Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Celestine Prophecy - A Cautionary Tale

The Book

A really great idea, poorly executed, and yet James Redfield has sold something like 23 million copies of The Celestine Prophecy. Why? Well, because it's a really great idea for a novel, I suppose.

But just imagine if Dan Brown had written The Celestine Prophecy (23 mil.) in addition to The Da Vinci Code (80 mil.). If I were Redfield, I'd ask Dan Brown to help me write a revision of The Celestine Prophecy for the 25th anniversary of its publication coming up in 2018 (published in 1993, you do the math). It would sell another 20 million easy.

Because there's a lot to like in The Celestine Prophecy: jungles, the Andes, Machu Picchu. But there's also a lot to hate there too. I've tried three or four times over the years to read it but I just couldn't do it. And I like this kind of novel, one that tries to teach you something, especially something about consciousness, enlightenment, awakening--all that crap. Heck, I even write books like that myself and I still couldn't choke it down.

The problem is, it's just so poorly written, and that's where the cautionary aspect of this blog post comes in. The Celestine Prophecy was originally self-published, and it shows. Redfield sold 100,000 copies out of the back of his Honda--Accord-ing to lore (sorry, couldn't resist)--so at that point it must have been tough for the editors at Warner Books, which scooped up the publishing rights to the book after that, to talk much sense into Redfield. And what did they care, really? I'm sure they were happy to keep the printing press churning out twenty-dollar bills. This was an unholy union that I suspect damed the movie version to hell, Satan's spawn that it is, but we'll get to that in a moment.

You might also like: These articles about Eckhart Tolle

I had never been able to get past that first awful first chapter of the novel. Finally, as I felt duty-bound to read it as market research for my latest manuscript, I finally decided to begin anew with chapter 2. Then with the help of the audio version, I was able to get through the whole thing this time, and I have to admit, issues of craftsmanship aside, it wasn't that bad. I was able to see occasional faint glimmers of the genius that drew so many people to read it.

Earlier in life, Redfield was a child psychologist (or social worker, perhaps; at any rate he was a child counselor). Yes, his novel has all the new age claptrap, but essentially the book is a vehicle for Redfield's views on relationships and child rearing, garnered from his own experience and books he'd read and liked, like Games People Play by Dr. Eric Burne. These psychological principles--like don't steal other people's energy, and the stealing of other people's psychic energy is the root of all human conflict--are the insights of the ancient eponymous prophecy, the implementation of which are supposed to usher in a new age of enlightenment, ultimately "ending the cycle of birth and death." Here is list of all the insights, there are 12 of them now.

I certainly can't quibble with Redfield's views on the nature of the universe (as energy) and the need to give energy in relationships rather than stealing it. But the idea that you can overcome negative tendencies (e.g. the practice of stealing other people's energy) even after having a spiritual awakening through conscious application of these principles isn't practical. It certainly hasn't been my experience. Even after a spiritual awakening has occurred, unconscious behaviors continue (driven by what Eckhart Tolle has called the "pain-body") until you go into your inner body through meditation to root it out. The idea that you can do this through conscious application of the principles and insights, detailed at length in the novel, doesn't ring true for me.

Not that they aren't interesting to read about. One of the passages that I listened to on audio and then found in the book to read again talks about the roots of codependency:
[T]he problem starts in our early family. Because of the energy competition there, none of us were able to complete an important psychological process. We weren't able to integrate our opposite sexual side.
It's important, I think, to note here that these types of discussions are pure metaphor, although they are not meant as such. There is no such thing as a male or female side. These are just words expressing what? An idea. And that idea is simply an expression of a what? Anyone? Anyone? A feeling. So this idea, which exists only in the conscious mind--that non-existent virtual space of mind--will be of absolutely no help to the codependent person until it is repatriated into the body, the inner-body, where it is located and identified as a negative feeling and rooted out by making the unconscious thought that created the pain (i.e. pain-body) conscious through the application of awareness (vice judgement, that is to say rationality, that is to say conscious thought). This Redfield doesn't seem to understand, or at least hasn't included, which makes his novel incomplete. And as Thomas Mann has said (probably ironically) through one of the characters in his thousand-plus page novel, The Magic Mountain, "Only the exhaustive is truly interesting."

Another of Redfield's major points is in finding one's evolutionary mission. He says this is the blending of your mother's purpose and your father's purpose. He says, through his characters, that if you think back to what your dad was all about and what your mom was all about, then you can figure out what you're all about. Really? Thinking about such things seems more like a silly waste of time to me. Why not just be, and then do whatever arises out of being? And if nothing ever comes up, count yourself lucky and just relax and enjoy being. But to each his own.

Then there is the inevitable new-age preoccupation with the evolution of humanity and where it's all leading and where its all going and the development of human consciousness and so forth. This even infects the teachings of my good (anonymous) friend and long-distance mentor Eckhart Tolle. What does that have to do with living in "the now"? Nothing whatsoever. It just puts pressure on people to go and do and move and evolve and seek and . . . instead of just being. It's the same with Left Behind and the rapture and concerns about the next life. Wherever we're going, we're going to get there without any of us worry about it, Does it matter where civilization is going if reality is actually an illusion?  Of course not. So just relax. Chill out. Enjoy life. You want to know what the next life will be like? Try meditating. It will be something like that.

From a craft standpoint, aside from the poorly constructed plot and the undeveloped characters, it's the way these clunky psychological principles, which are literally right out of a self-improvement text, are shoehorned into the narrative, in dialogue from characters that are simply there to deliver their lines and then exit stage right. The insights are not born of their character in any way, because we have no idea what their character is like. Characters have to be their words; they have to embody their words. That's not happening here at all. And Redfield jumps right in doing this from the first page of the novel. I found it really painful to read. But so many more readers out there are much more forgiving of these foibles than I am, in deference to a great idea for a story that tells them things about which they generally like to read, I guess. A cautionary tale, indeed, for anyone considering writing about what people don't wish to hear.

I have headed this warning. While the reviews for my self-published novel, The Self-Improvement Book Club Murder, have been favorable, I have nonetheless seen the light about hiring a professional editor for my latest tale, working title The Obamacare Conspiracy. This is an important step as a writer. It is this that distinguishes the professional writer from the hobbiest, that one is willing to invest in his product. The editor begins her work on March 17th. I'm very excited!

The Movie

This was the worst movie I have ever sat all the way through. I actually walked out on Blades of Glory--at the dollar theater no less, and I'm a big Will Ferrell fan to boot! But to be fair to Blades, I was watching Celestine as research, knowing that I would be writing this review and feeling that I should at least watch the entire movie before doing so.

This movie is so bad, it's worth watching. This movie is almost comedy, that's how bad it is. It's sometimes difficult to watch good movies and learn anything about how movies are made because one gets so engrossed in them and forgets to regard the craftsmanship involved, the movie magic, the tricks of the trade utilized. This movie has no such problem. They should show it at film schools. The students will understand implicitly how to do it right by watching this movie.

It's terrible. It's as if it's makers looked at the book and took from it only the elements that wouldn't make a good movie. Because there were lots of features in the book that would have been great in the movie. Take us to the Andes! Not in the movie. Take us to Machu Picchu! Not even mentioned in the movie. Give us a love story. Give us drama and danger.

Why is the main character going on this adventure? Shoulder shrug. Why this guy? Shoulder shrug. After just a few minutes, the desire is, "Ok, why don't you just give us a list of the nine insights so we can get on with our lives?" Sure enough, they rolled across the screen, but only after the final credits an hour and a half later.

The problem is . . . James Redfield. He insisted on co-writing the screenplay and producing the movie. And he apparently surrounded himself with sycophants, who were unwilling to tell him that his screenplay sucked. I have very little doubt that any Hollywood mogul would have been champing at the bit to get their hands on the rights to The Celestine Prophecy (with Tom Cruise as the lead, assuming his Scientology elders approved of his participation) IF they could have them unfettered so as to draw out the good bits and turn it into the blockbuster it could have been. But with Redfield--poor writer that his is--holding all the cards, no one would touch it. As it was, the movie had a $10 million budget (perhaps all Mr. Redfield's money) and grossed about 1/10th of that.

As an aside, a co-producer and co-writer, Barnet Bain, appears to be behind an effort to "crowd fund" a movie adaptation of a children's story written by my good (though long-distance and anonymous) friend Eckhart Tolle called Milton's Secret. Claiming to have access to Hollywood production money, Mr. Bain also claims to eschew these sources of funding due to the strings that inevitably attach (like a requirement for a great script, for example), and he's touting his role in the making of The Celestine Prophecy to make his case! Hoping his potential marks won't have seen the monstrosity, perhaps (probably a pretty safe bet). They're asking for a million bucks and have raise almost $323,000 in free money so far with their slick website, with no deadline on fundraising (as is required, for example, with legitimate crowdfunding organizations like projects). I even went so far as to send an email to the propounders of this effort via Facebook some time ago, asking them to cease and desist tarnishing Eckhart's good name in this way. I haven't heard back from them as yet. If The Celestine Prophecy is any indication, they need all the Hollywood strings attached to Milton's Secret that they can get.

Again, this is a cautionary tale, not only for Eckhart Tolle and Barnet Bain, but for anyone who writes or makes movies--or writes novels with an eye toward making movie out of them in the future. There are some stories that work, and many more that don't. And movies are very limited vehicles, much more limited than novels. You only have a couple of hours of time and attention, and there are only certain things you can profitably do with that time. And there are people who know what those certain things are. Leave any experimentation to those people. The best thing, a writer can hope for in most cases is to use the movie to get people interested in reading the book.

The Celestine Prophecy would have made one helluva good picture if James Redfield had done that. Maybe when the 25th anniversary revised edition of the novel comes out, he'll let them remake the movie.

But I wouldn't hold my breath. The end of the cycle of birth and death is likely to come sooner.

You might also like: This article about A Course in Miracles

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