(NOTE: I’m not going to talk about the serious theological blunders of the work - which has been discussed thoroughly many times)
PS: Possible Spoilers Below
Finally having curiosity get the better of me, I decided to watch this film and read the original novel which caused a lot of Christians to go up in arms. First of all, I’m going to spoil the fun and now give my thoughts: I’m not too impressed by the film and found much of the novel too strange for my liking. Now, when people talk about The Last Temptation, most of the time they mean the controversial film version directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Willem Dafoe in the title role. Through reading, I found out that that ‘adaptation’ is actually a quite a bit of a different creature than the novel - the film cuts off a lot and introduces more.
The cutting off of some scenes is rather understandable. There are some more intense scenes in the original novel, such as:
“Matthew,” said Jesus, “bring your notebook here. What do you write?” Matthew got up and handed Jesus his writings. He was very happy. “Rabbi,” he said, “here I recount your life and works, for men of the future.” Jesus knelt under the lamp and began to read. At the very first words, he gave a start. He violently turned the pages and read with great haste, his face becoming red and angry. Seeing him, Matthew huddled fearfully in a corner and waited. Jesus skimmed through the notebook and then, unable to control himself any longer, stood up straight and indignantly threw Matthew’s Gospel down on the ground.
“What is this?” he screamed. “Lies! Lies! Lies! The Messiah doesn’t need miracles. He is the miracle—no other is necessary! I was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem; I’ve never even set foot in Bethlehem, and I don’t remember any Magi. I never in my life went to Egypt; and what you write about the dove saying ‘This is my beloved son’ to me as I was being baptized—who revealed that to you? I myself didn’t hear clearly. How did you find out, you, who weren’t even there?” “The angel revealed it to me,” Matthew answered, trembling.
“The angel? What angel?” “The one who comes each night I take up my pen. He leans over my ear and dictates what I write.” “An angel?” Jesus said, disturbed. “An angel dictates, and you write?” Matthew gathered courage. “Yes, an angel. Sometimes I even see him, and I always hear him: his lips touch my right ear. I sense his wings wrapping themselves around me. Swaddled in the angel’s wings like an infant, I write; no, I don’t write—I copy what he tells me. What did you think? Could I have written all those miracles by myself?”
“An angel?” Jesus murmured again, and he plunged into meditation. Bethlehem, Magi, Egypt, and “you are my beloved son”: if all these were the truest truth … If this was the highest level of truth, inhabited only by God … If what we called truth, God called lies … He did not speak. Bending down, he carefully gathered together the writings he had thrown on the ground and gave them to Matthew, who rewrapped them in the embroidered kerchief and hid them under his shirt, next to the skin.
“Write whatever the angel dictates,” Jesus said. “It is too late for me to…” But he left his sentence unfinished.
Perhaps because the filmmakers thought these would just give more reason for people to complain, they cut all this out, except for the quote “the Messiah himself is the miracle”, which was transposed to another scene. Meanwhile, some scenes may not have been filmed perhaps due to the film’s low budget.
Another difference is that in the film, Jesus is judged by Pilate in private, without the involvement of the Jewish leaders and with no crowd; there is no Simon of Cyrene. Yet, the novel itself is fairly standard at this point - Jesus is tried and beaten by the Sanhedrin (albeit ‘off-screen’), the trial before Pilate is a public affair, and the crowd shouts for Barabbas; even Matthew’s oft-misused “Let His blood be on us and on our children” is retained by Kazantzakis. Simon of Cyrene is present - albeit as a minor character: he is an innkeeper who runs the inn where the disciples are hiding. After the disciples prove to be a bunch of cowards who could not even volunteer to carry the cross for Jesus, he rebukes/insults them and goes out himself to do it. And later, as Jesus was crucified (and as the darkness spreads over the land), he has a vision that it was the angels themselves who nail Him to the cross:
Then [the soldiers] called the gypsies with the nails, but as the hammers were lifted and the first blow was heard, the sun hid its face; as the second was heard, the sky darkened and the stars appeared: not stars, but large tears which dripped onto the soil. The crowd was overcome with fright. The horses on which the Romans were mounted became ferocious. Rearing, they began to gallop furiously and trample the Jewry. Then earth, sky and air suddenly grew mute, as at the beginning of an earthquake.
Simon the Cyrenian fell prone onto the stones. The world had shaken many times under his feet, and he was terrified. “Alas! now the earth will open up and swallow us all,” he murmured.
He lifted his head and looked around him. The world seemed to have fainted. Deathly pale, it was now just barely visible in the bluish darkness. The heads of the people had vanished and only their eyes—black holes—bored through the air. A thick flock of crows which had scented the blood and rushed to Golgotha now fled in terror. A feeble gasp of complaint descended from the cross, and the Cyrenian, tying his heart into a knot so that he would not weep, lifted his eyes and looked. Suddenly he uttered a cry. Jesus was not being nailed to the cross by gypsies! No, a multitude of angels had come down from heaven, holding hammers and nails in their hands. They flew around Jesus, swung the hammers happily and nailed the hands and feet; some tightly bound the victim’s body with stout cord so that he would not fall; and a small angel with rosy cheeks and golden curls held a lance and pierced Jesus’ heart.
“What is this?” murmured the Cyrenian, trembling. “God himself, God himself is crucifying him!”