the play that often gets understated: that Christian is not a bad guy just because he’s in Cyrano’s way, and the two romantic rivals come to respect each other because of their differences. So maybe it’s not fair to say that falling in love made Ellie grow; it’s more that spending time with a well-meaning airhead made her reevaluate things she’d previously taken for granted.
Bonuses: “Wit” doesn’t quite capture Ellie’s intellectual strengths, so she gets a bonus for being erudite (plus-4); she might have a career as a professional cyclist if the whole Grinnell thing doesn’t work out (plus-1); writes her own music (plus-2); ends up becoming best friends with her erstwhile romantic rival (plus-5)
4. Gérard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
A legendary French actor as the lead in an adaptation of a legendary French play: what could there be to criticize? Well, at this end of the Cyrano spectrum, there are nits to be picked. It’s not that Depardieu was bad in this role—he received his only Oscar nomination for it—so much that he plays Cyrano not as a precision operator, but as a blunt instrument.
He doesn’t poke and needle with words or sword; he shouts and swashbuckles. He doesn’t seem consumed by internal torment; he just seems angry.
Bonuses: Actually French (plus-10)
3. Janeane Garofalo as Dr. Abby Barnes in The Truth About Cats & Dogs
A mostly-forgotten 1990s rom-com that features more laugh-out-loud punchlines than you might remember, and exactly as much acerbic wit as you’d expect from a Janeane Garofalo vehicle. (Also, Jamie Foxx is in this movie!) Like The Half of It, The Truth About Cats & Dogs features a heartwarming sublot that involves the Cyrano and Christian characters becoming friends because they’re so different.
But Abby is not only quick on her feet, she’s also willing to put herself between Uma Thurman’s Noelle and an abusive boyfriend, which takes a level of moral assertiveness and physical courage not often found in talk radio hosts. The specifics of the plot and setting are modern, but the foundations of the character—humor, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a commitment to making her own life more complicated rather than expressing her feelings—are all there.
Bonuses: Ends up becoming best friends with her erstwhile romantic rival (plus-5); capable of diagnosing animals’ illnesses over the phone (plus-4)
2. Steve Martin as C.D. Bales in Roxanne
One of the greatest comic actors at the absolute top of his game. Every second Martin’s C.D. is on screen, he’s either setting up or executing a sidesplitting one-liner or a ludicrous physical gag.
No cinematic Cyrano is funnier, or better able to come up with the right thing to say on the spot, and Martin’s performance makes Roxanne the standard for modern adaptations.
Bonuses: Extremely clutch, not only coming up with 20 insults in front of a huge crowd, but in saving the town from fire (plus-10); beats up two guys with a tennis racket (plus-5)
Penalties: Being jealous is no excuse to shame a woman for sleeping with a man you set her up with (minus-2)
1. José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
Ferrer’s performance in an otherwise forgettable film ended up defining the character for everyone who followed. He became synonymous with the role, like Errol Flynn with Robin Hood. It’s because of Ferrer’s measured, meticulous take on the role that Depardieu’s portrayal stands out as so broad and bombastic, and most adaptations feel in some way lacking.
Even leaving aside the mark Ferrer left as the first person to play the role in a mainstream American film, his depiction of Cyrano captures the aspirational nature of the character. Whatever his physical flaws, Cyrano is clever enough and intimidating enough that he can talk unending shit to anyone he wants with no fear of repercussion—a sort of Reggie Miller for Bourbon-era France. Ferrer was the standard 70 years ago, and remains so today.
Bonuses: Carried a weak supporting cast (plus-3); won an Oscar (plus-3); won endless sword fights while wearing a ridiculous ruffled collar (plus-5)