Poetry in Motion
Beloved the world over, The Prophet is reimagined for the screen.
By Greta Lorge
CLARK PETERSON REMEMBERS WELL the first time he encountered Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. It was 1984 and he was a freshman living in Branner. One of his dorm mates showed him a “funny little book” with an image of a mustachioed man with dark, penetrating eyes on the cover. The slim volume, about the size of a modern e-reader tablet, contained 26 prose poems on themes such as freedom, love, work, morality and death delivered by a fictional sage.
By far the best-known and most commercially successful work by the Lebanese-born author Gibran, The Prophet has been in continuous publication since 1923 and has been translated into dozens of languages. By one New York Timesreviewer’s reckoning, it has “outsold all American poets from Auden to Whitman.”
Like millions of readers before him — and millions more since — Peterson was captivated by it. “For a college freshman just starting to discover poetry and philosophy, it speaks to things that are relatable and yet are new to a young person,” he says. He bought a copy and kept it for many years, delving into it every so often for inspiration, guidance or simply to soothe a broken heart.
Meanwhile, Peterson was paying his dues in Hollywood, interning for prolific producer Roger Corman, ‘47, working in international film distribution for Walt Disney Studios, and eventually developing scripts and producing low-budget movies of his own. “I pretty much just started at the bottom and kept working for many years,” he says.
Peterson’s star continued to rise. He was a producer on the 2003 film Monster, which was named Movie of the Year by the American Film Institute and earned Charlize Theron an Oscar for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Then, in 2009, he happened to meet Steve Hanson, who was trying to secure the film rights to The Prophet. Hanson’s undertaking was complicated by the fact that Gibran, who died in 1931, had bequeathed the royalties from his books to his hometown of Bsharri, Lebanon. When he and Peterson met, Hanson was already five years into negotiations with the Gibran National Committee, which had been set up to administer the distribution of the proceeds and control the licensing of Gibran’s work.
The Prophet is not an obvious book to make into a film, Peterson concedes. For one thing, it has only a minimal narrative framework: After the wise man spends 12 years living among the people of a land called Orphalese, a ship has come to bear him back to his home. But Peterson was immediately drawn to the project. For him it called to mind another movie that didn’t have much of a narrative through line: Disney’s Fantasia. His idea was to have different pieces of animation accompany the poems. “Animation is perhaps the most poetic of cinematic forms,” he says.
“I didn’t want this to be one person’s interpretation because the book has touched so many people.”
Hanson loved the concept and brought Peterson on as producer. But Peterson felt that he needed another partner to help sell the project: “Even though The Prophet is a very well-known title, it’s still not easy to get financing for a movie about a book of poems.” So he teamed up with Salma Hayek’s production company, Ventanarosa.
The Mexican-born actress, whose paternal grandfather was Lebanese, also had a profound personal connection to The Prophet. As she has since recounted in several media interviews, her grandfather always kept the little book by the side of his bed. Years later, when she read it as a young adult, “it was as if my grandfather was teaching me about life . . . and through this book I also learned about this man who I loved so much.”
Hayek wanted to make a movie that would appeal not only to adults familiar with Gibran’s work, but to children as well, Peterson says. She felt that the narrative portion should be expanded (they eventually enlisted Lion Kingwriter/director Roger Allers to develop the connecting story), which meant scaling back the number of poems. And they agreed that each of the poems should be animated by a different artist.
“I didn’t want this to be one person’s interpretation,” Peterson says, “because the book has obviously touched so many people around the world.”
Next he called up Jonathan King, ‘84, who oversees development of narrative features for Participant Media. The two had met at Stanford while both were living in Alpha Sig. Over lunch at a low-key Beverly Hills brasserie called (perhaps auspiciously) the Farm, Peterson pitched King the idea: “Let’s make an international celebration of this book.”
Founded by Jeff Skoll, MBA ‘95, Participant is known for award-winning movies and documentaries that deal with social issues. Since joining the company in 2007, King has overseen production on such films as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). The Prophet might not have seemed like a natural fit. “It’s the kind of movie we don’t often do,” King admits. “We’ve never done an animated movie before.” But that was part of the appeal. “It was such a unique way to talk about global peace issues.”
In life, Gibran was considered a political dissident throughout much of the Arab world. Participant plans to launch a social action campaign about prisoners of conscience in conjunction with the release of the film. In Allers’s screenplay, the poet, imprisoned for his “seditious” works, forms an unlikely friendship with a mischievous young girl. Eight poems are interspersed as he dispenses parting counsel to the villagers while being escorted to his ship by authorities. Gibran’s words come to life in the girl’s imagination — each in a distinct visual style, including colored-pencil scrawls, stop-motion clay painting and a kaleidoscopic mosaic of geometric shapes.
The creative decision to have a different artist interpret each poem had a pragmatic benefit, too: Eight satellite studios worked simultaneously while Allers oversaw the animation for the main narrative. A typical animated feature might take five years to make; this one took two. “We didn’t have a Disney or a Pixar budget, so we had to think outside the box a little bit,” Peterson says. With Participant as the highest-profile backer, the film’s modest $12 million budget came from an unusually diverse group of investors.
A portion of the film that was screened as a work-in-progress at the Festival de Cannes in May received a warm reception from the insider event’s typically chilly critics. Peterson couldn’t be in France for the screening; his wife was giving birth to their second son. But he will be in the audience when Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. It’s a surreal experience, he says, to sit in a theater and watch something that began as a thought in your head go out into the world.
There’s a reason the act of creation is so often compared to that of procreation. In either case, as Gibran put it: ‘Your children are not your children. . . . You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.’
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