Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Revelation: the movie

The Apocalypse is the most cinematic book of the Bible. Thanks to advances in CGI, it's now possible to film Revelation. Do a cinematic adaptation. 

It's useful to play director. A useful mental exercise because a director must visualize what he's going to film. He has to make many interpretive judgment calls. So a director is like a commentator, only in the case of book like Revelation, the material lends itself to the cinematic imagination. So even though the average reader isn't going to turn Revelation into a feature-length film, it's a good interpretive exercise. 

1. Plot

Premils typically think Revelation has a linear plot, at least from 4-22. Modern-day amils typically think Revelation has a largely recursive plot, although it straightens out towards the end for the definitive, end-of-the-world events. 

So should a director film the plot in the original sequence, or rearrange things according to what he thinks is the intended structure? 

I think it best to film the plot as is. Even if it's implicitly recursive to some degree, that's best brought out by a linear storyline. The very linearity provides a point of contrast for when events fold back on themselves. There are stock cinematic conventions for showing flashbacks. 

Also, it's important for the director to avoid taking unnecessary liberties with the sacred text. 

2. Setting

There are several different options. 

i) 1C Roman Empire

If you're a preterist, you think the 1C time and place go together. When it happens and where it happens are synchronized. 

In traditional (Roman) preterism, the 1C Roman Empire is the terminus ad quo while the fall of the Roman Empire (however that's dated) is the terminus ad quem.  

ii) 1C Roman Empire placeholder 

If you're an amil, you might give it a 1C setting but with the proviso that the 1C setting is a stand-in for events throughout church history.  So even though it has a 1C setting, that may refer to later events.

From the standpoint of a movie-viewer, (ii) will be neutral with respect to preterism, amillennialism, or even premillennialism. It would be open to a futuristic perspective, but all the audience would see is the 1C setting. 

iii) Futuristic setting

If you're premil, you might give it a futuristic setting. It would be future in relation to whenever the movie is made. The director will project it further into the future.

The dilemma of a futuristic setting is that futuristic scenarios often become very dated because that's not how the future turns out. 

A futuristic setting requires the director to take greater liberties by devising futuristic counterparts to the stuff in Revelation.

What did John see? We don't know for sure what John saw. On an amil or premil interpretation, did he see future events set in 1C terms, or did he see future events as they actually appear in the future, but narrated them in stock imagery and 1C terms because he lacked the vocabulary or common frame of reference to describe them on their own terms?

The reader doesn't have direct access to John's imagination, so we can't be sure what he saw. But it's best to be conservative. 

3. Genre

i) Literal

i) Allegorical

ii) Historical fiction

iii) Science fiction

iv) Fantasy

By fantasy and science fiction, I don't mean that's the actual genre of the Apocalypse. Rather, I mean that if a director was adapting Revelation to the film medium, would it be appropriate to use the conventions and furniture of science fiction or fantasy to depict the action? Science fiction would provide futuristic analogies for the 1C imagery. 

That raises some interesting theological issues. The danger of a science fiction adaptation is to secularize the material. Especially in "hard science fiction," advanced technology replaces "magic".

However, that can be a false dichotomy. The Christian worldview alternates between miracle and ordinary providence. Science coexists with miracle, answered prayer, and special providence. So these aren't mutually exclusive paradigms.

That said, a fantasy genre might be more suited to Revelation. Again, I don't mean "fantasy" in the sense of fictional. Rather, I mean fantasy is more suited to supernaturalism. 

In addition, the Apocalypse is visionary revelation with a surreal quality, so a fantasy adaptation might be more fitting to the nature of the material. It's not realistic in terms of physics. Rather, the power comes from agents with psychokinetic abilities. Mind over matter. 

I'd add that a director doesn't necessarily have to make exclusive editorial choices. He could shoot some of the same scenes from alternate genres and let the audience decide which is more authentic. 

4. Characters

i) How should a director depict angels? In Scripture, angels have three forms. Sometimes they look indistinguishable from normal human males. At least what you can see of them. Sometimes they're humanoid but luminous. Then you have tetramorphs (cherubim, seraphim). 

And still leaves a lot to be penciled in. Angels simulate human form, but in how much anatomical detail? They don't have the hormones to produce the facial and body hair of adult males, so are they beardless? Presumably they have an ageless appearance. Do they all look like twin brothers? 

What's the ethnicity of angels? I presume they blend to match the people-group they appear to. 

On film, should they appear corporeal, or more like translucent energy fields, viz. a holographic image of a human being? That would emphasize their numinous nature. 

ii) What about Satan? Although Revelation calls him a snake and a dragon, he's not literally reptilian. Perhaps he could have a humanoid appearance with ophidian eyes 

5. Application

We might now consider some specific scenes in Revelation:

Chap. 1 The opening scene is prosaic. A penal colony on Patmos.

i) But it quickly shifts to the overwhelming Christophany, with stars, menorah, and angels. What should Jesus look like? An enhanced image of the Shroud of Turin is one possibility. I'm not vouching for its authenticity, but it's recognizable and looks Jewish. However, this is an incadescent Christophany. So Jesus would have to have a nimbic aura. 

ii) The identity of the angels is a crux. One attractive possibility is to depict them as warrior angels (cherubs) who protect the churches. That would fit the admonitory function of angels on tombstones in ancient Anatolia, which is the setting for the seven churches of Asia Minor:

It's as good a guess as any, and has dramatic appeal. 

Chaps 2-4 Letters to churches 

Rather than have a narrator read the letters aloud, the director should have cameo scenes of what the letters describe. 

Chap 5 Throne room

i) This is a challenge for a director. There's the danger that any cinematic depiction will be a letdown. It can't rise to the necessary expectations. Likewise, there's the danger that depicting the figure on the throne will be irreverent and anticlimactic. 

ii) However, lightning is the primary illumination in the throne room. Lightning both reveals and conceals. You only see glimpses through flashes of lightning. So that simplifies the challenge. In addition, the rainbow is like a screen obscuring the figure on the throne, preserving God's unapproachability. 

iii) Not coincidentally, the gemstones, rainbow, and sea of glass are light-reflective materials. So it's like a kaleidoscopic mirror. 

iv) The sea of glass may be the benign, celestial counterpart to the malign, infernal lake of fire. 

In Revelation there's a certain symmetry between heaven and hell in the use of firelight. But their respective significance is arrestingly divergent. 

v) The lightning from the throne seems to be the primary form of interior illumination for the sky city. 

Chap 6,8 Astronomical and ecological cataclysms 

i) This is what CGI was made for.

ii) Heaven is a sky city or temple containing an inner sanctum. 

Chap 7 Angels restraining four winds

An interesting technical question is how to show angels restraining wind, since wind is ordinarily invisible. A director might show the effect of wind on one side of the angel. The angel extends his hand, like a wall blocking the wind. On one side are bent trees, roiling seas, lowering clouds, and dark turbulent air like a sand storm. On the other side the air is clear, the sea is calm, the grass is still. 

Chap 9 Fiery netherworld hybrid monsters 

Caves and caverns, illuminated by licking, flickering flames, would be a natural setting. 

Chap. 12 Portents and prodigies

In principle, it could show ancient constellations like Virgo, Draco, Serpens, or Hydra. Certainly the imagery trades on that. 

It would, however, make more sense to have a dragon composed of red starlight. He rain down on earth like a meteor shower, then reassemble. Likewise, the woman could originally appear to be a starry mosaic. 

Chap 13 The Beast 

i) The challenge isn't depicting a hybrid sea monster but how to depict it communicating. 

ii) The imagery of the second beast rising from the earth might suggest a ghost rising from the grave (tomb, sepulcher). So the false prophet could be a wraith. Perhaps the damned soul of a sorcerer conjured from the dead. 

Chap 14 The Lamb

i) Should Jesus be shown as a lamb, or as the Redeemer in a garment stained with his paschal blood? 

ii) The winepress is a graphic symbol of salvation and judgment. Should a director depict the symbol or what it symbolizes? Unless the audience is familiar with its significance, the symbol is opaque. 

Chap 16 Sky city (cf. chaps. 6,8)

Chap 17 Whore of Babylon

Since the whore bestride the beast is a symbolic synecdoche of the wicked city and godless world order, should the director show a whore bestride a beast, or something like the red light district of a metropolis with alternating scenes of lavish wealth, poverty, cruel, obscenity, blasphemy, and decadence? 

chap. 19 Rider on white horse 

This resumes the Christophany in Rev 1. Jesus is no longer on Patmos but acting as a warrior king to reclaim the world from the diabolical usurper. 

Chap. 20 Lake of fire

i) The lake of fire might suggest a sea of molten lava. For the original audience it might evoke the nightmarish fate that overtook the ungodly cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Or it might hearken back to the iconic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The body of water is superheated by meteor showers or a submarine volcano. Consider the volcanic eruption spilling into the sea in Rev 8:8-9. 

ii) The image of the sea giving up its dead might suggest skeletons miraculously surfacing and regenerating (Ezk  37) to face the final judgment, for better or worse. 

Chap 21-22 the ski city lands

i) The new Jerusalem is a symmetrical city, fortified on the outside but with a parklike interior (a stream lined with trees of life). 

ii) In the absents of sunlight, the city is not illuminated from the outside or overhead. Rather, it's illuminated by the Shekinah ("glory of God"). But where's the locus of the Shekinah? Is the city illuminated from the inside rather than the outside?

The throne room is illuminated by lightning. Is that equivalent to the Shekinah? Suppose the throne room is at the city center. Suppose it has twelve windows or open doors. Shafts of light beam out of the throne room into courtyards and even through the city gates to the surrounding countryside. 

Or maybe the Shekinah suffuses the city, the way it suffused the tabernacle and temple during their dedication. Unlike lightning, the Shekinah a emits a steadier light. 

In any case, light seems to emanate from the city rather than from exterior light sources (sunlight, moonlight). This might suggest the surrounding countryside, beyond the city gates, is bathed in a well of light. But it may also imply a borderland between light and shade, a perpetual twilight zone, where the radiance of the city doesn't reach. Where the pool of light is swallowed by shadowy valleys or obstructed by mountain ranges facing away from the city. 

Of course, that may go beyond what John saw in his vision. It's just something for a director to think about to fill in the picture. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post.

    One point is that most premill scholars would not view it strictly linear. I hear that often. Perhaps in traditional dispy circles but not in most premill circles, especially prewrath, historical, and thematic premillennialism.