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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What other book should Eli have been carrying through the apocalypse?

[spoiler for The Book of Eli… sorta]

For the first little while as I was watching The Book of Eli, I find myself thinking, “If the book is a Bible, I’m gonna scream.” Not — as reader TwistedKestrel suggested in comments — because I automatically hate any movie with a Christian theme, but because that storytelling choice in this film would have been obvious, easy, and cheap. And sure enough, the book does indeed turn out to be a Bible. And then, all bets are off, because it’s a Bible, see? The Mila Kunis character instantly and automatically sees value in this book, when it would actually make more sense for her to reject the pretty words Denzel Washington reads to her as meaningless and clearly not applicable to her life. She lives in a world, you see, where women are lucky to be the property of men who feed them and give them water — she’s already walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and there’s obviously no one watching over her. Just from a storytelling perspective, it would have made for a much stronger and much more plausible tale if she’d scoffed at this Bible nonsense and either been gradually won over to it, or never believed it at all but believed in Denzel Washington, because at least she can see his worth and goodness.
(Oh, and just to forestall the anticipated objections of folks like TwistedKestrel, I would expect, in a well-written story, for the Mila Kunis character to reject other ideas that wouldn’t make sense to her in her world, too, even ideas that I do endorse.)

Worse, from the storytelling perspective, the Gary Oldman villain doesn’t even need the book to do what he wants to do: he’s a smart man, and he knows that the power of religion is in ideas, and if he wanted to set himself up as a demigod instead of merely a warlord, he could easily have done that without actually having a Bible in his possession. That his desire for a Bible is the crux upon which the story turns means that, as a story, Book of Eli collapses totally.

It’s not a bad idea at its most basic root, though: a man carrying an important book through the end of civilization (for reasons that I won’t spoil). So: What other book should Eli have been carrying through the apocalypse?

Of course, before I knew what the book was, and when I was hoping it wasn’t a Bible, I was terrified it’d be something like Surviving the Apocalypse for Dummies, or perhaps the equivalent of the computer in the cave in that one episode of The Twilight Zone. But there’s gotta be better options than those…

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • LaSargenta

    Nearly anything of Ursula Le Guin’s; but, I am thinking especially of Lathe of Heaven, Left Hand of Darkness, and Four Ways to Forgiveness.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

    A volume of Louis MacNeice’s poems? “Prayer Before Birth” especially.

    …I am not yet born; forgive me
    For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
    when they speak to me, my thoughts when they think me,
    my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
    my life when they murder by means of my
    hands, my death when they live me…
    I am not yet born; O hear me,
    Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
    come near me…

  • MaSch

    “Fahrenheit 451”, just because it would be so … meta.

    “Star Wars- A New Hope – The Novel”, because it would be geeky.

    “Breaking Dawn”, its title symbolizing hope and the book itself representing the strength of man’s desire to believe in some mythology that *any* book which is self-serious enough and about non-existent beings would do.

    The shooting-script for “The Book of Eli”, in a nod to Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters” (and “The Muppet Movie”).

  • Lisa

    Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars?

    Feel the fear and do it anyway?

  • Brian

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, of course. It’s a wholly remarkable book.

  • Althea

    Couldn’t it have been the Torah, or the Koran, or the Book of Mormon?

  • either “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French

    or “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

  • paper

    The Art of War? Or is that a too-easy cop-out solution? It seems like the type of thing a warlord might be interested in flipping through.

  • MaSch

    “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer.

  • Keith

    To Serve Man (yes, the Twilight Zone one ;)

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    I read recently about this cult leader who got her followers to build an underground nuclear bunker and store all of her collected speeches and prophecies in there so they could reconstruct society after the apocalypse. I loved that idea – that some time in the future we might have lost every copy of the Bible, the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita, the collected works of Shakespeare, Melville and Calvino might have gone up in smoke, but these ridiculous crank books would survive as a wholly insufficient testimony to the glories of human civilisation.

    So that’s why my answer is Dianetics.

  • JoshDM

    “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

  • Victor Plenty

    The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan.

    Actually I’d like to be able to recommend a more practical book — some sort of “manual for rebuilding civilization from the ground up.” Unfortunately I can’t seem to locate any such animal. So if we’re stuck with books that discuss the general principles of civilization, rather than its practical basics, I’d want one that might help people avoid some of the more brutal and stupid mistakes of the past.

  • scurvy

    Seems like What to Expect When You’re Expecting would be a good idea.

  • Bluejay

    I wouldn’t have it be any sort of moral guide. People can work that out from scratch; maybe they’ll come up with something saner. (I do like Victor’s suggestion of The Demon-Haunted World, maybe as a way to prod folks in the right direction.)

    I’d say a foundational text of science and mathematics, like Newton’s Principia. People can figure out the rest from there. :-)

  • Kimberly
  • Brian

    Actually I’d like to be able to recommend a more practical book — some sort of “manual for rebuilding civilization from the ground up.” Unfortunately I can’t seem to locate any such animal.

    The Foxfire Book could come in pretty handy, assuming there’s any arable land in the afterscape.

  • 10) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair
    9) Watchmen
    8) Mine! – Last of the Grapefruit Wars, available on Amazon!
    7) Voynich Manuscript
    6) The Road – would that be ironic or sarcastic?
    5) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
    4) Anything by Norman Mailer. They tend to be 2 tons apiece and highly effective as weapons
    3) 1001 Cookies – Best. Cookbook. Ever.
    2) Fodor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic USA

    and the Number One Book Eli Should Have Carried:
    1) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!!!

  • misterb

    The Constitution of the US – The Declaration of Independence – The Gettysburg address – Principia Mathematica – Galen – Hippocrates, etc
    There are many secular books that underlie our civilization – but the best thing he could have had was a Kindle with a solar power generator and an encyclopedia.

  • Jon

    I would have laughed my ass off if it was a playboy. Though I did laugh my ass off cause it was a bible. What if it was the God Delusion…or Going Rogue…or Eminem’s Biography.

  • Bluejay

    Perhaps he should just carry the last remaining map to the long-buried but well-preserved Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 42nd and 5th. :-)

  • Jason M.

    Catwoman Mad Libs

  • Captain Swing

    Animal Farm by Orwell
    120 days of Sodom by De Sade
    One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Solzchenitsin
    The Prince by Machiavelli

    They should cover all eventualities…..

  • Yes, the Bible seems like a very easy choice, MaryAnn. But you talk as if there aren’t people who haven’t turned to it for comfort when in prison or in other harrowing circumstances.

    One of the most moving passages in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass–a work that, btw, contains many disparaging comments about 20th century Christians–is a passage in which an idealistic young woman describes the change that a jail-bound boyfriend underwent after he got religion in prison.

    Granted, life isn’t always that simple in real life. And even people who are genuinely sincere about their religious beliefs–and I’ve known more than a few who weren’t–can still have flaws.

    Moreover, there are all too many times when even the most devout religious person needs to follow up his beliefs with deeds more than words, an accomplishment that doesn’t always happen.

    But it still seems odd this close to MLK’s Birthday to hear you argue once again against the importance of religion.

    Is it all just pretty words to you? And if so, couldn’t the same be said about many of the more secular documents–the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, etc.–that we praise in our contemporary society?

    Oh, well. We all have to find our own path in life and unlike other theists who like to post here, I have no interest in forcing you to walk a path you don’t feel comfortable with.

    Besides, when it comes to movies that tempt you to ask what type of book(s) you would have taken if you were in the place of the main character, I suspect I’d end up preferring a certain George Pal movie based on a novel written by one of those secular English chaps. I can’t think of the title right now but I’m sure it will come to me.

  • LaSargenta

    Perhaps he should just carry the last remaining map to the long-buried but well-preserved Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 42nd and 5th. :-)

    Bluejay, you just made my mind flash that scene where Snake Plisskin finds Harry Dean Stanton (Brain) in Escape From New York.

  • Cyndy

    How about a field guide to edible plants?

    I have not seen this movie because I *knew* they were gonna so that shit.

  • Les Carr

    How about “The Writers Tale” because even in a post-apocalyptic dystopia people will be fighting about whether Russell T Davies was any good.

    Oh sorry. I crossed the threads…

  • Psyclone

    The Official Fallout 3 Strategy Guide.

    Because you know there would be a bunch of nuts who would look at the pictures and go “It’s a book of prophecies!”

    Either that or something more useful like The SAS Survival Handbook

  • Iacocca, or Angela’s Ashes (only because our Friends of the Library get so many copies of both that finding one along the way probably wouldn’t be that much of a chore, and it could always be used for kindling).

  • Cat’s Cradle, have a sense a humor about the whole end of the world thing.

  • The Secret. These people just need to be more positive about life. Draw in that energy.

  • Katy

    How about A Canticle for Leibowitz?

  • Bluejay

    Bluejay, you just made my mind flash that scene where Snake Plisskin finds Harry Dean Stanton (Brain) in Escape From New York.

    Alas, that’s one I missed, and had always meant to see. Thanks for reminding me!

    *logs onto Netflix*

  • Rachel Hartman

    The English major in me thinks it should be something like Moby Dick or Crime and Punishment, a book that “everyone is supposed to read” these days but rarely ever does. Because it’s too easy for Eli’s special book to be a Bible–that’s something many moviegoers would agree is a significant work, whether they’re theists or atheists. Love it or hate it, live by it or consider it a collection of myths, it’s still … the Bible. I think it would make for a far more interesting story if Eli’s special book is something that is largely disregarded in our time.

    Heck, make it instructions for ready-to-assemble furniture. Now that could make for a storytelling challenge.

  • comment

    Atlas Shrugged, because it upsets both liberals and conservatives equally.

  • e

    *I don’t think anything is spoilerific here, but maybe skip it if you haven’t see the movie.*

    Maybe this belongs on the review thread (which I have not read), but to me the movie was a light meditation on how people use and interpret the bible.

    For Eli, it fueled him and gave him comfort after the apocalypse. For Carnegie (Oldman), it was a tool with a built in mythology for him to exploit, and I also got the feeling it was a personally important book to him, that maybe as a young person it meant alot to him. For Solara (Kunis), it was implied there were no books for her, or they were a rare commodity, so any writing she would have latched onto. I never thought she followed Eli because of the religious words, but because he obviously was living by a different code than the brutal world Oldman’s character inhabited.

  • stingraylady

    Be careful what you wish for. Did anyone see Zardoz, maybe the most ridiculous movie I’ve ever seen, starin Sean Connery as some kind of Post apocolyptic knight in a red diaper. I swear I’m not making this up. Also, a main characters name is “Friend”, and at one point people actually chant “Worship the gun, down with the penis.” I know you have a big hint considering the thread, but I literally hit my head against the wall that I didn’t seen the big reveal coming.

  • RogerBW

    Coup D’Etat: A Practical Manual (Gregor Ferguson)

    The Totally Geeky Guide to… well, maybe not.

  • Jo

    He should be carrying “The Iliad”, the ultimate story of a society destroyed. In his book “The Everlasting Man”, G.K. Chesterton said:

    “It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.”

  • This is a really tough question.

    I’m inclined to go with the ancient Stoic philosopher and ex-slave Epictetus. I think the things he had to say would be very pertinent to a suffering world.

    Or maybe come at it from the other direction and give them a book filled with a vision of wonder and hope for human progress. Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, maybe.

  • Bluejay

    @Jo: Interesting! I love “The Iliad,” but I’m not sure I agree with Chesterton that it should be the last word on human society. (Nor that the world becoming pagan is equivalent to its perishing, but that’s another topic.) After all, the story didn’t end with Troy, did it? Out of Troy’s ashes came forth Aeneas to found Rome; and after Rome’s fall came, well, other civilizations. Rebirth always follows death, it seems to me. At least until the second law of thermodynamics runs its full course.

  • Brian

    Speaking of The Twilight Zone, if you’re planning on reading any books after the Apocalypse, remember to bring your glasses.

  • Victor Plenty

    Stingraylady, yes, I saw Zardoz. The chant indelibly etched into my memory was this: “The gun is good! The penis is evil!” And really, on what rational basis could anyone possibly disagree? ;)

    Despite its many flaws, I actually liked the colossal ambition of that movie. Even if it failed to achieve the greatness it sought, the effort was still… interesting.

    Getting back on topic, Carl Sagan’s COSMOS would also be an excellent choice as a book worth saving in a world struggling to rebuild.

  • aquila6

    The Road.

  • chuck

    There is only one real book choice –

    “To Serve Man”

    …wait, oh no… it’s a cook book.

  • Kenny

    Speaker for the Dead… or the Hive Queen and the Hegemon… (In a work of fiction, we can use books which are only mentioned in another work of fiction right?)

  • Muzz

    Mein Kampf might have made for a nice twist…er, somehow (haven’t seen it).

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    “The Way Things Work”

    “The Anarchist’s Cookbook”

    A Boy Scout Handbook

  • Orangutan

    The Practical:
    “SAS Survival Handbook”

    The Amusing:
    “The Book of the SubGenius : The Sacred Teachings of J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs”
    “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

    The Twist (aka So You Thought It Was Gonna Be The Bible, Huh?):
    “The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English” (Penguin Classics version, naturally)
    “The Nag Hammadi Scriptures”

    Interesting:
    Any of National Geographic’s photo collections. Imagine the wastelands being all you know, and then there’s this book showing utterly beautiful landscapes and animals and peoples. “Through The Lens” would be a good one.

  • Victor Plenty

    Trouble with survival handbooks – military or civilian – and Boy Scout handbooks, and other such works, is that they tend to at least imply (and in some cases, openly emphasize) how to survive until you get rescued or somehow make your own way back to civilization.

    For some odd reason (odd to me, anyway, considering how long fiction has been dealing with various apocalypse scenarios) there still seem to be no books that were written with the goal of teaching readers the basics they need to know if they hope to rebuild after a wholesale collapse of civilization.

    I’d be very happy to be proven wrong about this.

  • Bluejay

    …there still seem to be no books that were written with the goal of teaching readers the basics they need to know if they hope to rebuild after a wholesale collapse of civilization.

    Victor, your post sent me surfing the Net for such a book, but instead I found the Georgia Guidestones–an actual “apocalypse-proof” monument in northeastern Georgia, with instructions in several languages on how to rebuild civilization. (Okay, not practical basics, but philosophical guidelines–some controversial, naturally.) And it functions as an astronomical calendar, clock and compass. Unbelievable.

    Maybe the story of Eli could’ve been about rediscovering (and fighting over) this monument instead.

  • Victor Plenty

    Thanks, Bluejay. I’d heard of the Georgia Guidestones before, but never had occasion to look up any detailed information about them. An interesting tale, to be sure.

    Unfortunately their “guidance” appears to contain precious little concrete advice (pun intended) of any practical value. One might as well chisel into granite the Douglas Adams paraphrase of the life and message of Jesus, “…who got nailed to a tree for saying how good it would be if we could be nice to people for a change.”

  • Shadowen

    Allow me to third Demon-Haunted World.

  • David

    I know it’s been mentioned, but the first to come to mind was “Watchmen.” Ultimately, it’s about leadership, sacrifice, responsibility, and the cost of ideas.

  • ceti

    I would say Watership Down, but the book would have to be instantly recognizable. I think in Zardoz, the book was the Wizard of Oz.

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