An epic adaptation
No one would argue against this being the era of “epic,” both in terms of budget and cast as well as the nature of the narrative. Films such as Avatar, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Interstellar prove that right now audiences are transfixed by the grandeur of movies that pit the forces of good versus those of evil or the opportunity to feel the triumph of the human spirit over perceived insurmountable odds. We want not to be simply told a story, but to be immersed in a new culture; to experience the surreal vistas, and to feel we must exit the theatre as though we are returning from some other-worldly experience like stepping back through a magical wardrobe. There are only so many original versions of these stories, however, so movie producers are turning to the one text rife with stories so immense and timeless that civilization itself is built upon them: the Bible. The latest film to be inspired by scripture, following on the heels of another Genesis tale, Noah, is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Here we are treated to the familiar story of Moses being raised as an Egyptian royal, banished, and then returning as Yahweh’s spokesman to bring freedom to the enslaved Israelites.
In Scott’s cinematic version of Exodus: Gods and Kings a prevailing question for Christian viewers will be: How faithful is this movie going to be to what I remember of Moses? In order to address this question accurately I devised the very scientific plan to watch the film and then go home and read the Bible – shocking strategy, I know. Without being a theologian, it is simple enough to spot the use of artistic license. Moses’ role in the royal family is never described in the Bible, as it apparently has little bearing on the narrative of God redeeming his people. In the film, much is made of Moses’ military prowess and position as a general in the Egyptian army. Played by Christian Bale, Moses takes an active role in several thrilling action scenes involving swinging swords, charging cavalries and glistening muscles. Moses with machismo. While I find the mystery of Moses’ upbringing and training an intriguing aspect of his being chosen by God, many will be quick to argue Moses was no warrior. Another area of pure invention is the Resistance-like insurgency led by Moses against the Egyptian capital, including flaming arrows and a burning Reichstag. While the Nazi and Holocaust imagery makes some imaginative sense in connection with the oppression of the Jewish people, the inclusion of it without adequate thoroughness feels crass.
How did the film deal with God? Surprisingly, Ridley Scott allows Yahweh the equal parts mystery and majesty God himself reveals to Moses and the Israelites throughout the Exodus. In the film, God speaks through the mouth of a child, but the miraculous signs of the plagues are devastating and awe-inspiring – more terrible than Sunday School could ever convey. Moses struggles with the level of calamity that befalls Pharaoh and Egypt, at once questioning the means to freedom and learning to value the actual cost of human life. One issue inherent with the film is the absence of ongoing dialogue between Pharaoh, who is the embodied deity of the Egyptians, and Moses, the mouthpiece of God. Without this dynamic, God’s signs and wonders are indeed plagues without purpose or remorse inflicted strictly as punishment for Israel’s treatment at the hands of Egypt and not, as my NIV Study Bible elucidates, a pointed rebuttal of Egypt’s pantheon and faith in their human king.
As an epic film, Exodus: Gods and Kings delivers the stunning visuals and larger- than-life characters we all expect from such fare. As an adaptation of God’s word there is much to be appreciated and much with which one could take issue. I never expected the film to be an exact word-for-word transcript of the book of Exodus, nor did I hope for such a movie. When I returned from the theatre and began actually reading Scripture (plus my Study Bible footnotes) I was struck again by how wonderfully fraught is God’s word. Fraught with power. Fraught with context. Fraught with the loving promise of the presence of Yahweh and the foreshadowing of true freedom from slavery as realized in Christ. Can you expect a Hollywood film to faithfully include every meaningful detail of the universal redemption story? Of course not. I only hope that as movie producers and directors troll through the Bible for material ever more of the faithful will be drawn to God’s own true version of the epic. One story. All of history. We may need to wait for that one on Blu-Ray director’s cut.