Within the last few decades, pop culture has increasingly dominated the different religious view points on a variety of entertainment venues, film being the most prominent in our culture today. In 1988 director, Martin Scorsese and MCA/Universal released one of the most religiously offensives movies to the largest religious community in the United States, The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese’s first attempt to make a film of the highly controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, written by Nikos Kazantzakis, was an incredibly difficult journey.
It was 1983; Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, and Jeff Katzenberg reigned at Paramount; and the country was in the midst of the more conservative Reagan era. Scorsese had known since he was a child that he wanted to make a film about Jesus, and when he found The Last Temptation of Christ he knew he could fulfill his dream. In 1972, Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene) gave Scorsese a copy of Kazantzakis’s book knowing of his obsession with Christ and the Catholic Church serving as a catalyst of the events leading up to the production of the film (Dougan 87).
Scorsese optioned the rights to the novel in 1977 and handed it to his favorite screenwriting partner, Paul Schrader. By 1982, the script was written, and by early 1983 Paramount was ready to finance the production (Kelly 161). Kazantzakis was an interesting character; always interested in learning and experiencing life while trying to determine its meaning. He was born in Iraklion on the island of Crete in 1883, and spent many years studying in various parts of the world; eventually he wrote about these travels.
Kazantzakis is best known for Zorba the Greek, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, Freedom and Death, and The Last Temptation of Christ. His main interests lie in philosophy specifically following the works of Henri Bergson and Nietzsche, and following examples of other religious figures such as Buddha and Jesus (Owens). Scorsese identified with Kazantzakis because they both had an affinity towards God and his existence. The sheer nature of God wowed them and caused them to find deeper truths through philosophy and nature.
Kazantzakis says it best in his prologue to The Last Temptation of Christ, “The dual substance of Christ-the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God or, more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him-has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. This nostalgia for God, at once so mysterious and so real, has opened in me large wounds and also large flowing springs. My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh” (Kelly 162).
Kazantzakis wrote The Last Temptation of Christ in 1951, and in 1954 Pope Pius XII placed the book on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books (Owens). The book was also condemned as heresy by the Greek Orthodox Church (Farah) and Kazantzakis himself was excommunicated from the Eastern Orthodox Church (Harmetz). One would think this would indicate the kind of reaction that Scorsese could expect if he held true to the book. Even Eleni Kazantzakis, the widow of Nikos, tried to warn him of the difficulties and dangers he would face while trying to create a film based on this book (Kelly 163).
As expected, the Christian community was outraged when they learned of the upcoming film and began protesting and sending letters of discontent not only to Paramount, but to Paramount’s parent company, Gulf + Western. The chairman of the board became interested in a project that Paramount was producing for the first time since Charlie Bludhorn, former head of Gulf + Western; simply because of the outrageous number of letters they began to receive (177). However, the largest blow came when Sallah Hassanein, head of United Artists theater chain, refused to show the film in his theaters stating, “Religious films cause trouble.
” He was afraid that fundamentalists would protest and some would go as far as ripping the screens and tearing up the seats. With the budget already at $14 million, Paramount had a hard time seeing their return on investment when a vast majority of the theaters refused to show the film (Dougan 83). After much deliberation, Eisner, Diller, and Katzenberg decided to drop the film four weeks before production was scheduled to start (Attanasio). Although The Last Temptation of Christ had been cancelled at Paramount, Scorsese was determined to complete the picture that he had started so many years before.
His dream was to create a religious film that would mean to the viewers as much as Kazantzakis’s book had meant to him (Connelly 127). Scorsese, along with Michael Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Tom Pollock, the head of Universal Pictures, had to go back and look at what went wrong in 1983 when Paramount cancelled the production of the film. The first thing that Tom Pollock did was call Garth Drabinsky of Cineplex Odeon theaters. They knew that the only way they were going to get their money back was to secure some theaters in which to show the film.