Apocalypticism in Film Essay 1: Literacy and Religion in the Book of Eli

Once again, to avoid some school assignments going to waste, I will publish my apocalypticism in film 5-page essay for interest, writing sampling, or other reasons.

This is an open-ended analytical essay spanning 5 pages in response to The Book of Eli, a rather forgettable Hollywood post-apocalyptic thriller with Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, and Mila Kunis. Here is the second essay.

Dickson He
Professor Sheila Winborne
Apocalypticism in Film, Section 2
17 September 2014
Apocalypse in The Book of Eli: The Roles of Literacy and Religion in Reaffirming Power
In reality, there are many symbols or possessions of power. One relevant example is religious dress that varies by ranking, such as the robes of the Catholic Pope. Clearly, power is not attributed to the dress itself but to an earned or ascribed ranking. Meanwhile, guns and weapons both symbolize and possess power due to the immediate damage they can cause; different characters such as Eli, Carnegie’s henchmen, highwaymen, and George and Martha use them for their own ends. Although guns and trinkets like shampoo used for barter are tangible elements (The Book of Eli), probably the most binding symbols and creators of power are intangibles. These include literacy and religion, which are scarce but pivotal in the post-apocalyptic world of The Book of Eli.
Literacy at least helps indicate one’s role and importance. In the case of Redridge, he occupies and oversees the role of Carnegie’s right-hand man. Not coincidentally, he is shown to be one of the few henchmen who can read as he disapproves of the motorcycle group’s failure to acquire the Bible or even recognize what they stole due to their illiteracy. This demonstrates literacy having at least a symbolic tie to power, but it can be argued that it can also be a direct creator of it.
Carnegie, who shares his name with a historical industrialist and monopolist, is literate and possesses much power in the sense of “the ability or right to control people or things” (“Power”). Carnegie owns a town that he fervently wishes to expand. Near the beginning, he reads in a library stocked with books, a scarce commodity, and is referenced to having strong, pertinent knowledge for the new world such as by Solara, who says that he knows of at least three water supplies. He does not appear to have interest in teaching his residents literacy to restrict them and to capitalize on his valuable knowledge, including knowledge of life and religion before the apocalyptic “flash.”
The makers of the film portray Carnegie as evil in the sense of “morally reprehensible” (“Evil”) due to his harmful tendencies of abuse such as to Claudia and selfish desires to employ religion for ultimate control and power. Thus, without intending the Bible he eventually gets to be in braille, he plans to use his rare literacy to gain powerful and influential knowledge over the way others live in his dominion.
On the other side of the good-evil spectrum typical in Hollywood films, Eli possesses a unique form of literacy that serves his deeply rooted goals. The film eventually reveals him as blind, but this plot twist eclipses the ailing Carnegie’s desire to read Eli’s Bible; power dynamics reverse once for Claudia, who is frequently used for extortion, when she refuses or claims she forgets how to read braille for Carnegie. While Eli is not visually literate like Carnegie and Redridge, he shares the ability of assembling words that transmit knowledge. Eli is extremely knowledgeable in the contents of the Bible as shown by his recitation of a psalm to Solara and his recounting of its entire contents by memory to Lombardi, the supposed end goal of his journey west before his death.
Eli possesses unique powers not in the sense of coercion like Carnegie, though Solara willingly befriends, assists, and respects him. His powers of determination, perseverance, and conviction stem from faith and steadfast religious belief. Beyond benefitting from knowing the contents of the Bible through literacy, Eli also benefits from near-holy and transcendental phenomena, such as being relatively ungrazed from an early shoot-out and surviving a supposed death when Carnegie, his henchmen, and his vehicles surround him. The filmmakers thus suggest a sacred and miraculous power through religion like in some stories of the Bible. He further follows the tenets of Christianity by refraining from the sin of adultery when Carnegie sends Solara to try to seduce him and discover if he has the valuable book.
With Eli concluding his journey at the remnants of San Francisco with the literate and professorial Lombardi, the powers of literacy thus prevail for Eli’s deliverance but fail to materialize for Carnegie and his braille Bible. Carnegie plans to use his literacy in part to have control over the illiterate; Eli wants his literacy to benefit the archival of religion after the majority of Bibles are burned. With the completed Bible printed from the press and placed next to other holy books, literacy thus permits religion to continue along with its potentially devastating powers.
            Carnegie states that the Bible, and thus implying religion or religions, is the cause of the probably nuclear conflict and apocalypse that reduces much of former America into desert waste and rubble. When Redridge asks why Carnegie so desperately pursues the Bible, Carnegie replies that he can build more towns and have the majority under his control. This suggests that Carnegie can either spread the gospel or revise it to fit his ends. Thus, Christianity can be used as the “opiate of the people” (Lyden 40) or, in Carnegie’s case, more like a mind-control drug that creates allegiances in a time of deprivation and privation.
            Eli, in contrast, plans to use religion less selfishly. He seeks to deliver the contents of the Bible for preservation despite an unnamed force burning the majority; this was probably done in view of the greater good of preventing another catastrophe. This also implies religion’s ability and power of igniting a furor in the pre-apocalyptic world, which both Eli and Carnegie state or imply was abundant or wayward. Besides material abundance, the pre-apocalyptic world probably had more literacy, leading to the dispersal of religion but also the proliferation of conflict. Having lived in both eras, Eli is a rare beneficiary of old religion by keeping his copy of the Bible. Religion and the “voice in [his] head” (The Book of Eli) serve as his North Star that tells him to continue his grueling journey west.
            The intertwining of literacy and religion relates back to different apocalyptic themes. Both are at least partially responsible for the apocalypse that rewinds human progress drastically and banishes much of literacy and religion. In addition, some of the few survivors are blinded by the light of the fallout, leading to a haphazard life of dependency. Not all aspects of apocalypse are grim, though. Another sense of apocalypse derives from the Greek origin of an unveiling, which occurs near the end with Eli once again making available the contents of Christianity for better or for worse.
            Since the movie ends with a cliffhanger, this leads to speculation and unanswered questions; after all, the early Christians “inherit[ed] a rich tradition of apocalyptic speculation” (Boyer 64) that is incorporated into the production of this movie. Does Solara complete her reverse trip along Eli’s path? Does Carnegie pass away, and is the town still functional? Is her mother Claudia still alive? Less related to the plot, there are more murky questions of continuity and the future in the universe of The Book of Eli. Will literacy once again be common to rebuild society with knowledge? Will religion, despite its dangers and power, be released again through books or orally? Will the new world experience an upswing and become secular, religious, or both, or will another religious conflict eventually create yet another apocalypse?
            Across the spectrums of good and evil, Eli and Carnegie, the main characters representing each side, both possess literacy and are at least aware of religion’s existence. This emphasizes the important role and power of these intangibles in driving the plot of the movie and the separate goals of the protagonist and antagonist. Eli wants to ensure religion’s preservation; Carnegie wants it to consolidate his power. After multiple deaths, perhaps the end of the movie leaves a question for the viewer: Is religion worth sacrificing for especially if one is illiterate in the broader of sense of not having much knowledge, leaving only faithful conviction?

Works Cited
Boyer, Paul. "The Foreordained Future: Apocalyptic Thought in the Abrahamic Religions." The Hedgehog Review 10.1 (2008): 60-75. Print.
"Evil." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evil>.
Lyden, John. "The Definition of Religion." Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: New York University Press, 2003. 36-55. Print.
"Power." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power>.
The Book of Eli. Dir. Albert and Allen Hughes. Perf. Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis. Warner Bros., 2010. DVD.