The Cultural Foundations of Screenwriting: Abrahamism, Part 2

In the continuation of his exploration into Western culture, Dimitri Vorontzov lays out some methods for interpreting Abrahamism in mainstream screenwriting and what that can mean for your story.
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In Part 1, we reviewed the Christian thematic influences at the core of James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator. In today’s Part 2, we’ll review some of the methods we can apply to creatively interpret the mythology and ethics of Abrahamism in the works of mainstream screenwriting!

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Contemporary Western reality is soaked in Christian thinking—and even those of us who never set foot to church learned “cultural Christianity” indirectly from our parents, teachers, mentors, and from almost everything we read, watched, or listened to. We may not know the distant source of some of the ideas we use in everyday life, but we can safely expect those ideas to come from the Bible.

Christianity is everywhere.

Or rather, I should say, Abrahamism. Three of the world’s major religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all come from one spiritual source, worshiping the God of Abraham, the ancient forefather of the Hebrew and Arab people, and one of the archetypal righteous believers in all three religions. At least 3.8 billion people in the world today—55.5% of all humans—belong to one of the Abrahamic religions.

Christianity is the most prominent of the three, numbering at least 2.3 billion adherents worldwide—over 33% of all people living today.

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Western culture, for almost the entire duration of its history, was mostly Abrahamic, and, in particular, predominantly Christian. Such geographic and cultural areas as Europe, the Americas, Australia—the whole Western World!—had been culturally shaped and cemented by Christianity, and even the majority of culturally significant military conflicts that defined country borders in the West had been justified with strife between various Christian denominations, as well as religious conflicts between Christianity and the two other major Abrahamic religions.

Christian monasteries and cathedrals were the earliest organized centers of learning in Europe, and the major cathedral schools, starting in the late 11th century, began to transform into the first universities in the world: Bologna University (the world’s oldest continuously operating university), Oxford University, Paris University, and many others.

Even though these Universities operated within Christian intellectual tradition, they were not exclusively focused on religious studies: Besides theology, they taught law, medicine, liberal arts, calligraphy, and philosophy.

Even the written works of all major Greek and Roman philosophers that preceded Christianity reached us thanks to these centers of culture and learning—the pagan wisdom was salvaged and reinterpreted by Abrahamic theologians. We know antiquity thanks to Christianity.

Christianity laid the foundation for economics, business, politics, arts, music, architecture, theater, family values, social welfare, justice, personal hygiene, philanthropy, and warfare of today’s Western civilization—and by extension, of the entire world. Our technology and science are rooted in Christianity! Yes, even science—and even today! Did you know that over 65% of all Nobel Prize laureates self-identified as Christians?

[Plot Development: Strengthen Your Plot through Character Creation]

Even our popular music is based on jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, and these genres originated from gospel and spirituals—the forms of Christian church music, with some considerable Jewish and Muslim influences.

Naturally, the entire history of Western literature, starting long before Arthurian romance, is rooted in Christian culture, too.

Due to the processes of modernization, industrialization, and imperialist expansion over the last three hundred years, most of the world today exists under the cultural hegemony of the Western way of life. This makes Abrahamism, and especially Christianity, the most prominent fundamental source of ideas in the world today.

No wonder that Hollywood movies dominate the world’s box office: They are exclusively and profoundly Abrahamic. Hollywood screenwriters of our generation may or may not be conscious of the origins of their creativity, but even unknowingly, they rely on those sources, all the same.

Some of the best screenwriters, however, are acutely aware of this cultural heritage, and deliberately use it to great creative advantage.

Remember Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction?

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Pulp Fiction, as you probably know, is a religious parable: a story of Jules Winnfield, a “lost sheep”, heeding the call of the Shepherd and returning to Him—and of the sinner, Vincent Vega, refusing the call and walking blindly into an inglorious death on a toilet.

You may also remember the iconic image of the wooden statue of Christ on the cross in the snowy wilderness, during the opening scene of The Hateful Eight. You may even remember that the diabolical villain of Tarantino’s early produced screenplay, True Romance, explicitly refers to himself as “Anti-Christ”.

Tarantino’s writing is Biblically grandiose. If you read any of his screenplays, you’d agree that’s an accurate way to describe it, and it’s probably one of the secrets of his astonishing success.

[Script Tip: Use the Cultural Context of Your Screenplay to Improve Your Plot]

This also goes the other way: It may be argued that the religious power of Abrahamic religions is rooted in their superior storytelling. Filled with conflict, subtext, drama, suspense, shock, miracles, plot twists, battle scenes, sex, colorful characters, quotable dialogues, huge emotional range, staggering vistas, profound moral messages, and destruction on a massive scale—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious narratives are Tarantino-esque!

Similar to how James Cameron did it in The Terminator, you can borrow stories or motifs from the Bible, Torah, or Quran, creatively transform them through genre, adapt to contemporary reality or even to the future—and you’ll probably have a hit movie material on your hands!

There are several ways of doing such borrowing.

The simplest way is to create a screenplay directly based on religious storytelling, without any disguise.

We can find plenty of examples throughout the entire film history, from the inception of cinema and all the way to our time, when religious films became either massive blockbusters or cinema classics—or both.

Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is, of course, the textbook example. Produced for $30 million, made over $622 million at the box office. Think about it! That film was not even in English, and it’s almost a low-budget movie by today’s standards. Other than Monica Belucci in a relatively small role, the movie didn’t even feature any actors who at the time of its release would be considered even B-level stars!

DreamWorks’s 1998 animated musical The Prince of Egypt, based on The Book of Exodus, made $218 million on a $70 million budget. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, based on the same source, was produced for $13 million and generated almost $123 million in box office revenue.

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Such cinematic masterpieces as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ are all based on Christian or Biblical themes—and there are virtually countless other examples. We shouldn’t forget the grandiose success of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur or the hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide that gathered to watch the premiere of Francesco Zeffrielli’s critically praised 1977 TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

Another way of addressing the ideas from the Abrahamism canon in your screenwriting work is their creative reinterpretation: bringing the motifs or plots into contemporary, historic, or future settings, similarly to how James Cameron did it in The Terminator.

This approach often results in the creation of massively successful blockbusters.

For example, The Matrix tells a story of mankind enslaved and in the grip of blissful ignorance. In comes a savior (Neo) who is baptized by his precursor (Morpheus, a John the Baptist-like figure), supported by a loyal lover-sidekick (who goes by a telling Christian nickname of Trinity), who goes on a sacred mission, dies, is resurrected, acquires perfect clarity of vision of hell, and in the culmination of the film bodily ascends to Heaven.

Similarly, E.T. the Extraterrestrial tells a story of a being from another world who comes into a life of a human child and has the ability to revive the dead and heal the ailing, drinks wine, and creates a major upheaval, liberating frogs from the school’s torture chamber (in a clear analogy of expelling money changes from the Temple), is being hunted and persecuted by soldiers, dies and is resurrected, suddenly displays the ability to ascend (and lift a group of young “disciples” on bicycles), and then finally truly ascends on a spaceship.

The poster of the movie, featuring E.T. hand touching a child’s hand, is a homage to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco from the Sistine Chapel.

Very clear and undisguised Abrahamism analogies, wouldn’t you agree?

[WHAT IS STORY?: Types of Stories, Plot Types, Themes & Genres]

There’s also another way to instill the elements of Abrahamism into your work and achieve great success with the audience: You can express the values of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam in your story—without even naming the religious foundations of a story, you can fill your movie with their ethics.

One of the most commercially successful films of 1987 was a musical biographical drama La Bamba. Luis Valdez, the writer-director of that film, had a strong established reputation as a playwright, actor, and theater director, and written and directed one earlier movie, based on his own play. But it was La Bamba that brought him universal acclaim and great financial success.

That film tells a story of a wholesome, pure, childlike, sweet, confident, decent, dignified, goofy, adorable Mexican-American kid who lives with the recurrent premonition of dying in a plane crash—similarly to how Jesus knew that His fate was to die on a cross. Loving every imperfect person around him unconditionally, the protagonist, without any apparent conflict, accepts his destiny to become a god—the god of rock ‘n’ roll. He then takes a fatal ride on a small private plane—whose crucifix-like shape is emphasized in the film again and again—a blend of the Elevation of the Cross and the Ascension, in one short scene. And then dies, just as predicted, in a plane crash, at the age of seventeen. But his music becomes immortal.

The movie is, of course, based on the true events from the short, extraordinary life of the rock pioneer Ritchie Valens.

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La Bamba prominently features the motif of the rivalry between a rough, unruly, wild-haired older brother who doesn’t find acceptance or approval in his family, and a sweet, neat, good-looking younger one, who receives unconditional love. Anybody familiar with the five books of Moses in the Torah or Old Testament Bible will recognize the story of Esau and Jacob (repeated in the next generation by Jacob’s own sons). The line “your brother’s keeper” (paraphrasing the motive of Cain and Abel) is in the dialogue. The Christian image of a snake, associated with the older brother in both negative and positive interpretation is very prominent in the film. This Old Testament story is masterfully interwoven with the New Testament-like main story.

Religion isn’t mentioned directly anywhere in La Bamba, with a single exception in a scene with a Mexican folk healer, el curandero, whose words of wisdom—”To live is to sleep, to die is to awaken”—are actually Buddhist rather than Christian. But the entire movie is saturated with Christian moral values.

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The influence of Abrahamism on mainstream screenwriting reaches even deeper than just borrowing of plots and mythological motifs or expressing the religious worldview: It permeates the entire craft of contemporary dramatic storytelling!

Many fundamental techniques and principles of screenwriting, the ways we think of the layers and elements of a cinematic story, are often rooted in Christianity, Judaism, and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, in Islam.

It starts with story structure—and in the next article in our series Cultural Foundation of Screenwriting, we will take an in-depth look at how Christian storytelling defined the Hollywood story structure canon from the very age of inception of today’s film industry.

The article is coming soon; please stay tuned! 

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