EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesus & Dawkins welcomes guest posts. Today’s entry comes from Darin Miller, who works in communications in Washington, D.C. He’s written reviews for Breitbart.com, The Daily Caller and MyDVDInsider.com. For a trailer of the movie, and some thoughts on the historicity of the Exodus, click here.
Hollywood’s track record with book adaptations is mixed at best. In the Golden Age, screenwriters and directors seemed content to adapt books as accurately as possible for the silver screen. The Maltese Falcon is a notable example.
Another is the beloved Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. With minor exceptions, the Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner movie hits the major biblical plot points.
In recent years, writers and directors have determined that riffing off books, updating them, is the better artistic course to pursue—and audiences have been left wondering how anyone managed to ruin such good stories. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule—Silver Linings Playbook is a great example of a story that improved on the journey from bookshelf to theater. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is another.
Scott’s latest, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is sadly not. His revisionist saga, much like his 2010 Robin Hood, assumes that audiences who want the classic story will just watch the classics.
In broad strokes, Exodus follows the ancient text: Moses (Christian Bale), prince of Egypt, learns that he’s actually the son of Hebrew slaves. He kills an Egyptian (or two), leaves Egypt, and winds up in Midian. There, he marries and shepherds flocks for somewhere between a few and 40 years. At some point, God meets Moses via a burning bush, and commands him to go back to Egypt and rescue his brothers in bondage.
That’s where Exodus notably diverges. God meets Moses—as a British child (Isaac Andrews) who spouts vengeance while sipping Earl Grey. There’s a burning bush, but, like God himself, we don’t know whether it’s a Beautiful Mind moment or actually happening.
Then there’s Moses himself. Instead of waiting for God’s instructions, he becomes a radicalized freedom fighter, turning a handful of slaves into guerrilla soldiers. He gets angry with God and doubts often.
He’s juxtaposed against Ramses (Joel Edgerton), the only other character of note in the movie. He is the megalomaniacal product of an unloving father whose god complex is fed by his kingship. But Ramses isn’t developed as well as Moses; neither character approaches the sibling rivalry or stage presence that Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner brought to their roles.
Plot changes aside, the film’s low point is the poorly written dialogue and bad acting between Moses and his wife—especially given the talent of the actors, director, and the original source material.
Despite its flaws, Scott’s mastery of epic visuals is on full display. If you can remember that it’s a movie first, and not the book of Exodus, then the sweeping imagery is quite enjoyable, and the stunningly horrific plagues that hit Egypt, along with a pretty spectacular Red Sea showdown, are beyond anything DeMille could have imagined.
The miraculous splendor unfolds, however, in ways that make you question whether it’s God’s work or not. This picture of God and faith—do we choose to see the Lord at work in our lives, or chalk events up to luck and indigestion—is what will cause audiences to struggle the most with the movie. Such a theme may speak to today’s audiences, but it’s not the way Moses experienced God in the Bible.
Ultimately, Scott does what Scott always does: delivers beauty and ugliness on an epic scale. If that’s your cup of tea, just pretend that Exodus isn’t the remake of a beloved classic by one of Hollywood’s most storied directors, and that it’s not based on the most-read book of all time. Or just watch the DeMille version—like the book, it’s better.