Film of the book: ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988)

Directed by Martin Scorsese with a screenplay by Paul Schrader, this controversial and rather stylish film is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ epic The Last Temptation, first published in 1955. The story is about the life of Jesus, his struggles between his spiritual destiny and his longing to be an ordinary man. I’m sure that many people have written excellent analyses of both the book and film, so I’m merely going to point out some differences which are significant from my point of view, but don’t take it as gospel (so to speak!) – nor am I going to be comparing them to the religious texts they are inspired by.

I think this adaptation is very well done, considering that the book is so lengthy and has a lot of dialogue. As with many adaptations of complex books, it’s been reduced to the basics to get the messages of the story across. It was filmed on location in Morocco with a cast including Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas and Barbara Hershey as Magdalene. Dafoe, while he looks a bit too Western for the role, was very believable as a tormented soul right from the beginning. The author died thirty years before the film was made, but I wonder what he would have thought of the casting and indeed, perhaps he would be amazed that the book which caused him so much trouble had become a Hollywood box office smash. One of the best things about the film is the award-winning score by Peter Gabriel and I enjoyed the mentions of the various authentic instruments and musicians in the credits.

Some of the characters are somewhat changed, or even absent. Zebedee, for example, occupies a lot of space in the book but very little in the film, while there is no mention of Barabbas or Simon the Cyrenian. Pilate, played by David Bowie, is a bit more sympathetic than in the book. Jesus’ parents diverge, with Mary being given more space in the film for her emotions to be explored, while Joseph, who in the book has been paralysed, is edited out of the story. Lazarus, who in the book is difficult to kill because he was raised by a miracle, is dispatched in a rather spooky and gruesome manner, while in the film the zealots easily slide a knife into him before he even realises what is happening. There is a further increased role for Judas, who has the most influence in bringing Jesus back to reality during the last temptation, even spelling it out to him that that the angel is Satan. A very striking scene earlier in the film is Jesus literally reaching inside his chest, pulling his heart out and offering it to his disciples, a portrayal of the Sacred Heart. Although this isn’t in the book, it’s true to Kazantzakis’ style, which has metaphors made literal, seeing flames and wings everywhere.

The last temptation is a relatively small section at the end of the book, but occupies a larger portion of the film and is done in a more mysterious manner. It begins with everything going silent, which is very unnerving but effective. A major difference is the fate of Mary Magdalene, who instead of being murdered, appears to have died in childbirth, smiling into a bright white light. Jesus is plunged into grief at her loss, while in the book he is more bewildered than sad. In the book, the ‘angel’ who rescues him from the cross transforms into a negro servant boy, who will be more readily accepted into Martha and Mary’s household. The angel in the film is an adolescent girl, who is kinder towards him, even kissing his wounds after she pulls out the nails, but she is so well-spoken and gentle that it’s quite creepy. The very end of the film is interesting when compared to the book. Once Jesus has died, the dirge is heard and then bright colours flash and blur across the screen as if the film is running out. The end music resembles a peal of bells. Notably there is no suggestion of resurrection, unless we are to interpret that from the music. In the book, the ending suggests that everything is just beginning. I think that the book comes across as the work of a believer, while the film seems to be the work of an agnostic.

Low-resolution image sourced from Wikipedia.

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