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A Serious Man & The Greatest Story Never Told By Hollywood
Jeremy Allen , December 11th, 2009 08:28

The Coen brothers might have taken the Book of Job as the inspiration for their latest work but, asks Jeremy Allen, why does the Bible not inspire more filmmakers?

The Coen brothers' new film is loosely based on what is purportedly the oldest book in the Bible, according to scholars who know about these things. Not only is the Book of Job very old, it also throws up an intractable conundrum for those who believe God is loving and merciful. While your average reactionary zealot can easily justify his holiness flambéing entire cities of filthy sodomites and transgressors, to turn on one of his own is surely testing the credulity of a benign and infallible deity. Rather than stick rigidly to the story, which let's face it would be fairly bleak were it a faithful rendition, the Coens have instead chosen to focus on the fact God moves in mysterious ways, and they do it deftly and with comic precision, never being either reverent or irreverent. While the attention to religious detail is stringent in A Serious Man, presumably drawing much from their own experience, they achieve making a religion-based film without it being necessarily religious. Or at least it never preaches, like say Mel Gibson's crucifixion porn from a few years ago.

As Monty Python celebrates the 30th anniversary release of Life of Brian, it's interesting to consider the dearth of movies that have actually been based on the bible in that time, especially considering the book is often called the greatest story ever told (although in truth it is a compendium of 66 books written over thousands of years, some of them stories, some of them epistles, many of them lasting a couple of pages and carrying no narrative).

The Passion of the Christ spawned a whole industry of highly successful Christian movies, but none of these crossed over to the secular market. We all know Charlton Heston played Moses in the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, but did you know there was a remake in 2007 staring Christian Slater as the bearded father of all the prophets, with Elliot Gould as the voice of God? Because I didn't. If the Bible is still relevant today, then how come so few filmmakers are willing to take a punt on recreating the myriad of tales from its pages in a way that will appeal to religious and secular audiences? The Book of Revelation for instance, has informed art and permeated the consciousness of Western civilization for many millennia, and yet a rendition in cinematic form would surely be unfilmable. Perhaps these stories are just too esoteric and strange to translate to the simplistic and ultimately unrealistic remit of feelgood Hollywood.

There can be no story more bizarre and difficult that The Book of Job, however, and therefore congratulations are in order. A brief recap...

Job 1:1 tells us that Job of Uz is 'blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil'. So confident in Job is God that he allows Satan to systematically destroy his family, livestock, wealth and friends while afflicting him with hideous boils in order to prove his loyalty. In the face of these tribulations, God is certain the world's most righteous man will not capitulate (God is omniscient after all, which could be construed as cheating), while Satan suggests his virtue is simply the result of the "hedge" God has surrounded him with as protection.

So far so miserable, and really things don't lighten up until the very end, when Job, a broken man, remains steadfast, and God bestows on him gifts that would probably feel to most folk like flowers hastily bought at a garage the morning after somebody's wet the bed.

Cunningly Joel and Ethan update the story, setting it at the end of 1960s, touching on flower power and the sexual revolution, though based as it is around a devout Jewish family, the characters in the film remain largely untouched by the changing times, or at least the adult characters anyway. Thankfully the Coen brothers also eschew the hastily cobbled together happy ending of the scripture to leave us asking more questions than we started with.

In the book, Job lives to a ripe old age of 140 thanks to the Lord's grace, which trounces modern day mortality records even with the improved benefits of science, though Job wasn't the oldest man in the Bible by a long stretch of the imagination. Enoch (or Epoch to his mates) lived to be a ripe old 340, though he was a spring chicken compared to Jared, who managed to dodge his coffin a tremendous 962 years. Yet even he didn't manage to hang in there as long as Methuselah, who must have thought he was the man death forgot when he cashed in his chips at 969 years.

So where are the modern movies based on these venerable gents? Or even the most recognisable stories from the Bible. Jesus even? Alejandro Jodorowsky was a filmmaker heavily influenced by the redemption of the New Testament and the blood and thunder of the Old. El Topo for instance, draws on the centrality and deity of Jesus (interestingly he cast himself in the lead role) while adopting the apocalyptic madness of Revelation and the vengeful, vindictiveness of Jehovah promulgated by the prophets. But his work was informed by rather than directly influenced by the good book, and that movie was made nearly 40 years ago. Modern day pictures such as Antichrist challenge religious themes and question the role of women in society, but again the underlying ideas are covert rather than implicit to the understanding of the story (if there is indeed any possibility of understanding what Lars Von Trier is going on about).

Song of Solomon, in which the object of the writer's obsession is said to have "two breasts like two fawns, twins of a gazelle,that feed among the lilies," would surely be a good place to start for someone like Paul Verhoeven. And who wouldn't like to see Darren Aranofsky retelling of the story of Paul, the fascist Apostle? Indeed there is a wealth of great fiction untapped by Hollywood or the film industry as a whole in the Holy scriptures, but you're unlikely to see any of it brought to a big screen near you any time soon. Dollars in the US carry the insignia 'In God We Trust', but not in Hollywood they don't. The producers there apparently have 'In Money We Trust' emblazoned on their bibles. If God is still in the business of destroying cities, then surely Hollywood would make for a fine new Babylon.