“Adapt the Bible,” they said.
“It’ll be simple,” they said.
All right, perhaps nobody actually ever uttered those words. But imagine how many Biblical adaptations the world has seen, and you must imagine that someone, somewhere, thought the idea was a no-brainer. After all, there is little doubt that the Bible is the most widely-distributed book of all time. People are going to come see it brought to life!
Trouble is, the complex-yet-profound Holy Bible is often vague when it comes to traditional storytelling conventions. For instance:
What was Moses’ life like in between infancy and oh, that time he killed a man?
That is a huge freaking gap.
Honestly. Does not the mind prickle? We just read that Pharaoh’s daughter decided to keep the baby she found in a basket on the Nile and raise it as her own, knowing full well he was one of the Hebrew babies her father had ordered slaughtered. What would have induced her to do something like that? Did Pharaoh know? Did Moses know? When did he know, from the start, or did he find out later? How did he find out? Was it a secret revealed willingly or a startling gathering-of-the-facts to realize that his wet nurse had been his mother?
Did any of this contribute to the next thing we read about him, his decision to kill the Egyptian? How did he feel about his subsequent flight from the place he’d always called home? How did he feel about going back?
Of course, these are very human questions, perhaps drawn from our need to empathize with Biblical characters to understand our own earthly condition.
This post will examine two films that have withstood the test of time as worthy depictions of the Exodus story, Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt (1998). One can’t quite compare them, as they differ dramatically in length and style, but both approached the matter of Moses’ status as Egyptian royalty in different ways that affected the themes and overall message of the film.
That approach has much to do with the depiction of Moses and the Let-My-People-Go Pharaoh, commonly assumed to be Ramses II, or in the films, Rameses. Both made the right decision and focused on human relationships with each other and with God/gods, but went about it in amazing different directions.
Rameses’ motivation changes entirely from one movie to the next. In The Prince of Egypt, we witness an early confrontation between the princes and their father, in which Pharaoh Seti berates his eldest for the latter’s irresponsibility and immaturity—when in fact, Rameses is the stick in the mud to Moses’ goofy prankster. Still, we see the strength of Rameses’ bond with his brother when we see him vent to Moses later. “He practically accused me of bringing down the dynasty!” Complaining about Dad. Classic.
However, this also sets up Rameses’ prideful stubbornness after Moses’ return: Of course he will never let the slaves go. That would mean the loss of the labor that his father had used to make Egypt’s famed architectural marvels. That would mean he had become the “weak link.”
In The Ten Commandments, Rameses wants tangible things. He wants to be Pharaoh. He wants the beautiful Nefertiri as his wife. He wants to destroy this “Deliverer” the Hebrews keep talking about. That’s more or less it. No less complex than his animated counterpart, this Rameses fights equally hard to keep his slaves. He is Egypt. He bows to no one, certainly not to the god of his slaves. Moses has been a thorn in his side long enough. Time for him to go.
Sinner vs. Saint
So now let’s take a look at how each film interpreted the famous pair’s other half: Moses.
Although The Prince of Egypt depicts Moses as a generally fair and kind person, we also see his arrogance—no doubt due to his upbringing in the royal family of the most powerful kingdom on Earth. He publicly embarrasses a captured Midianite girl. He seems to be accustomed to having concubines (this is only referenced; children wouldn’t notice this). He has little patience for the welfare of slaves and is not above physically punishing them. While this behavior isn’t strictly Biblical, it’s not an unreasonable leap to make; this is an era when to be royal was to be divine.
By strong contrast, Charlton Heston’s Moses has great compassion for the slaves. He protects them from the harsh whips of overseers, even before his love, Nefertiri, shows him the woven infant swaddle marking him as a Hebrew. He allows them to rest. He goes undercover as a slave to experience a day in the life and seems disappointed by what he sees.
Saint vs. No Regrets
…and then we have the opposite approach when it comes to how Moses kills the Egyptian, the inciting event for his exile from Egypt.
At this point in both films, Moses has learned of his true heritage.
In The Prince of Egypt, he accidentally runs into his blood relatives and hears a lullaby the film takes care to show he has remembered since childhood. He subsequently has a nightmare in which he experiences the slaughtering of the Hebrew boys—seeing up close what his fate should have been.
The next day, he witnesses the real-life, current suffering of the people to whom he should have belonged. High on some scaffolding, a guard brutally beats a slave for not working hard enough. Moses’ newfound blood sister calls out for someone to do something. In shock, Moses slowly begins to run toward them—away from Rameses. “Stop!” he cries, “Leave that man alone!” He arrives at the scene. He desperately pushes the guard away from the slave…and over the side of the scaffolding.
Very tragic. Very public. Very blameless. Moses is clearly traumatized and flees out of shame and turmoil.
The Ten Commandments follows Exodus more closely on this account. Moses of the Bible premeditates the killing by “glancing this way and that and seeing no one.” DeMille’s film takes much from “an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of [Moses’] own people.” The Egyptian becomes an implied rapist and torturer, and is about to beat the heroic and lovable Joshua to shreds before Moses intervenes. By strangling the Egyptian to death.
Moses kills this man with a calm and calculated demeanor. He’s not sorry about his choice and he accepts the consequences: banishment. He’s been on this course from the beginning, slowly transforming from compassionate overlord into one of the group. Like the leader he already is, follows through with confidence, and coolly walks into his desert exile. Like a boss.
Onetime Brothers vs. Epic Rivalry
So what does that all mean for our core relationship?
It means we get two completely different conflicts.
The animated Moses and Rameses are brothers. They have fun together. They discuss life’s problems together. They moan about how dad’s going to kill them together. Most importantly, they bring out the best in each other. Although Rameses has grown up with the massive responsibility of becoming the next pharaoh and therefore takes things more seriously, Moses can always get him to dump a bowl of punch on some stuffy old priests. Likewise, Moses finds his maturity when it comes to Rameses’ future, talking to Pharaoh Seti one-to-one to argue on his brother’s behalf, managing to convince him to name Rameses Prince Regent.
So when Miriam reveals Moses’ birth and Moses accepts his role as deliverer of the Hebrews, we feel a growing sense of dread. Moses and Rameses are going to be enemies now. We want this—we want the Hebrews to be free! But we don’t—we want Moses and Rameses to be best brothers! Alas, alas for what might have been.
The Ten Commandments takes the opposite approach, instead setting up the two brothers as rivals vying for the position of Pharaoh and marriage to Nefertiri. When Moses enters the court of Pharaoh Seti, having just made an alliance with Nubia and secured an enormous tribute, Seti’s nearly ready to hand Moses his heqa sceptre and flail. When Moses successfully organizes the Hebrews to mount a mighty obelisk, it seems the matter of the next King of Egypt is settled.
For Rameses, it is on.
When Moses sides with the Hebrews and Joshua declares him the “Deliverer” Rameses had been seeking, Rameses gains all he had sought—in name only. He is Pharaoh. He has found and exiled the so-called “Deliverer.” Nefertiri is his queen.
Still, Rameses cannot let go his obsession of besting Moses.
Nefertiri isn’t helping things. She’s still infatuated with Moses and lets Rameses know it. She continues to hold that over him long after Moses is gone, casually dangling it in front of Rameses’ eyes to maintain a small amount of power over her husband.
So when Moses returns—making demands, no less—Rameses is determined to squash him into the ground. He doesn’t realize it’s futile. Whether or not the Egyptian gods have any power, the Hebrew god sees them as little more than mosquitoes. When fighting a war, your allies are important.
Understanding the development of these two conflicts brings two drastically different takeaways from the Exodus story:
Identity Crisis vs. The Chosen One
Dreamworks’ Moses fights against a nostalgic love for Egypt, an abiding love for his brother, and a wall-like sense of unworthiness. When he abruptly discovers the life he loves is based on a lie, he spirals into confusion about who he is. Where should he go? What can he do? Even if he embraces his new life as a Hebrew, he will always be “the son of the man who murdered [the Hebrews’] children!” If not himself harsh, as we know he could be from his first interaction with Miriam, he was certainly complicit in their suffering. How could God select him for this incredible task?
And of course, there’s Rameses. Moses doesn’t realize his brother has become his primary adversary, but (and this is only because Dreamworks aged Moses way, way down) he knows he’ll have to confront the family who raised him.
DeMille’s Moses, by contrast, fully embraces his task as God’s mouthpiece after only a small time wondering if the Hebrews’ God is the true God. This makes sense; the movie set him up as friend to the Hebrews from the beginning. He’s always been better than Rameses, and now he’s got divine firepower to help him complete a new mission. Boo-yah.
“Moses!” vs. “His god is God.”
Rameses’ last words speak to the films’ overall intent. The forlorn cry in The Prince of Eygpt mourns an irreparably broken relationship even as it celebrates the liberation of a people. Sometimes, God’s will comes at high personal cost.
Rameses’ awed-yet-bitter admission in The Ten Commandments showcases God’s superiority over all. Even as it continues past the ending of The Prince of Egypt, the 1956 film displays God’s power (terrible or no) over a rebellious people, a golden calf, and even a disobedient Moses. God remains ever unrivaled, even by the Morning and Evening Star, Pharaoh.
Much could be written about cultural differences between 1956 and 1998 America (that I’m not qualified to write), but if we simply look at what each of these spectacular films chooses to leave us with, we see two valid takeaways from this experience:
One, an epic, God-ordained mission with extreme personal consequences. The other, an expansive look at the early days of the Nation of Israel. The Prince of Egypt vs. The Ten Commandments.
Personal vs. National.
But those are hugely different ways to interpret the Bible! Surely one is better than the other.
Actually, I think that’s the beauty of adaptation. The Bible raises many issues in concise format, making it more or less impossible to capture fully in one film. If you’re a regular churchgoer, you’ll know the same person can preach on the same passage—nay, verse!—of scripture countless Sundays with a fresh perspective every time. Movies aren’t that different.
Having said that, I think The Prince of Egypt‘s interpretation probably resonates better with most people today. For better or worse (though probably worse), we worry more about how we feel. So a film that focuses on its protagonist’s inner struggle hits home more than the epic journey of one man leading a nation out of slavery.
We like to see our hero make some mistakes. We like to see them at their lowest point. We like our hero to solve problems with the mind, not necessarily with brawn. So we therefore admire bone-weary Moses for setting the shepherds’ camels loose to save Jethro’s daughters, but we kind of roll our eyes when Moses in the same condition suddenly jumps up and chases them off by force. The Ten Commandments Moses is the old sort of leader, though, the kind you implicitly trust and admire because they feel untouchable. There’s something comforting and powerful about that too, even if today we would rather feel more connection to those we follow.
Even the more religiously-inclined tend to gravitate toward The Prince of Egypt because Moses faces more of the same consequences modern believers encounter: choices that may lead to painful rejection and loss, but also to joyful rebirth and renewal.
Regardless, both films are excellent and come highly recommended. Both bring an incredible story to life. It all depends on what kind of conflict the audience finds more engaging.
Sources: The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.
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