The Prince of Egypt: The Exodus Story in (Re-)Translation

From The Prince of Egypt

Today we share the final entry selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English”: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Read more about the assignment and the first publication, “Judith and the Vikings” by Caitlin Radonich (MA ’22), in the post for December 1 and the second publication, “Uncle Iroh’s Got Abs?” by Morgan Shiver (MA ’22), in the post for December 3.  Now, on to “The Prince of Egypt: The Exodus Story in (Re-)Translation” by Jefferson Storms (MA ’22)!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2020)

Part of the magic in storytelling is that we can re-tell the stories that shape us. The thrill of the familiar becoming unfamiliar can be delightful. But, as many of us know in the age where the printed stories we love are being re-told onscreen in droves (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings all come to mind), the thrill of experiencing a new angle on our favorite fiction can sour into disappointment when the films are different than what we expect from our first encounter with the story:

“That’s not what Hermione looks like! The book says…”

“No, no, this is all wrong, Katniss and Peeta kiss WAY more often in the book than they do in the movie!”

You get the idea.

Clearly, there are good reasons to reject a film adaptation of a book as an unsuccessful re-telling of the story. But should we reject the movie version of that book we love as “unsuccessful” just because it’s “unfaithful” to the original material? Should we be wary of a film just because it makes changes to the story as it appears on the page?

Linda Hutcheon, in A Theory of Adaptation, speaks to these questions in a way that can help us work out our own response to film adaptations. She calls out the idea that a re-telling of a story is “bad” because it changes the details of the original material and questions such “morally loaded discourse of fidelity” (Hutcheon 7). In her work on adaptation, Hutcheon urges us to think twice before nodding along with detractors of a film whose primary criticism is that the movie is “unfaithful” to the original material—often meaning that a number of details have been changed. Hutcheon argues that, rather than expecting adaptations to strictly reproduce the details of the source material, we might more productively view adaptation as “a process of creation…that involves (re-)interpretation and (re-)creation” (Hutcheon 8).

Along with Hutcheon, we might think of adapting a text like translating a language. Those familiar with translation work can affirm that not everything can be “carried over” from communication in one language to the other. The adapter has to interpret the original work, decide what needs communicated, and in a new act of creation, must “translate” the original work to their audience through the process of adaptation.

With Hutcheon’s views of adaptation in mind, we might move beyond just asking whether a film adaptation is different from the text it adapts; we might ask what these differences show us about the original text. What might an adaptation, as a “text-in-translation,” show us about its source material that we might have missed before?

A case study of DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt (1998)—which self-consciously presents itself as “an adaptation of the Exodus story”—might help us think about ways we can put Hutcheon’s theory into practice.

In looking at The Prince of Egypt as a re-telling of the Exodus story—with its own significant emphases on aspects of the source material—we can see how elements central to the original text are “translated” through this animated adaptation of a moment in the Hebrew Bible that has profound significance not only in Jewish and Christian thought, but for anyone working to understand the Bible as literature.

On one hand, this animated musical follows the rough story beats of the first fifteen chapters of Exodus; on the other, there are significant differences between the film and this section of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the film (consistent with the focus in 1990s animated film on family struggles) locates much of the tension in the story in Moses’ personal struggle with his brother, Rameses—who has become Pharaoh of Egypt, and becomes Moses’  enemy in his mission to liberate the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (Russell 243). The text of Exodus is light on descriptive details when it comes to describing its characters’ emotional lives. The film fills in these details by emphasizing Moses’ emotional response to his peoples’ suffering—such as his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster in a moment of emotional turmoil (Reinhartz 208) as opposed to Exodus’ relatively deliberate and cold-blooded version of the same act. Reinhartz and others claim that, through its departures from the Exodus story, that The Prince of Egypt “softens” (Reinhartz 208) the original material. These claims about The Prince of Egypt’s departures from the Exodus story seem to assume that these changes represent a degradation of the Exodus story.

But what if The Prince of Egypt, as a “text-in-translation,” doesn’t degrade the central aspects of the Exodus story, but rather enhances them through the changes made in “translating” the story into film?

For instance, The Prince of Egypt departs from the Exodus story by adding details that make explicit what is subtext in the first fifteen chapters of Exodus: the nature of the God who paradoxically punishes Egypt’s unjust enslavement of the Hebrews, yet presents himself as “compassionate and gracious” in Exodus 34. The film navigates this tension by graphically portraying (in more detail than Exodus) both the intense suffering of the Hebrews and the Egyptian leadership’s intractably calloused response—necessitating divine judgement to put an end to the blatant injustice of the Hebrews’ slavery. The film also balances its portrayals of God’s judgement on Egypt through Moses’ visceral compassion for both Hebrew and Egyptian suffering. Through the filmmakers (re-)interpretation and (re-)creation of Moses’ character, the film adapts Moses (and by extension, the film’s representation of God) in a way that reflects and emphasizes the key idea of God’s character as presented in the original text of Exodus.

Rather than leaving us with an anemic version of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt’s departures from its source leave us with an adaptation of Exodus that is not only thematically consistent with original material, but—as Linda Hutcheon theorizes about adaptation in general—actually enhances our understanding of the core of the biblical text.

Works Cited

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

 The Prince of Egypt. Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells, written by Phillip LaZebnik. 1998. Hulu.

Reinhartz, Adele. Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films, Taylor & Francis Group, 2012. 

Russell, James. “Foundation Myths: DreamWorks SKG, The Prince of Egypt, and the Historical Epic Film.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, Feb. 2007, pp. 233-255.

Jefferson Storms (MA ’22)

2 thoughts on “The Prince of Egypt: The Exodus Story in (Re-)Translation

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