Has The Greatest Story Ever Told ever been remade, rebooted or turned into a series of sequels? That question doesn’t refer directly to the 1965 George Stevens epic, which was a a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ from his birth to the Resurrection, starring Max von Sydow as Jesus, but more to the narrative itself, from the most widely read book in the history of Mankind. As the central figure of the New Testament, Jesus is far more than a religious presence; he is a cultural icon, known and referenced with reverence far beyond the world-wide community of believers.
It is curious, though, that as society has anxiously awaited his return, especially in our modern narrative age, we have refrained from speculating as to what manner of man Jesus would be today and how would he respond to life in the New Millennium. The Rapture and the Left Behind series, notwithstanding, The Greatest Story Ever Told stands as too imposing a creative monolith. It is, after all, Gospel?
Controversial author James Frey’s forthcoming novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, dares to do just that. Promoting the book on his website, Frey explains: “My goal was not to retell the story of Christ. That has been done, and done well. My goal was to create a new mythology. One that is relevant in a world with nuclear weapons, advanced physics, the internet, genetic testing and manipulation, one where we know homosexuality is not a decision. My goal was to create a mythology, to tell a story, to make a work of art that made sense in a world where we know things that people, and writers, 2000 years ago could never have known or imagined.”
What better time, it would seem, to explore the life of God as Man? Our heroes are darker, more conflicted beings, grappling with ethical quandaries and the nature of morality.
This isn’t to say that Jesus hasn’t already inspired filmmakers. In signature examples, like The Terminator franchise and The Matrix Trilogy, the messiah looms in the future, he is still to come and he is a rebel fighter, no longer ready and willing to turn the other cheek.
James Cameron, in the first two Terminator films, established his own old and new testaments for his JC (John Connor). In the old (The Terminator), Connor’s mysterious (temporally improbable) conception occurs and we are granted through prophecy a glimpse of his position and meaning as a savior. By T2, JC lives, and it is not the story of his birth that matters but his early years, his development in the potentially shifting world that takes center stage. He is abandoned and then reconnected to his mother by a mechanized father figure initially sent to “terminate” his mother. His world and our future is one of machines and war, and none of the subsequent films have deviated from that mold, giving us a vision of JC as a warrior (which was what was expected of him the first time around).
The Wachowski Brothers, on the surface, followed a similar path. Cyber hacker extraordinaire Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) wanders blindly through the world until he is shown “the way, the truth and the light” of man’s enslavement to machines and told of his prophetic role in human liberation. He becomes Neo, the One, battles, dies and is reborn before eventually making a final sacrifice to save both humans and machines from a greater threat.
Yet something intriguing and profound happens during the final installments (Reloaded and Revolution) of the trilogy; a subtext develops rooted in the power of love. As the stakes get higher in the battle, love becomes the driving force. Love of all mankind spurs most traditional saviors to act, but here the romantic love shared by Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — and mirrored in several key supporting character relationships — sets Neo on the path to his ultimate sacrifice.
“If Jesus was alive today,” Me’Shell Ndegeocello sang on the track “God.Fear.Money” from the 2002 release Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, “he’d be incarcerated with the rest of the brothas, while the Devil would have a great apartment on the Upper East Side and be a guest VJ on Total Request Live.”
That’s the sociopolitical take on the
notion of WWJD, but for those unwilling to consider the human side of
Jesus (or whatever name he might answer to), why not explore the lover
rather than the fighter? Let the message of love rule and maybe allow it
to offer a truer reflection of the next potentially great chapter of