Isn’t it great when filmmakers put forth the effort to bring our favorite works of literature to the silver screen? I view this as an effort to breath life into the stories that intrigue us most. An author takes hold of an idea that invariably derives from their experience in the world, formulates a narrative, and when that author succeeds in their craft, the results are dumbfounding. People attract to the outcome like crazy. They see themselves in the work; they observe circumstances they can relate to; they become intrigued by behaviors and actions that are unexpected; and they use the experience to form judgments about the world around them.
The interesting thing about a filmmaker’s job is the duty they owe to the integrity of a text. Is it even possible to do so? Or are we perpetually having to deal with a filmmaker’s interpretation based on the era in which a film is made? And what does this tell us about a text?
BBC’s 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) would have us think of the novel’s protagonist, the endearing Miss Elizabeth Bennet, as a tightly-knit young woman, not to be viewed as indecent or immoral. We gain this perception by the nature of the clothes she wears, and we connect this fashion to the seeming warmth and virtue she expresses in her facial features.
I don’t particularly recognize the filmmaking of 1990s as immersed in conservative principles, but this filmmaker’s interpretation seems surprising; the overall aspect of it seems more akin to something the 1960s would have produced. Ten years later, the Grand Millennial Age, and matters look different:
Elizabeth is endowed with the same facial warmth, but her dress looks a bit more liberal. It would appear that audiences in the year 2005 are more willing to accept a less cultured version of the famous heroine; or maybe the filmmakers are trying to tap into some sense of realism. Whatever the case, filmmakers have to do what they can with the text to produce something that audiences will be interested in viewing. What is particularly interesting about this process is that the filmmakers are trying to represent what Jane Austen is trying to represent in terms of her fiction. That is to say, her representations are open to interpretation because her ideas are documented in the form of written language.
A couple of other examples give us a lens into how an author’s words are translated into pictorial imagery.
In the 1956 movie of the same name, Herman Melville’s master work Moby Dick (1851) is brought to us in black and white, the great Gregory Peck endowing audiences with his skilled portrayal of a stern and determined Captain Ahab.
The incomparable Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel received similar treatment, in modern form, when Hollywood Pictures brought us The Scarlet Letter (1995). Harsh criticism of the movie reveals how difficult the task of producing a film from the descriptions of a literary text can be. This is Arthur Dimmesdale pondering his problem with hypocrisy:
Where does that leave us with a text like the Bible? The makers of Bruce Almighty (2003) would have us believe that the Bible’s primary character is an aged black man decked in a fancy white suit.
How’s that for channeling the interpretive framework? It’s actually a far cry from what people would have thought God should look like during earlier times, as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel conveys circa 1512.
Here God is sporting the classic full beard, so indicative of what is fashionable for a god, especially when we consider how the trend did not originate with the god of the Bible. Here is Zeus from Greco-Roman antiquity sporting much the same look.
What is interesting about the bust of Zeus and Michelangelo’s fresco is that they follow in a line of artistic attempts to bring to life that which can only otherwise, be imagined according to what is written textually, or in the case of the Egyptians (Greeks and Romans too), both textual and oral. The images and hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt seem embedded within mankind’s most distant endeavor to produce a narrative in the form of pictures. In this scene Osiris, one of the earliest gods known to the planet, receives worship according to texts and stories dating to 2400 BC. Can you imagine how much of his character bears resemblance to his successors found among the modern religions of the world (beginning with the beard)?
Having seen how the relationship between artist and textual production stretches into time immemorial, where does that leave us with the latest in filmmaking, biblical interpretation? Apprehend no longer as I present to you the whole of literature’s man among men, chief among chiefs…Here he is folks:
Isn’t he a gem? I’m not exactly one for being hip as to what constitutes a good looking male, but reviews of Son of God (2014) have led me to the humorous term “Hot God,” with pleas from the actor Diogo Morgado himself asking that audiences notice him for his acting skills and not the way he looks. What stuck out to me was how the J-man was introduced; the filmmakers felt the need to have him appear onscreen immediately following a close-up of this depiction of a biblical age fisherman:
Why the stark contrast? Of course, we don’t get to the introduction of the J-man, in all of his astonishing sexual appeal, without getting a zoom-in on his ancestral roots. Here we have Eve in all of her sensuous, sexually-charged Garden of Eden energy, poised to ruin the whole of man with her fruit eating habits:
The filmmaking urge to sexualize the Bible is actually quite fascinating, considering its intended moral effect. Additionally intriguing about this film is the presence of Mary Magdalene. No longer is she on the outskirts of the group, the men taking charge as they moralize the land — no. She is front and center, side by side with the main man as he moves about in his mission.
So not only are we seeing the need for sex appeal in the battle to win over modern audiences, but the attempt to heed the advent of feminism seems to be making an appearance as well, though to what end, this I cannot determine. Lastly, but not in the least, we have the filmmaker’s interpretation of a supernatural event, for what biblical movie would be right without one? Of all the dramatic instances of supernaturalism occurring throughout the Bible, I’d have to say that Moses parting the Red Sea is among the most widely known.
The point of view is highly personalized in that we can feel the water rise in vast walls as we are situated directly behind Moses himself as he works his miracle. Simply breathtaking, isn’t it?
The bottom line here is that in the dance between ideas and pictures, text and film, artist and artist interpreter, we understand the whole of the phenomenon to be grounded in what the mind can imagine — and what this imagination says about self and society.
What’s important to remember, with regard to the Atheism/Theism debate, is that just because the Bible fuses moral instruction with characters and events that may or may not have existed or occurred, this does not give it a free pass in the dictation of truth and justice as it applies to the human condition. The Bible is a work of literature that should be studied for its value as a cultural record, just like Pride and Prejudice or Moby Dick. Indeed, the material is great fodder for storytelling, which gives it additional value for filmmakers who want to entertain their audiences — as they rake in huge sums of money. And even such moral maxims such as “do unto others as you would to yourself” (a.k.a. The Golden Rule) should be examined for their worth. But to give credence to the unverifiable claims made in a literary text such as the Bible, is to corrode the nature of truth. The reason why an ancient text like this differs from, say, documentation of the life of Cicero, is because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The account of Cicero does not boast aspects of the supernatural. Because biblical accounts do, this renders the text a work of literature; a crafty one at that, in which its writers sought to capitalize on the skill of obscuring the truth — that is, mingling fact with fiction (or even better, mingling dogma with fiction) — so as to gain control over a body of people.
Since this is what we know about the Bible, that it is a unique body of literature, then it should be categorized as thus, and shelved along with its other literary counterparts which count themselves in among the great works of literature.