BMCR 2020.06.16

Screening divinity

Lisa Maurice, Screening divinity. Screening Antiquity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019. xi, 228 p.. ISBN 9781474425735 £75.00.

Lisa Maurice’s Screening Divinity, the latest volume in Edinburgh University Press’ relatively new Screening Antiquityseries, which examines the reception of classical antiquity in film and television, is novel in that she discusses both mythological (ancient Greek) and biblical (Judeo-Christian) divinities and divine-like figures from film and television, usually treated separately, in one work. As Maurice notes, “No matter what the name of the deity on screen, the film makers are all presenting the divine, and we are all ‘god-watching’, when viewing these films, which I would suggest are a genre all of their own, which might be termed ‘divinity movies’” (3). She looks for similarities and links between the two larger categories of, on the one hand, mythological or fantasy films, and, on the other, religious or biblical epic films and biopics, including what constitutes divinity (from multiple viewpoints) and the nature of divine-human relations. She further analyzes how the two types of films affect each other’s representations and interpretations and considers them within the contemporary context of their productions.

Chapter 1 (“Screening Divinity: Introduction”) briefly sets out the scope of the work, its methodology (e.g. reception studies), and limits; for example, Islam is omitted, and the majority of screen texts considered, while a mix of mainstream and lesser known ones, are mostly in English and date from the mid-twentieth century and later. Some of the most discussed fantasy/mythological texts include Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Clash of the Titans (1981), Disney’s Hercules (1997), Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010), Clash of the Titans (2010), Immortals (2011); religious/biblical films include The Ten Commandments (1956), King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told(1965), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Noah (2014). Maurice is up to date, including, for example, 2018’s Troy: Fall of a City. More than half of this chapter surveys the evolution of ideas from antiquity and beyond about divinity and divine figures, from polytheism and monotheism, and how they have been regarded over the centuries (6). Maurice is consistent in providing similar succinct backgrounds in each chapter to contextualize the films, divine figures, or specific themes, whether of religion in general, a specific god/goddess, iconography, or particular religious element.

Chapter 2 (“Anthropomorphism”) examines the humanization and physicality of the ancient Greek Olympian gods, Jesus, and the Judeo-Christian God. Maurice considers the looks and casting of various divinities, how gods are distinguished (visually or otherwise) as immortal or different from mortals, or how they can be recognized by familiar iconography. Specific figures discussed here, e.g. Jesus, and their problematic portrayals receive further treatment in later chapters.

Chapter 3 (“Physiology and the Physical Appearance of the Divine (I): The Patriarchal King Figure and the Devil”) analyzes screen portrayals of Zeus, God, Hades, and Satan and offers the most thorough comparison between the genres and how they influence each other in their representations, both in antiquity and now. She emphasizes cross-fertilization of these figures and their representations (Zeus and God, Hades and Satan), especially how the Christian ones affect the pagan. While traditional and well-known portrayals are included, Maurice also considers the unusual, unexpected, or even controversial, such as a young or a black Zeus (2011’s Immortals, 2018’s Troy: Fall of a City) and a black or female God (2003’s Bruce Almighty, 2011’s A Little Bit of Heaven).  Emphasizing a decreasing, and at times negative, place for religion within society Maurice argues for a correspondence in screen depictions, as Hades and Satan are depicted more positively while Zeus and God suffer more unfavorable representations.

Chapter 4 (“Physiology and the Physical Appearance of the Divine (2): Screening the Olympian Males and Jesus”) briefly considers associations or parallels between divine figures on screen and the actors playing them. She discusses the Olympian gods in general, followed by individual analyses of the Greek gods Hermes, Apollo, Poseidon, Dionysus, and ends with screen depictions of Jesus, including analysis of his physical appearance, from hair and eye color to racial or ethnic look. While portrayals of Jesus retain a “high level of uniformity” (89), she argues that those of the various Olympian gods, in contrast to their relatively standard representations in antiquity, do not. Yet both, once more, can be seen to affect each other’s representations.

Chapter 5 (“Gendering the Divine (I): Greek Goddesses on Screen”) considers more fully parallels between the two types of “screen goddess”, the actress and the divinity on screen. Maurice focuses on the female Olympians, both in general and individually, considering Hera, Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite, with an emphasis on their sexuality, or lack thereof. Maurice expands beyond the goddesses themselves, with Artemis for example, to examine that goddess’ influence on action film characters such as Wonder Woman. She further emphasizes how the changing gender roles of the time period the films were produced in are rarely reflected in the screen goddesses.

Chapter 6 (“Gendering the Divine (2): Holy Female Figures in the Judaeo-Christian Film”) looks at the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, the closest one can get to female divinity in biblical films, and their various types on screen; for the Virgin Mary, examples include “The Divine Mary”, “The Young and Innocent Mary”, and “The Wise and Mature Mary”. Maurice focuses on her physical appearance, from age to coloring to race, while she analyzes the purpose, and significance, of both women within the films’ narratives. Maurice notes the difficulty of presenting or including women in biblical films, both as sexual objects and as divine beings. Although all possibilities for a female character are limited, unlike the range of Greek goddesses, by the two Marys, both seem to conform more to changing times and offer more modern or updated versions.

Chapter 7 (“Human-Divine Interactions on Screen”) discusses a range of relations and forms of communication between gods and mortals (e.g. miracles, deities revealing themselves to or visiting a mortal, prophecies, prayers) and how these are represented or indicated. Maurice extends, for the pagan films, beyond the mythological/fantasy film genre, to consider historical examples, such as 300 (2007) and HBO’s Rome (2005-2007).

Chapter 8 (“Blurring the Boundaries: Apotheoses and Deicides”) considers Greek heroes becoming gods, Jesus’ resurrection, the Olympian gods fading away or actually dying, and the death of Jesus. Maurice briefly also includes the apotheosis of Roman emperors as well as that of heroes, such as Spartacus (1960’s Spartacus) and Maximus (2000’s Gladiator), from non-Christian historical epic films still imbued with Christian elements. Emphasizing the varying portrayals in mythological as opposed to Christian films and the theme of “supersession” (198), she argues for the films’ messages of the “superiority” of men (in mythological films) or Christianity and notes the “reverence” of the Jesus depictions; as she comments, “While Zeus and his children may be killed off, Jesus still must never die” (198).

A conclusion of sorts (“Postscript: Some Closing Observations”) considers the films and figures within the context of religion, especially its changes since the mid-twentieth century (e.g. a decreasing number of individuals, in the U.S. and Britain, seeing themselves as Christians recently, and an increasing number identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation), and how “secularism” has affected these screen portrayals, not only where they appeared (religious films on television) but also which ones (the Olympian gods more common). Even with more people expressing no belief in or not trusting religion, there has been a recent uptick in divine films. Yet, with the exception of Jesus, more negative portrayals have predominated recently (whether deities as bad, or killed off). Maurice argues that both mythological and biblical films “reveal an almost traumatized relationship with the divine” and that “cinema continues to demonstrate a deep fascination with the idea of divinity, even as it rather uncomfortably denounces its very existence” (202).

A filmography, organized by films, television series or miniseries, and bibliography and index end the volume.

The organization is varied, both by chapter and within, ranging from thematic to chronological to film to deity; while at times a strength, other times it gives a disjointed feel to the work. The chapters on gods offer the most thorough and compelling comparison between pagan and biblical deities; with the women split up between chapters, the comparison/contrast is lost with the separation, or at least not as obvious or important as with the male deities. These chapters also appear uneven in parts. When Maurice discusses individual Greek gods, why is Ares, for example, not included from Wrath of the Titans (2012), his biggest role on screen? With the Greek goddesses, Maurice notes brief appearances of Artemis and Aphrodite in Clash of the Titans (2010) and their absence from Immortals (2011) but says nothing here of Athena in those films. This is a puzzling omission considering Athena’s Athena Parthenos look in Clashand her appearance in Immortals, not only as the lone goddess, but in one of her more expanded roles on screen and as a warrior, a feature Maurice notes as recently “played up more” with Percy Jackson’s Athena (107).

Several mistakes popped out, although for the most part do not detract from the argument, where the wrong character, actor, or film or series name is given.

Maurice makes an important contribution to classical reception studies, in particular the reception of antiquity in film and television, with her examination of the divine on screen, especially with her consideration of both mythological/fantasy and religious/biblical epic genres, their links with each other, and their overlapping as one. Overall, Screening Divinityoffers a good mix of recent, popular, mainstream, and lesser known screen texts, both films and television series/miniseries/films, and emphasizes that while there is a correlation between secularism and the negativity of portrayals in recent years, the number of screen productions is clearly not lagging. Maurice offers good and ample illustrations, and her language and writing style make this an accessible and enjoyable read that will be of benefit to scholars, lay people, and undergraduates. I could see myself assigning chapters to undergraduates in either a Classical Mythology course or one on ancient Greece on screen. Although I would have liked more (especially considering the text itself runs just over 200 pages), Maurice gives room for others to build on and offers a welcome and much appreciated introduction to the topic.