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You're on the run from the law. Soldiers and police hunt you. If they catch you, they will kill you. They've already murdered innocent people suspected of hiding you. For what crime do they want you dead, you ask? For being a priest. And you're the last one!
[End dramatic movie trailer voice]
No, this isn't the newest hit action movie. Far from it! This is the life of the unnamed priest in British author Graham Greene's acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory. Set in a southern Mexican state during the 1930s, the novel tells the story of a vice-ridden runaway priest, a tenacious police lieutenant who hunts him, and the inhabitants of the land whose lives are altered by the chase. It's sort of like The Fugitive with a drunken Harrison Ford and a lot of religion thrown in.
You see, this was a time and a place in which being an active priest was a crime punishable by death. Wait…what? Yep, you read that right. The Roman Catholic Church, once the official religion of Mexico, had been suppressed by the government. Why? Control, mainly. The church and the state each had their ideas about how society ought to be run, and their ideas didn't dance to the same beat. They didn't just step on each other's toes—they stomped on them.
Adding insult to injury, the fugitive priest is hardly a hero. He's called a "whisky priest"—a derogatory term for morally weak or corrupt clergy. This priest drinks a lot, as you'd expect, but he's also cowardly and unrepentant for many of his mortal sins. He's not the stuff martyrs are made of, to put it kindly.
The novel, published in 1940, is widely praised as a masterful work of literature. Time Magazine named it one of the best English language novels since 1923. It has been adapted for both film and television, with legends such as Lawrence Olivier and Henry Fonda in the lead role.
Greene was a Catholic convert, but his novel drew criticism and even (gasp!) condemnation from the Vatican, which demanded he revise the offending aspects. Greene responded that his publisher held the copyright, he made no changes, and the controversy faded. Oh well. The perils of life before Twitter and 24 hour cable news. If it happened today we'd have kept that scandal going for a long while.
Anyhow, if you enjoy taking a leisurely stroll through the intersection of politics, religion, and scandalous personalities—all within a tense cat-and-mouse thriller—then you can't go wrong with The Power and the Glory.
Tuned in to cable news lately? Scanned your Twitter feed? Eyeballed posts by that Facebook friend who never tires of politics? If you answered "Yes" to any of these questions, then you probably know there's an escalating controversy in the United States about the meaning and limits of religious freedom—which is just as much a can of worms now as it was then.
Companies have objected to requirements in the new healthcare law that they offer insurance coverage for birth control, bakers have refused to make cakes for same-sex weddings (Let them eat cake!), and some aren't sure whether or not it's appropriate to recite the full pledge of allegiance—not everyone trusts in God, after all. No doubt these conflicts will continue as these issues are worked out in the courts and public opinion.
All controversy aside, however, we're pretty lucky we even get to have these debates in the first place. In other places of the world today, practicing the wrong religion can get you a death sentence. That's the world of The Power and the Glory.
Clergy are hunted and executed. Churches are destroyed. Religious books and public prayers are outlawed. Owning a religious statue can get you thrown in prison for a night. Displaying The Da Vinci Code or Left Behind on your bookshelf wouldn't be too wise either. Heck, even a VeggieTales video could put you in a pickle. Holy persecution, Batman!
The novel realistically captures all this, yes, but it's more concerned with the people involved, their motivations and internal struggles, and the affects the suppression of the Church has on them. Its characters might not all have names, but they're all very much people. No aliens here, folks. Or talking dogs, for that matter. Sorry, Clifford.
The novel's antagonist is capable of murder, but his anger at the Church is understandable and not entirely unjustified. The hero is seldom heroic and often guilty of the hypocrisies that so rile up his oppressors. Greene doesn't get preachy about all this persecution. He keeps it real.
Well now, that's complicated. What's Greene painting with these shades of grey? One. Provocative. Picture. The Power and the Glory challenges us to consider the individuals involved in religious suppression as complicated people, not as cartoon heroes and villains. It blurs the line between saints and sinners.
A discomforting thought? We think so. Whatever else we can say about Greene, he wasn't looking for universal affirmation.
But we like him anyway.
A little biography of Graham Greene courtesy of the Guardian, with clear headings for your reading pleasure.
A Timeless Treasure
Of Time Magazine, which named The Power and the Glory one of the best all time novels. We say it's time for some reading. Hardy-har-har.
Behind the Scenes
A page briefly describing how Graham Greene wrote and revised the manuscript. Complete with deleted scenes and other behind-the-scenes features. You don't even have to buy the Blu-ray.
Lawrence Olivier as a Mexican Priest
A 1961 made-for-TV movie. The Shakespearean giant Olivier plays the priest. George C. Scott took the role of the lieutenant. Sir Ian McKellen plays the wizard. Oh wait—wrong movie.
The Original Fugitive
No, not the Harrison Ford movie, although we like that too. The Fugitive was also the name of a 1947 movie based on The Power and the Glory. Henry Fonda played the priest. Sir Ian McKellen played the magnetic mutant. WAIT—wrong movie, again. Sorry guys.
Affected by Novels
How does being a world-traveling, controversial novelist affect your standing in foreign countries? This 1971 interview in the Guardian has some fascinating tidbits. Did Greene cause international scandal? Read on to find out.
An Unconventional Catholic Novelist
In this interview in the Paris Review, Greene talks about the fates of his characters in light of his Catholic imagination, whatever that means.
On the Docks
An early scene from the movie The Fugitive, based on Greene's The Power and the Glory. The filmmakers clearly took a few liberties.
A Classic Penguin
Ian Walker from Penguin Classics talks briefly about Graham Greene's famous novel.
Graham NPR Greene
Scott Simon of NPR discusses the works of our author.
The Great Life of Graham Greene
A BBC program episode on the mysterious man that was Mr. Greene.
The author in the springtime of his youth.
The author in his not so youth.
An image of the novel. Not too exciting on the outside, but open it up and…