Monday, November 16, 2009

It's Not a New Story

“Bad artists copy…Great artists steal,” Picasso is alleged to have said. It’s a fun exercise to look for the story roots of many films in order to see where the theft occurred.
The Lion King, the popular Disney animated film and Broadway musical, is obviously not a wholly original story. The basic tale of a prince who contemplates revenge for his father’s death at the hand of his uncle is not a story that originated in the Magic Kingdom. It was told long ago under the name of “Hamlet”.
Clueless may have seemed like a dozen other teen comedies but it was actually a rather faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma”.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the Academy Award winning film making team, love to play games with the sources of their film. Fargo opens with a grim title card stating that the story you are about to see is true, with only the names changed to protect the innocent, in the great tradition of “Dragnet”. Which is all hogwash: the tale of kidnapping and murder was completely fictional, as the brothers cheerfully admitted in later interviews.
The Coens convinced the Motion Picture Academy that the screenplay for their comedy O Brother Where Art Thou? should be nominated in the Adapted rather than the Original screenplay category. They claimed it was a retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey”. But the similarities between the two works are amusingly meager.
The Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, makes no claim to be from any particular source in the credits. But it seems to be quite obviously based on the Biblical book of Job.
The film tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhbarg), a college physics teacher living in 1967 Minnesota. He soon finds himself engulfed in a series of mini-catastrophes. Admittedly, the trials he faces are nothing compared to those faced by Job. Job suffered the loss of his property, his servants, his livestock and most horrendous of all, his seven sons and three daughters.
Larry’s sufferings are a little more pedestrian. He suffers harassment from a student who tries to bribe him and then threatens a law suit. His children steal from him and treat him with little respect. His wife wants a divorce and forces him to move into a seedy motel down the road. And Larry is assaulted by the unending phone calls of the bureaucracy of the Columbia Record Company insisting he pay for albums he never requested.
Job was called, even by God, a righteous man. Larry is at best, the serious man of the title, striving to live up to the responsibilities and obligations of a husband, father and teacher.
Like Job, Larry believes that God is ultimately responsible for any trials he faces in life. Job had three friends who ministered to him (or plagued him, depending on how you look at it) and tried to explain God’s ways to Job. Larry seeks help from his synagogue’s three rabbis. Their help is rather comparable to the help Job receives from his friends.
On one of these visits to a rabbi, Larry asks, “Why does He allow us to wonder about the whys of life if He never intends to answer?” The rabbi has no answer.
I think we all share in Larry’s frustration. We somehow think that the minor and major sufferings in life would somehow be more bearable if someone would just explain to us why these things happen. If there was a reason, laid out clearly to us and perhaps allowing for a little of our input, then we could happily deal with everything life throws our way.
But it just won’t happen. It didn’t happen for Job and it won’t happen for us.
We do have something that Larry doesn’t appear to have. We have something that Job didn’t fully understand. Job longed for a mediator between God and man.
We know that Jesus came to be a mediator and that He experienced life as we experience it. Therefore, we may still not understand suffering in life, but we know we have a God that experienced it as we do, and He understands it. It may not be all we want. But it’s enough.

A Serious Man is rated R for strong language, sexual situations and nudity.
The Lion King is rated G, but has some strong themes and images that might disturb the very young
Clueless is rated PG-13 for language and sexual suggestion
Fargo is rated R for violence, language and sexual situations
O Brother Where Art Thou? is rated PG-13 for language and comic violence

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