We talk a lot about storytelling here.
Of course we do. We’re geeks, and as such we base ourselves on the mythologies we’ve crafted for ourselves. From the Legend of Zelda to Mad Max to Harry Potter, we look at the icons around us and use them to understand ourselves and our actions, and to force change when needed.
In this, we’re no different than anyone else. In olden times, it was tales of Gods or other exemplars of whatever societal virtues ruled in that particular day. With the population growth of the past two hundred years, however, society is changing at such a rapid pace that the wisdom and stories of yesteryear fall flat, even without the historical context that give those stories meaning.
Which is part of the problem – given how quickly this world and our perception is changing, we need mythologies that are changing, adaptable, and fluid. That isn’t nearly as problematic as one might think, as the best sorts of stories can change without losing their essential meaning. It’s why movies like the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt can literally be different iterations about the same events while still, individually, ringing true.
It’s also why Exodus – Of Gods and Kings was such a colossal failure.
We’re going to start with one disclaimer: we are not, in any way, arguing the veracity of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qu’ran, or any of the texts that came from them. This essay has no interest in that whatsoever (the author, on the other hand, loves that sort of debate). This essay is talking about the story structure of the Book of Exodus, which is the second book in the Old Testament, and its modern cinematic adaptations. That’s it.
All kosher? Everyone understand? Good. Let’s get into this.
The Old Testament is one of the most impressive stories ever written. The two bestselling spin-off books – the New Testament and the Qu’ran – have influenced the entirety of western thought, and have helped shape the norms of the modern world. The lessons contained therein are considered axiomatic and culturally informing, even when people don’t necessarily understand the source material.
Exodus – Of Gods and Kings doesn’t understand the source material. It’s not just a bad movie, narratively speaking, it also misses entirely the point of the story it’s purporting to tell. The core of the Exodus tale is about God taking a stand against a nation, a deity moving into and battling an entrenched mortal power structure to free a disenfranchised people.
The Hebrews of the Old Testament have lost faith and have no power or strength from which to fight. They refuse to believe that they might be delivered, at least at first, and they doubt their God and the Prophet he’s sent. Moses is protected mostly by circumstance, but there’s powerful themes running throughout the story, of family and duty and faith, and that’s one of the reasons it resonates so powerfully.
Moses doubts God. He’s terrified of returning to the land of his birth, the place where he was a prince and is now wanted for murder. It’s only a brother’s love that protects him from punishment, and it’s that same brother’s love that allows him to act as God’s agent.
And, truly, that’s what Moses is: God’s agent. He has no power himself, and generally shies away from conflict. That’s one of the prime differences between the Exodus tale and every other mythology – the chosen people are slaves and don’t believe they can be anything else, and it takes God showing up and literally freeing them from the bondage of Egypt to rekindle their faith.
Both the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt get this. The Hebrews never pick up swords, never attempt to defend themselves because they know they can’t. The Egyptians kill their children and the Hebrews know they are powerless to stop this. It is only through the advent of God that the Hebrews escape and return to the land of their ancestors. There’s no desire for vengeance, no conquering of those that enslaved them; the plagues the Egyptians suffer happen because of their own hubris, and if they had acted in good faith they would have suffered no more.
Exodus – Of Gods and Kings has Moses leading an armed revolt. It’s standard popcorn fare without any sort of depth or dignity, a growling macho bullshit fable that tries to undo the grandeur of the text by using character names and applying standard action movie caricatures to a story that is so much more than that and chafes at the restriction.
We see this a lot in modern cinema, characters that are suited for one sort of story shoe-horned and stitched into other stories because someone doesn’t understand what the actual story is about, or is being willfully ignorant as to what the story is about.
See, stories are often made to fit the criteria or needs of the culture that are telling them. America is currently considering another war in the Middle East, to the extent that the politicians that are running for president in the 2016 election are already being quizzed as to whether or not they’d be willing to bomb countries in that region for, well, a variety of reasons that boil down to “we want your oil.”
Exodus – Of Gods and Kings features an American Moses going to do battle with savages in the Middle-East. It lacks any of thematic elements of family, duty, and faith in favor of crass imperialism. It’s why we’re also getting movies like American Sniper, which runs so close to parody that one would think it was taken and re-purposed from a much better movie.
And Exodus – Of Gods and Kings bombed at both the domestic and worldwide box offices. The people that made this movie thought it would be a big hit, and still don’t understand why the movie didn’t do well. The answer is simple: anyone familiar with the story knows, on an instinctive level, that this retelling of it is wrong.
In the coming weeks, we’re going to be looking at the basic building blocks of storytelling and what makes a quality story – what we’re looking for when we discuss good and bad narrative. We’re doing this because we want more Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypts and less Exodus – Of Gods and Kings. If we’re going to demand good stories, the least we can do is define what we’re demanding.
And, hey, we’re here to help people give us what we want.