The recent release of THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) on DVD provides an opportunity for a reassessment of important elements within its story. Viewers with religious convictions have interpreted the film in strongly positive and negative terms; however, another reading is plausible that avoids these extremes. Taking into account its late-modern-Western and post-9/11 context, THE BOOK OF ELI may be interpreted as a film that urges caution in the use of religion by both its practitioners and the irreligious – who variously objectify religion and justify violence in fundamentalist fashion while failing to heed the message of religion or recognize its power as a form of social control and a tool for oppression. This review will address these elements, which appear to be overlooked in many reviews of the movie.
THE BOOK OF ELI is the latest example of Hollywood (and popular culture’s) continued fascination with and exploration of the post-apocalypse. Blending genre elements from the Western and action films, the story follows a man (Denzel Washington), who lives in a near-future world ravaged by nuclear war. He is on a personal mission to carry a book, which he holds sacred, to the West Coast. Along the way, he stops for water in a town under the leadership of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), an oppressive and violent man who rules with an iron fist. Carnegie is looking for a book with the power to control people and expand his power; his search dovetails with Eli’s mission to protect the same book in his westward journey. The resulting conflict sets the stage for the rest of the film, with post-apocalyptic elements providing the backdrop and context for the exploration of religious themes.
As the narrative unfolds, we learn that after the war Washington’s character (who only at the end of the film do we learn is named Eli) responded to an internal voice that told him where to dig in the rubble for an important item. There he found the book, more specifically a Bible, around which the story circulates. The voice also told Eli that it was his mission to carry the book West and that he would be given divine protection in his travels. THE BOOK OF ELI provides a number of examples of Eli’s devotion to his faith and his calling, such as prayer over his food, daily Bible reading, and the quotation of biblical verses, even in connection with the slaying of his enemies.
Before considering an alternative reading to the pro- and anti-Christian readings of the film prevalent in many commentaries, a few words are in order about the possibilities related to someone actually thinking they could be the recipients of divine revelation in a period of great social upheaval, such as the post-apocalyptic scenario of this film. While skeptics will be doubtful of any such possibilities in the assumption of the absence of the supernatural or the transcendent, even so, sociological evidence exists that can account for such beliefs. Noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, in his discussion of revelators in new religious movements and major world religions, notes that “all successful religious movements arise in response to crises.” He goes further and develops a proposition from this idea, stating that, “During periods of social crisis, the number of persons who receive novel revelations and the number willing to accept such revelations are maximized.”
In THE BOOK OF ELI, we are led to believe that religion has largely disappeared since most of the previous generations of religious people have died, and at some point at least the Bible if not all religious Scriptures have been destroyed; however, the post-apocalyptic scenario certainly provides the social context of extreme crisis wherein people would be receptive to the possibility of personal revelation. As this plays out in the film, it is not so much the surviving humans who are looking to hear the divine, but rather Eli himself who hears the inner voice which for him provides a strong sense of divine vocation. Understood as developing in a context of social crisis, it is not so much Eli’s understanding of divine vocation that is problematic, but his actions that come as a result. Eli’s actions as a man of religious devotion, often violent ones, have resulted in different interpretations of the film, and in light of this they deserve further exploration.
A sampling of the reviews and commentary on THE BOOK OF ELI by those with religious convictions, particularly those with a Judeo-Christian orientation, reveals diverse interpretations of the film in regards to its relationship to Christianity. On the one hand, there are those who take exception to the film, seeing it as incorporating a strongly anti-Christian caricature; on the other hand there are those who see the film as sympathetic to Christianity (one website even going so far as to describe it as “positively Christian”).
In my view both of these readings are problematic. For starters, THE BOOK OF ELI is not presenting Eli as a Christian. Although he reads from the Bible, and gives thanks for his meals, the name of Christ is never once invoked in the film. Instead, Eli prays to “the Lord” and closes his prayers with a simple “Amen.” In this way his brand of religious devotion may be understood as a generic brand of Judeo-Christian theism rather than a specific expression of Christianity. If the film does not present the Christian faith and the actions of a devoted Christian, then it is difficult to see how the film could be construed as either pro- or anti-Christian.
If these popular readings may be inaccurate, then what reading might better account for various elements of the film? I suggest that, instead, THE BOOK OF ELI should be understood as a critique of the misuse of religion by skeptics and religious devotees alike. First, consider the late-modern and post-9/11 context of the film. Late modernity, or postmodernity, often includes critique of dominant cultural narratives, including religious ones. In addition, we live in a post-9/11 world, where religious tensions and violence around the world exert a constant influence in our lives. When these two considerations come together, it is plausible that the cultural context out of which THE BOOK OF ELI has arisen is one that attempts to critique prominent religious narratives, particularly those that have led to violence.
This leads to my second consideration, and that is the ways in which religion is used by the two principle characters in THE BOOK OF ELI. On the one hand, we have Carnegie, a violent man who seems to have no religious convictions of his own but who seeks a Bible because he recognizes its potential for expanding his power over others. In one scene he shouts to his cronies that “It’s not a book, it’s a weapon!” Here we have a character who seeks to use an important aspect of a religious tradition in order to gain control over “the weak and desperate,” but not as an important part of his heartfelt religious pathway. As the villain of the film it is clear that viewers are to recognize the illegitimacy of Carnegie’s (mis)use of religion.
However, there is a second major character for whom religion is significant: Eli. While his use of religion is presented more positively, it is not without its difficulties. Eli is a lone hero with a divine mission who must do everything he can to protect the holy book as he carries it West. In a post-apocalyptic world where people are fighting for their lives, Eli’s mission results in mayhem and violence for those who try to kill him and steal his belongings, including the Bible. Not only is Eli prone to violence in his mission, perhaps understandable in the survivalist context, but his violence is selective.
In one scene Eli sees a man and a woman traveling who are accosted by a roving gang affiliated with Carnegie. The man is killed and the woman is violently raped. Eli is moved by this viciousness, but he tells himself that he has his mission and that the violence taking place around him is not his concern. So in the case of Eli we have a man of religious devotion who is driven to great violence to protect a religious object, but who is not driven to “love his neighbor as himself” to the extent that his faith compels him to assist those suffering around him. Thus, while Carnegie’s use of religion is clearly problematic, Eli’s is as well, perhaps more so in light of his religious devotion.
For those who may dispute this interpretation of Eli’s actions, Eli himself seems to come to understand that his own faith missed the mark. Near the conclusion of THE BOOK OF ELI, after Eli has lost the book to Carnegie, he is rescued by his traveling companion Solara, to whom he acknowledges that he was so caught up in protecting the Bible that he failed to live its message. Eli’s religious faith was focused on the externals, that of protecting a sacred item of Scripture, often leading to grotesque violence, perhaps necessary at times; in the process, he failed to internalize the essence of his religion and, in so doing, turned a blind eye to the suffering around him that he might have been able to alleviate.
Viewed from this perspective, THE BOOK OF ELI may be read as not so much articulating a pro-Christian or anti-Christian message. Rrather, arising out of a critique of religious narratives of our time that often incorporate violence and neglect marginalized, this film may be read as one that cautions against the abuse of religion by believers and non-believers alike. For those willing to stretch themselves in their consideration of religion, from whatever their personal frameworks, THE BOOK OF ELI provides some interesting aspects for personal reflection.
The DVD and Blu-ray discs of THE BOOK OF ELI include a handful of special features. The standard version of the DVD is disappointing in that its bonus material is limited to some additional scenes and an animated tale that develops the storyline further. The Blu-ray Combo Pack includes more – not only the additional scenes and animated story, but also explorations of other aspects of the story related to Eli’s journey and post-apocalyptic, as well as a soundtrack for the film.