Mike Johnson prepares "The Tale of Despereaux"

One of my favorite childrens’ stories… the kind that’s so good, adults should be reading it… …is coming to the big screen.

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  • Michelle

    I am wondering if ‘Christians’ and all of their beliefs are viewed as anti-Semitic by at the bulk of the Jewish community.
    It would make sense, Just as Christ is rejected as the Savior so would His followers be rejected.
    Thus one might see anything ‘pro-Christian as anti-Semitic. If that’s the case the Christians might as well forget trying to justify their choices aka themselves…
    By the way if G-d had everything written into the Bible how many life times would it have taken to read it through just once.
    Know that just as we breath air, whenever belief altering events are taking place the devil is very present, thankfully so is G-d.

  • Herb Levy

    Sorry for the delay on replying to this, less holiday related than other work. Anyway,

    Martin wrote:

    1. Well, now you’re just changing your tune. Here’s what you said in your first comment:

    In a film so closely taken from the Gospels, what is the source for the presence of Satan, who does not appear in these books of the Bible?

    Which certainly sounds like a claim that Satan doesn’t appear in the Gospels. Your original statement doesn’t specify that you’re looking only for references within Passion narratives. In fact, the phrase “Biblically undocumented character” could suggest that you think Satan doesn’t appear in the Bible at all.

    If that’s how you’re reading this, I’m sorry that I wasn’t clear enough. (& if this is the first instance you’ve read online of someone not typing what they were thinking as clearly as they should have, may I be the first to welcome you to the Internets.)

    This is a discussion about a film, not about the Gospels as a whole. The film only covers the Passion of Christ. I had thought it would be clear that I was writing about the addition of Satan to the narrative of the film, rather than whether his presence is discussed or described in other sections of the Bible.

    Martin continued:

    2. Even if you restrict the inquiry to Passion narratives, the suggestion that Satan doesn’t appear there is still silly. Granted, the character isn’t nearly as prominent in Gospel Passion narratives as in the film, but I don’t recall Gibson promising anyone that degree of slavish faithfulness to those narratives. Having the devil emerge from a crowd of Jews is no more anti-Semitic than Jesus himself telling Jews the devil was their father.

    Martin & I both agree that Gibson’s film is not slavishly faithful to the Gospels; it couldn’t be and be as short a film as it is.

    One very important distinction between Martin’s citation of Jesus telling Jews (in a modern English translation of an ancient text) “You are of your father the devil …” is that these words are a quote from the sacred text of one of the major religions of the world. Several elements of the film, including the depiction of Satan flying in and out of crowds of Jews and/or Romans, have been added to the Biblical narrative by Gibson. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time I checked Gibson’s film was not a sacred text for any religion, rather it’s a work of art made by him to present his beliefs and ideas.

    My concern here is with the creative choices made by the filmmaker and how these choices color the film and its reception. In any film adapted from an earlier text, how the director chooses to deviate from their source material is an important indicator of what the director has to say. This is no more or less true for a movie based on the Bible than it is for a movie based on a novel by Jane Austen or a Marvel comic book. Whenever such a film deviates from the original source text, someone, whether it’s the writer, the director, or whoever, has made a conscious decision to do so.

    Gibson has obviously made a movie that speaks to many people who share at least some (there are doctrinal differences among Christian sects, right?) aspects of his faith. In doing so, however, he has repeated some long standing cliches of anti-Semitic texts and imagery over the centuries. Gibson may have been faithful to the Gospels in his use of some of these items, but in other cases, he has clearly made artistic decisions of what to add to the narrative drawn from the Bible.

    In the months preceding the commercial release of the Passion, there was a lot of discussion and controversy about how Gibson would handle those areas of the Biblical narrative that have in the past sometimes been used to foster anti-Semitic thoughts and actions. Gibson repeatedly stated that he was not an anti-Semite and he would not be making an anti-Semitic movie. Given this context, the fact that he doesn’t seem to have sought any guidance about how he would handle these issues seems at the very least, to use a word that Martin apparently likes a lot, silly, if not downright foolish or naive (others have used words like ignorant, or arrogant).

    In making The Passion of the Christ, Gibson chose to include not only those elements from the Biblical narrative that have in the past been used to defend anti-Semitic behavior, but he chose to add other such elements which are not supported by Biblical texts. It is Gibson’s choices to include this additional material that leave him open to accusations of having made a film that fosters anti-Semiticism.

    I don’t think I can state this any more clearly. Unless someone raises a new issue that’s substantively different from the earlier arguments I’m done with this thread.

  • Martin

    quoth Herb:

    I’m not denying that the Gospels don’t document the presence of Satan elsewhere, but in my memory they do not document his presence among the Jews or Romans surrounding the Passion.

    1. Well, now you’re just changing your tune. Here’s what you said in your first comment:

    In a film so closely taken from the Gospels, what is the source for the presence of Satan, who does not appear in these books of the Bible?

    Which certainly sounds like a claim that Satan doesn’t appear in the Gospels. Your original statement doesn’t specify that you’re looking only for references within Passion narratives. In fact, the phrase “Biblically undocumented character” could suggest that you think Satan doesn’t appear in the Bible at all.

    2. Even if you restrict the inquiry to Passion narratives, the suggestion that Satan doesn’t appear there is still silly. Granted, the character isn’t nearly as prominent in Gospel Passion narratives as in the film, but I don’t recall Gibson promising anyone that degree of slavish faithfulness to those narratives. Having the devil emerge from a crowd of Jews is no more anti-Semitic than Jesus himself telling Jews the devil was their father.

  • Herb Levy

    Joel Buursma wrote (starting with a quote from my original post):

    why are the Jewish high priests some of the only characters who are made up in an largely non-naturalistic manner

    What does this question have to do with charges of anti-Semitism? The Jewish high priests are only a small segment of the Jewish population. If they are singled out for this kind of protrayal, that would seem to undermine anti-Semitism more than support it. These are rulers propped up by a pagan state trying to keep order.

    Also Levi wrote:

    Jesus and his desciples were jewish. So what’s the big deal? Can Gibson not portray a single Jew as bad without being called an anti-semite?

    The issue here isn’t whether Jews can be treated as villains without the work being anti-Semitic, but rather why these characters are made up to look less “naturalistically” than other characters in the film and why this distinctive look strongly echoes the visual stereotypes of Jews used in anti-Semitic texts from the last several centuries. The features of these characters could have been presented in many other ways (including naturalistically while wearing priestly robes and other clothing) to set them off from other Jews in the story without falling back on this particular stereotypically anti-Semitic look.

    Joel Buursma also wrote (again starting with a quote from my original post):

    Why was the scene where a crowd of Jews calls for the blood of Jesus to flow over the heads of their descendents not cut from the film as Gibson claimed it would be, but included simply without a translated subtitle of the crowd’s shouts?

    It was probably included b/c it was mentioned in the gospels. It is one thing to criticize Gibson for the things he added to the Biblical account, but quite another to criticize for things he didn’t remove, don’t you think? The subtitle was probably taken out as a peace-keeping gesture. People today read all sorts of absurd things into that statement. That statement provides NO rational justification for modern-day anti-Semitism, but sadly some people use it in that twisted way.

    This isn’t about whether the statement is contained in one of the Gospels, rather this is a criticism of Gibson for saying that he was going to remove the statement because after some of the initial screenings of the film he knew it would be inflammatory for the very people you decry. By simply removing the English subtitle rather than removing the line from the film itself for the American (& I assume, but don’t know, the edition presented in other English-speaking countries), it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the remaining text has been subtitled in editions of the film presented in other countries where anti-Semitism is more of a pervasive problem.

    Martin wrote:

    As for the charge that Satan is “Biblically undocumented,” that’s just silly.

    I’m not denying that the Gospels don’t document the presence of Satan elsewhere, but in my memory they do not document his presence among the Jews or Romans surrounding the Passion.

    Peter T Chattaway’s point about the character of Simon of Cyrene being non-anti-Semitic in the film in contrast to his role in the non-Biblical source texts only makes mer wonder more what Gibson’s overall vision was/is. If, as there seems to be, times when Gibson diverted from the Gospels as written in ways that are both more and less anti-Semitic than his sources (both Gospel and otherwise), what was his central focus for the film?

    And, FWIW, the opening of my original questions weren’t just rhetorical. I really am interested in knowing whether Rob Reiner added anti-Christian elements to the films that Peter Chattaway listed or if he simply took them over from the original sources.

  • Levi

    Jesus and his desciples were jewish. So what’s the big deal? Can Gibson not portray a single Jew as bad without being called an anti-semite?

  • Joel Buursma

    Yes, I think the Simon portrayal is one of the significant anti-anti-Semitic parts of the movie. This really stood out to me when seeing the movie, b/c it diverges from the Biblical account. Now I find out that it also diverges from Emmerich’s writings as well. How is this consistent with Gibson being anti-Semitic? So, clearly, this claim is false:

    Why in such a movie do so many of the additional details, those not to be found in the Bible, so consistently present a negative image of Jews?

    However, I don’t have an answer for this criticism:

    why does this portrayal [of the Jewish high priests] so closely correspond with the portrayal of Jews in anti-Semitic illustrations throughout European history?

    This may well be valid.

    Also valid, I think, are claims that Gibson could have done even more to undermine anti-Semitic interpretations. Sadly, at the time when he was making artistic decisions, he was getting flamed rather than getting constructive criticism (i.e., “your project is fundamentally flawed” not “you need to tweak these things”). Maybe he should have asked evangelical scholars. I’ll bet he would have found their input more helpful.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Incidentally, in the visions of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, which were a major influence on this film — arguably an even bigger influence than the gospels — Simon of Cyrene is explicitly described as a “pagan” who, around the time that Jesus falls to the ground and encounters Veronica, protests against the “cruelty” of the Pharisees. But in the film, Simon of Cyrene is very explicitly described as a “Jew”, and it is the brutality of the pagan Romans that he protests against!

    So, let us not make too much of the anti-Semitism in Mel Gibson’s source materials. Yeah, it’s there. But that doesn’t mean Mel automatically carried it all over into his film. In some cases, he explicitly removed the anti-Semitism.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Satan also appears lurking behind or among the Romans, during the scourging.

  • Martin

    Why is this Biblically undocumented figure often depicted as coming from or returning to crowds of Jews?

    Er, because that’s who makes up the crowds in the film. If the film were set in the Philippines, we should hardly be surprised to discover this figure coming from or returning to crowds of Filipinos.

    As for the charge that Satan is “Biblically undocumented,” that’s just silly.

  • Joel Buursma

    Interesting points, Herb, and worth grappling with. I can give my “amatuer hack” opinions:

    why are the Jewish high priests some of the only characters who are made up in an largely non-naturalistic manner

    What does this question have to do with charges of anti-Semitism? The Jewish high priests are only a small segment of the Jewish population. If they are singled out for this kind of protrayal, that would seem to undermine anti-Semitism more than support it. These are rulers propped up by a pagan state trying to keep order.

    Why is this Biblically undocumented figure often depicted as coming from or returning to crowds of Jews?

    This is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

    Why was the scene where a crowd of Jews calls for the blood of Jesus to flow over the heads of their descendents not cut from the film as Gibson claimed it would be, but included simply without a translated subtitle of the crowd’s shouts?

    It was probably included b/c it was mentioned in the gospels. It is one thing to criticize Gibson for the things he added to the Biblical account, but quite another to criticize for things he didn’t remove, don’t you think? The subtitle was probably taken out as a peace-keeping gesture. People today read all sorts of absurd things into that statement. That statement provides NO rational justification for modern-day anti-Semitism, but sadly some people use it in that twisted way.

    It’s pretty hard to get away from the conflict between Jesus & his disciples and the Jewish leaders of that time. However, it is quite another matter to generalize from that conflict that ALL Jews TODAY should be mistreated as a result. Such a leap is absurd and unbiblical.

  • Herb Levy

    Chattaway makes a strong point, particularly in terms of Ghosts of Mississippi, where he had access to one of the people on whom the film was based. I don’t know the sources of the other films he cites here. Is the anti-Christian sensibility that Chattaway locates in these films also found in the original sources for Misery (King’s book) and/or A Few Good Men (Sorkin’s play) or was it added by Reiner?

    While you’re considering that question, which I don’t know the answer to, let me ask another, similar question, which is at the root of the complaints of anti-Semitism in Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ: Why are so many of the sources or the elements of his film that are not found in the Gospels, so consistently rooted in historic anti-Semitic sources?

    This is a film that tries very hard, and often succeeds, at presenting a realistic portrayal of what is described in the Bible, such as the scourging of Christ’s body, what crucification would really involve, etc.

    This is a film that for the most part avoids the cliches of earlier Cross and sandal films, in which there is a tremendous degree of attention to naturalistic acting and make up, which uses languages of the time rather than having actors speak in English, etc.

    Why in such a movie do so many of the additional details, those not to be found in the Bible, so consistently present a negative image of Jews? If they are simply Gibson’s asrtistic vision, why do so many of these details seem to come from the heretical, and anti-Semetic writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich.

    In a film that, rightly, prides itself on the naturalistic and historic accuracy of many of its visual details, why are the Jewish high priests some of the only characters who are made up in an largely non-naturalistic manner, and why does this portrayal so closely correspond with the portrayal of Jews in anti-Semitic illustrations throughout European history?

    In a film so closely taken from the Gospels, what is the source for the presence of Satan, who does not appear in these books of the Bible? Why is this Biblically undocumented figure often depicted as coming from or returning to crowds of Jews?

    Prior to its release, Gibson described some changes he was making after the first screenings of early cuts of the film. Why was the scene where a crowd of Jews calls for the blood of Jesus to flow over the heads of their descendents not cut from the film as Gibson claimed it would be, but included simply without a translated subtitle of the crowd’s shouts?

    A consideration of these issues can’t simply be a matter of whether or not the film as a whole confirms your own beliefs. That’s a given, but not enough to excuse writers who make their livelihoods as critical thinkers from looking at the details as well as the whole.

    Any critical thinker looking at the film must ask what is the purpose of the elements that are not from the Gospels? What function do they serve?

    If your answer is that these added details are not anti-Semitic, as critics you have to come up with another explanation for their inclusion in a film that is otherwise so close to the text and historical context of the Biblical sources.

    What is the artistic vision behind these choices and how does it differ from the anti-Semitic documents that it seems to consistently draw on?

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Thanks for the link!

    Contact (1997) was actually directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose other films include The Polar Express (2004), Forrest Gump (1994) and the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990).

    FWIW, when I refer to the anti-Christian elements in Reiner’s films, I’m thinking of stuff like Kathy Bates’s psycho murderer in Misery (1990), Kiefer Sutherland’s “God was watching” murderer in A Few Good Men (1992), and James Woods’s religious racist murderer in Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) — a film that pretty much completely eliminates the real-life faith of Bobby DeLaughter, the Alec Baldwin character. (I interviewed DeLaughter at the time, and he said he wished the film had made more of an effort to explore the role that faith played in those events; one version of that interview, which doesn’t touch on that angle quite so much, is on page 4 of this PDF file.)

  • sg

    Aside from that glaring omission…

    I loved this book AND I read it as an adult. Such a great story and I can see it as an amazing movie as well.

    My junior high kids who like to read really enjoy it (it keeps getting stolen from class library).

  • J. Caution

    Hey, you forgot to mention how bad “The DaVinci Code” is in this post.


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