How The Book of Eli Got Into the Wrong Hands

The storyline of the movie The Book of Eli is a cross between I Am Legend, Fahrenheit 451, and a B-movie western. In post-apocalyptic American wasteland, a strange wanderer named Eli (Denzel Washington)–who is a cross between St Francis of Assisi and Mad Max–carries the only surviving copy of the Bible. His task is to bring it to a destination (unknown even to himself) in the West where God told him to go and where the Book is most needed.

Along his lonely way, Eli stumbles into a town resembling those of the Old West. The leader of the town is a self-appointed, ruthless leader named Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman who is simultaneously a cross between Mickey Rourke from 9 Weeks and Mickey Rourke from The Wrestler, as well as the whole process of evolution between the former and the latter. Carnegie is an evil megalomaniac who sends his lowlife savages in search of the Book, convinced that possession of a copy of the now-extinct Bible can help him spread his rule and establish control over degraded humanity.

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In case abusing his concubine, killing some people, and treating the rest like dirt was not enough to convey that Carnegie is a bad guy, we are shown that his favorite read is Mussolini’s biography. Yet, with all the weight of culture going against him, Carnegie is the only person who had managed to forge some semblance of a settlement with brewing elements of potential civilization. His wild town–reminiscent of an Old West settlement but surrounded with cannibals instead of Indians–is the only semi-safe and positive place in an otherwise out-of-control and collapsed world. He is assembling a hierarchical society and he needs the Book to bring, as he thinks, “all the weak and wounded” under his dominion. His intentions are sinister and self-serving, but he seems to be the only person who understands the real power of the Book and its ability to transform and civilize the brutally egotistical and animal nature of disintegrated humanity . . . while at the same time correctly assessing any man’s, including his own, inability to re-create functioning societal interactions without a binding belief system.

Eli, on the other hand, is hell-bent on delivering the Book all the way west, as if Carnegie town, the etalon of the west, isn’t west enough. Eli is unwilling to bestow the power of the Book to the maniacal ambitions of Carnegie who, nevertheless, manages to usurp the Book by exchanging it for a hostage, Eli’s model-looking girl companion (the precise type of a woman you must leave home when you are going on a mission for God, which to his defense Eli attempts to do but finds himself powerless against the Biblical urge of Hollywood producers to stick an out-of-context young pretty face in everything they do).

When the salivating Carnegie breaks open the thoroughly locked Bible, he tragically realizes that it is written in Braille and there is no one left who can read it since there is no one left who can really read anything anyway.

At the end of the movie, to our–and even to Ray Bradbury’s–surprise that Michael Moore is not the only person he should be mad at for stealing his ideas and book titles, we find out that Eli, in fact, memorized the entire Book. He IS the book and he finally gets himself to the place where the book was needed, where God, as Eli claimed, wanted him to deliver the Book…and that place is…–and this is where I wanted to deliver my popcorn, in partially digested form, to the row in front of me–that place is San Francisco.

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Alcatraz prison has been turned into a citadel of cultural values and is protected by a hi-tech armed force, making it into a cross between Berkley and Guantanamo Bay. It is here that some surviving intellectuals–including a cross between Howard Zinn and the wacky Christopher Lloyd character from the Back to the Future franchise–collect surviving cultural values, print them, and distribute them to survivors, cannibals and murderers . . . who, when they are not busy eating and killing each other for old radio parts, are of course going to read Yeats and Keats.

As the head intellectual leads Eli through the sterile archives of stored masterpieces, he points out the fact that they had recovered some pieces of Mozart and Shakespeare but hadn’t had gotten any copies of the Bible yet, and now, well, they have gotten that too … delightful, isn’t it? Wait now. This guy Eli carried this book (or himself) through dirt and blood, killed and mutilated people who endangered his mission, was chased by cannibals and maniacs . . . and after all this, the intellectual goes …”oh, perfect we got ourselves yet another bestseller.” That’s all? You’re kidding me, right?

This comfortably secular and politically correct ending is sad not because it is formulaically stupid but because it robs the movie of the great potential of actually being a movie about spirit as opposed to a movie about a religious book that it lamely is. As with most current American artistic expression, The Book of Eli blindly follows the established academic elites’ anachronistic view of a cultural value as something belonging to a museum, library, archive, university and solely validated by peer views, professional commentators, Al Gore, and accepted intellectuals–basically, anyone but the people by whom and for whom those values are created.

Ironically and particularly with the Bible, it was a different story. The Word of God was delivered directly to the people who needed it, who in their despair and ignorance depended on it not as a cultural value but as a living breath of divinity upon which depended their very existence. It was given to the likes of people who inhabit Carnegie’s wild settlement and it was given to people like Carnegie, willful and often times evil kings, who nevertheless had the ability to deliver the Word to the people who needed it, because the Word had the power to cut directly to the people, bypassing those who tried to use It for their selfish purposes. It was given to ruthless emperors like Constantine and mass executioners like Paul and it transformed them.

The Word of God was given to lowlifes and prostitutes, to criminals and sinners, to murderers and tyrants. In short, the Book was given to everyone but the scribes and Pharisees, the self-appointed custodians of agreed values, the professors and intellectuals. If anything, the Word was the simple liberating truth of passion that defeated the established complex dictatorship of the mind.

And this is the real story of the Great Book of Eli instead of the religious bestseller carried by a guy named Eli who, even in a post apocalyptic wasteland, feels the urge to conform to elite snobbery which, for what we know, might have been responsible for the apocalypse in the first place.

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