Though fans have often clamored for a sequel to 1970s classic Zardoz, only the Hughes Brothers could have done it, with Book of Eli. But did they toss aside the original film's message to reboot it for a new generation?
Released in 1974, Zardoz starred Sean Connery fresh from his role as James Bond and became an instant cult classic. Written and directed by John Boorman, who later made Excalibur, the movie is a trippy post-apocalypse about a warrior named Zed who discovers a precious book that belongs to a God named Zardoz. After having several conversations with Zardoz, Zed decides to go on a quest a strange place called Vortex 4 to find out more about how the book gave Zardoz his power.
This is the same basic plot in Book of Eli, with some startling changes that I'll go into below. With Eli, we've got our contemporary high-wattage action star (Denzel Washington) moving through a world whose rules make as much sense as an LSD trip. He's been given a message from God that he must protect a precious book, and he's on a quest to deliver the book to a mysterious land.
The Hughes Brothers obviously decided to borrow liberally from the apocalyptic landscape of Zardoz for Book of Eli, though of course they relocated the story to near-future America from far-future England. (Zardoz takes place in 2293, while Eli is set just a few decades into the future.) In the images above, you can see that the landscape in Eli (top) is much more sparsely-populated than Zardoz (bottom), but still contains the telltale wrecked cars and crumbling road signs of a fallen civilization.
Both films also have their share of rampaging post-apocalyptic murderers who stand in for the dark side of humanity. But here's where Book of Eli starts to diverge from Zardoz. Zed is a former member of the assassins in their scary red masks. He's joined them on raids where they kill people in shabby business clothes that have lasted mysteriously for 300 years. But unlike Zed, Eli has never been a member of an assassin's group. He does, however, carry handiwipes in little foil packages from Kentucky Fried Chicken that have mysteriously lasted for 30 years.
Also, Zed uses a gun while Eli uses both a gun and a knife. This makes Eli slightly more awesome than Zed, except for one thing. Denzel Washington never appears in Sean Connery's iconic outfit (pictured at the top of this post). This transformation from bright red underwear and bondage halter to dour cargo jacket is a clear sign that this reboot of Zardoz has been drained of its masculine intensity. While Connery's manhood is displayed with pride, Washington remains chastely robed (though there are some Zardoz-esque scenes where he washes his crotch with the handiwipes).
One of the things that fans will no doubt find frustrating is the way Book of Eli completely eliminates one of the most important parts of the original movie: Hearing God talk to Zed. In Zardoz, we meet God right away, as you can see in the clip below, and we even get to hear his sermon about guns and penises. Clearly Eli is acting on this same message, since he carries a lot of guns and never shows anybody his penis. But why eliminate such an important part of the story?
At least Book of Eli has the decency to preserve the original villain, a book lover who wants to control people with religion. In Eli, this adversary has been renamed Carnegie. In Zardoz he's known simply as Zardoz, and occasionally by his real name, Arthur. Below you can see Carnegie reading about Mussolini, his role model. Carnegie wants a very special book that Eli has in his possession, which he thinks will help him attain dictatorial power. And then there's Arthur with his book of choice.
This brings me to the main problem with this reboot of Zardoz. The Hughes Brothers changed the holy book from Wizard of Oz to The Bible. Before we get into how little sense this makes, another basic point needs to be made. This changes the whole meaning of the movie! The point of Zardoz is that religion can be used to control people, no matter how silly and random the source material is for that religion. The fact that God is Zardoz, a name drawn from the title of a children's book, is supposed to underscore this basic idea. But when you make that book into the Bible, that point is lost! Instead, the Hughes Brothers seem to be saying that the book itself has the power to create religion, not the other way around. Here is how we find out about the "holy book" in the original film:
Now this book is the Bible? I keep going over this change in my mind, wondering what the filmmakers were thinking. Did they really want to imply that Christianity, a religion that millions of people view as truth, is the same thing as Zardoz-worship? Are they really going that far out on a limb in their anti-Christian sentiment that they would compare going to church with worshiping a giant floating head that vomits up guns? You could call this move brave, but I think it's just an example of a bad reboot.
It seems that the Hughes Brothers are trying to say that the premise of the movie they remade was totally wrong. They're promoting the idea that some books are magically holy and human manipulation has nothing to do with it. And this makes absolutely no sense. I mean, if the idea is that Eli has a book that can manipulate people, it absolutely has to be Wizard of Oz, which is about a guy who manipulates people with Oz-worship from behind a curtain. How can it be the Bible? Is Moses supposed to be the guy behind the curtain? How does that fit with the plot of the movie at all? I feel betrayed. And I think many fans will too.
But that isn't the worst betrayal. It gets much, much worse.
In Zardoz, Zed becomes involved with two women, just as Eli does in Book of Eli. These women are battling for his soul. So far, so good. In Zardoz, these two women are scientists who hate men, and must be taught about true manhood in order to be redeemed. But the two women in Eli are both prostitutes owned by Carnegie - they aren't even scientists, let alone man-hating feminists. Where is the true manhood in Eli? He wears that shapeless outfit and never talks about sex at all. And when one of the women offers herself to Eli, he doesn't show her his manhood - instead, he prays with her!
Here is what happens in Zardoz when the scientist is first exposed to Zed's true power [NSFW].
And here is what Eli does in Book of Eli. No erections. Just hand-holding and praying.
How could two men making a film with one of the most potent, masculine actors on screen manage to drain away all that is virile about this character? They've turned him into a churchy milquetoast! I would be offended if this weren't simply another example of how Hollywood just wants to recycle old classics and turn them into mainstream garbage. I should be used to it by now.
I won't even get into how Book of Eli completely tossed aside the genetic engineering subplot, which also changes the movie's message. Suffice to say Zardoz's point about evolution seems to have been tossed aside as easily as Wizard of Oz was.
One way that Book of Eli did succeed was in the fight scenes. Even though Zardoz is a more potent film in every way, it didn't have nearly enough knifing or hand-to-hand combat. Nor did it have tanks or barroom brawls. Also, thankfully, Book of Eli did preserve one of the most important final moments from Zardoz. I won't give you spoilers, but I will say that if you are hoping for an updated version of this scene, below, then you're in for a treat when you see Book of Eli. But other than that, it's a reboot that barely does justice to the original. Book of Eli manages to follow the basic plot of Zardoz, while completely draining away all the meaning and coherence of the original.