Bringing ‘The Prophet,’ a book of poems, to the big screen

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Originally published in Boston Globe by Ethan Gilsdorf

Novels are adapted into films all the time. Same with short stories, plays, and memoirs. Even cocktail-napkin scribbles find a second life on the screen.

But poetry? Not so much. Unless you’re cribbing from a heroic epic like “Beowulf,” or a nonsensical tongue-twister from Dr. Seuss (“The Lorax”), it’s the rare work of verse that becomes a movie.

Which makes the journey of Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” to Hollywood all the more unlikely. And yet, an animated feature based on the Lebanese-American artist and poet’s 1923 book of philosophical essays written in poetic English prose, which has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into 40 languages, has finally come to pass.

Co-produced by Salma Hayek, directed by Roger Allers (“The Lion King”), and starring a vocal cast headed by Hayek, Liam Neeson, and John Krasinski, “The Prophet” opens Friday.

The movie is “a love letter to my heritage,” Hayek said in a press statement. The Mexican actress and director’s paternal grandfather came from Lebanon, and she grew up reading “The Prophet.” “It wasn’t until my late teens that I actually experienced its beauty and power,” Hayek said. “Kahlil Gibran loves life. Every poem is a love affair with life and this is a movie about life.”

Gibran’s roots run deep in Boston. Born in 1883 in Bsharri, a town in what is today northern Lebanon, Gibran immigrated to Boston with his mother and three siblings in 1895. Growing up in the South Cove neighborhood (part of what is now Chinatown), he made Boston his home until 1912, aside from a few years back in Lebanon and in Paris. He died in 1931.

“Because of the reception he was given in the United States by people who were cultured and had the means to help him, he’s the perfect example of an immigrant succeeding in this country,” said Jean Gibran, who lives in the South End. She was married to the poet’s cousin, also named Kahlil Gibran, and with her late husband coauthored a biography, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World.” “It couldn’t be better, could it?”

Despite Gibran writing “The Prophet” in English, not his native Arabic, Gibran has the status of a “national poet” in his home country, said Franck Salameh, who teaches Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. “He spoke to the yearnings and affections and nostalgia of the majority of Lebanese.” In America, Gibran was considered “exotic,” “spiritual,” “mystical.” “The Prophet” was “fetishized” in America, Salameh said, especially during the counterculture era.

According to Jean Gibran, people were interested in making a movie of “The Prophet” as early as the late 1920s. “He knew it and he discussed it.” But adapting Gibran’s poetic treatise of philosophical essays-in-verse was no easy feat.

To be sure, not all 26 poems could be included. So the first job was for Allers, the director, to figure out which ones to use and how to integrate them. “I wanted them to fit gracefully into the narrative,” Allers said in a telephone interview from Beverly Hills.

What narrative? The original book has plenty of pearls of wisdom, but hardly any story or characters. There’s a prophet named Almustafa who has “waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.” Then, his ship comes in. Before he departs Orphalese, the populace implores him to share his sage advice on such topics as “Work,” “Joy and Sorrow,” “Crime and Punishment,” and “Beauty.” “Your children are not your children,” Almustafa proclaims in the poem titled “Children,” “they come through you but not from you.” “Marriage” counsels: “Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone.” Each poem corresponds to one of the lessons, but there’s zero plot.

To knit the esoteric poetical sermons together, Allers had to create an overarching narrative. “I tried to extrapolate from the very little story that was there and build out from there.” In the prose poems, the Almustafa character remains static. “For the story to be satisfying, you do want your character to go through some sort of a change.” To solve the problem, Allers and Hayek introduced a spunky but mute little girl Almitra (voiced by Quvenzhané Wallis), who befriends the prophet, now named Mustafa (Neeson), under house arrest because of his radical poetry. Comic relief is provided by Krasinski’s bumbling soldier, Halim, and his boss, a sergeant (Alfred Molina). Almitra’s mother, Mustafa’s housekeeper, is played by Hayek; that character, Kamila, is named for Gibran’s mother.

Once set free, Mustafa walks to his ship, and has eight different encounters along the way. Each encounter corresponds to one of Gibran’s poetic lessons and is accompanied by its own lyrical-meditative-musical animated segment, each created by a different animator: Tomm Moore (Ireland); Michal Socha (Poland); Paul and Gaetan Brizzi and Joann Sfar (France); Mohammed Saeed Harib (United Arab Emirates); and Bill Plympton, Joan Gratz, and Nina Paley (United States). Each of the animators worked in a different artistic style, from Plympton’s surreal pencil-sketches in “Eating and Drinking” and Gratz’s van Gogh-like “claypainting” in “Work,” to Paley’s bold graphic designs for “Children,” the haunting Photoshop-like effects in Socha’s “Freedom” and the dreamy watercolor look of Harib’s “Good and Evil.”

The visuals are complemented by original music by Damien Rice and Yo-Yo Ma, among others, and a score composed by Oscar-winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”).

The old-fashioned look and feel of “The Prophet” evokes the painterly talents of Gibran himself more so than computer-generated fare. In fact, Allers said, animators began making “The Prophet” using hand-drawn techniques before having to go with CG for budgetary reasons. To preserve the older look, they pioneered a technique that flattened out 3-D models.

“We’ve definitely colored outside the lines,” Allers said. “It’s not your typical movie, because we’re setting out to present philosophical poetry. That’s not your usual kids film. But I do think it’s accessible to kids.” Allers admitted to the “nervous factor” in taking on “something so beloved.” “I’m going to be taking some liberties,” he remembered thinking. “I hope I don’t turn off all these people who love this book.”

It is hoped “The Prophet” appeals to those who have found solace and insight in Gibran’s venerated book. At least one fan (who hadn’t yet seen the film) seemed happy. “The fact that Salma [Hayek] had done this and has produced something that honors an immigrant and honors the poetry that people like and understand,” Jean Gibran said, “I think she deserves a lot of credit.”


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Billy Buntin

Written by Billy Buntin

Billy is a visual effects artist based in Washington, DC and the founder of the production house, BB Digital

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