Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.

Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.

Dreams of Equality

Shortly after my wife and I married, over twenty years ago, while living in Scotland we needed cheap entertainment. Growing up one of my chores had been washing the dishes. I continued this calling all through college, working in the dishroom to pay my way through. My wife was pleased with this trait and offered to read to me while I scrubbed away. This was our cheap entertainment, but now, after more than twenty years of the practice, we have read over 100 books together. Last night the book we finished was Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13. Most Americans do not realize that during the space race, thirteen women received non-official tests to qualify as astronauts, many of the tests more extreme than those undertaken by the Mercury 7 crew. Because of social prejudices of the 1950s and ‘60s, the women were never given the opportunity to actually achieve space flight.

Apart from the moving account of how these women strove for the stars, this account also chronicles a social prejudice that remains today. Ackmann reveals that during the ‘50s and ‘60s, scientists and physicians had never really taken an interest in women’s physiology. They were, in this McCarthyian era, considered to be an inferior version of males, the dominant social gender. Although the Mercury 13 were accomplished pilots – some with more flight hours than the chosen astronauts – many political and military decision-makers feared that social fabric would fray should women prove as adept as men. It wasn’t until 1983 that an American woman was allowed to enter space.

Here in the 21st century, many religions throughout the world still staunchly hold to the myth of female inferiority. In a monotheistic worldview where non-gendered deities need not apply, one sex will always be somehow less god-like than the other. In a world where men still pay women less, they are reminded daily that God is a white man and that the mythology declares man was created first. Religion is as often used to repress as it is to liberate. The women who sacrificed careers without personal reward to demonstrate that space belongs not only to men deserve our gratitude. And even that old white man, sitting up there beyond the dome that surrounds our flat earth, must be smiling.

Hanny’s Voorwerp Factor 5

Staring at the mysterious green blob of Hanny’s Voorwerp, it’s hard not to imagine being Captain Kirk sitting cantilevered forward in that famous chair on the bridge of the Enterprise. Even for those of us who are not Trekkies, the giant space nebula looms between galaxies where no one expected stars to be born. Their own private intergalactic nursery. With my mind already on Star Trek, I think of the web-page sent to me by one of my winter term students at Rutgers: the Memory-Alpha Bible page. Since my loyalty to Star Trek only reaches as far as the occasional viewing of an episode for light relief – and only from the original series at that – I had no idea that the Memory-Alpha wiki had bloomed into existence like Hanny’s Voorwerp itself. This wiki dedicated to everything Star Trek has 32-and-a-half-thousand pages on every angle of creator Gene Roddenberry’s unintentional universe.

The Bible page’s first paragraph (accessed 1/12/11, sometime around 7 a.m. EDT) reads: “The Bible is a collection of ancient Earth writings usually bound together as a book. The Christian Bible is divided into the Old and New Testaments; however, other translations and versions exist and vary by faith groups. It is among these faith groups that the Bible is considered a sacred text, which is generally viewed as having been inspired by one of the Human gods.” Someone takes his/her future, wiki-writing persona very seriously. Nevertheless, it is a perspective that could be helpful in handling a Bible that has grown politically powerful without being understood here in the paltry twenty-first century.

The page also lists all of the episodes where the Bible is referenced or alluded to in Star Trek. As my student pointed out, almost all of these references (in the original series) are to the Hebrew Bible, with very few being from the Christian Scriptures. This makes sense, given the context of the 1960s when McCarthy’s aroma still hung heavily in the air and the war in Vietnam was daily in the newspapers. To offer up television fare that might have been considered “unchristian” in any way was a faux pas in such tortured times. The Hebrew Bible is great for providing allusions to paradise and apocalypse, but the words of Jesus were taken with a solemnity far too great to allow for fictional space explorers’ banter. So maybe it’s just an accident of astronomy that the amorphous, green cloud of Hanny’s Voorwerp appears to be wearing a galactic halo.

Hanny's Voorwerp on NASA-view

Under G-d

In one of the great showcases of civil religion, the Pledge of Allegiance is again in the news for its brash statement, “under God.” Lawsuits have been introduced in California to try to label the statement as unconstitutional – state supported religion, a declaration that the United States is a theistic country. Even as a child, a religious child, no less, I was vaguely disturbed by the Pledge. I am a sentimentally patriotic American, and I begrudge no one that natural feeling of pride in their heritage. We all come from somewhere, and we like to think the best of ourselves, and therefore our forebears. I’ve tried to trace my ancestry and find that with a sole exception on a great, great-grandparent’s exodus from Germany that my roots are hopelessly lost in long generations of northern European expatriates that have been on these shores for well over a century and a half. Some even more. And yet, to pledge allegiance to a flag? As a student of religion, I understand the value of symbols, but I always felt that a hand over the heart while addressing a banner was a little like idolatry.

Well, I’ve grown up since then. I spent three years abroad, and returned with a renewed appreciation of how much this country has to offer. I’m still a little puzzled by the “under God” bit, however. Sure, America’s founders were generally deists (not Christian by any recognizable stretch of the definition), and since God is assumed, why not add him to the books? But God was only added to the pledge in 1954. In the heat of McCarthyism it seemed important to fly our “anti-communist,” theistic colors high for all to see. And yet, we never define who “God” is.

The God of the Bible has a name. Every semester I find students that have difficulty grasping the idea that “God” is not the name of a deity – it is only a generic title. It could be anybody divine. Shiva, Zeus, or even Baal. In the written work of many of my students from the Jewish tradition, the reverence accorded to the deity’s personal name has been transferred to this innocuous title. In essays and papers I frequently find reference to “G-d,” as if the Torah commands never to make reference to deity at all. So, out of reverence to the same divinity we have some citizens leaving out the lonely vowel of a one-syllable deity while others loudly proclaim that he (never “she”) must be kept in the little bit of civil religion we impress on our public school children. We don’t agree, as a nation, on who “God” is. Reading the rantings of the Religious Right with their tea parties and Conservapedias, I’m sure that this is not the G-d of the Bible. What does it mean to be a nation under a deity we don’t recognize?