Films that Mishandle the Faustus Story


Film Friday

The baseball playoffs, which concluded with a San Francisco win over the Texas Rangers this past week, have had me thinking about the Faustus story and how many modern renditions of the story get it wrong. If this seems like a leap, let me explain.

The Texas Rangers used to be the Washington Senators, a storied franchise that, year after year, lost to the New York Yankees, baseball’s perennial powerhouse. In the 1950’s this frustration led to the Broadway musical/Hollywood film Damn Yankees in which Joe Hardy, a diehard Senators fan, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for his team winning the American League championship. This is accomplished through Joe becoming a powerful rookie hitter. When the Rangers this year beat the Yankees to win the American League pennant, I scanned their roster wondering which player was now soulless.

Actually, to be accurate, the Texas Rangers didn’t used to be those Washington Senators. The original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota and then a second Washington Senators team was set up and then it moved to Texas. But don’t worry about following all of that. I’m just using this as an occasion to complain about the way that too many movies sell the Faustus story short.

Basically, they fail to grasp the true nature of soul-selling, which is as ugly a business as there is. In the Christopher Marlowe play, when the devil’s henchman first shows up he is so horrific that Faustus orders him to change his appearance. He doesn’t want to see what is really involved, which is violating one’s essence. Because they use the sell-souling story as a formula without wrestling with what the soul means, the movies I have in mind empty the story of its essential content.

Which is okay, I guess. But comedy can explore substantive issues no less than tragedy so these movies miss out on a great opportunity.  Don’t think that you are learning anything about the nature of the soul when you watch them.

In Damn Yankees, Joe Hardy gets to have everything: he sells his soul, achieves fame, realizes that love is more important than fame, gets his soul back, and then becomes famous anyway. The idea that the desire for winning can cause people to sacrifice their principles (we see this all the time) and the idea that people will act out of integrity to become famous (we also see this all the time) are dismissed as shallow concerns. Joe both finds true love and sees the Senators win the pennant. Only in America.

The Cohn Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou isn’t any better. Its character Tommy Johnson is a version of the famous blues musician Robert Johnson who (legend has it) sold his soul to the devil for his skill on the guitar. The directors love playing with the idea of his having sold his soul, but there is no substance to the idea. In becoming an accomplished musician, Johnson would actually have been listening to the voice of his soul, not selling it. He would have “sold it” only if he had turned his back on his gift.


There are a couple of episodes of the Simpsons where characters sell their souls. Homer sells his for a donut in an episode that owes its plot to Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for (I believe) a vintage comic book. They are humorous but don’t make much sense.

In Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls (2009), a film I watched with my film group last week, a character feels so burdened down by his soul that he puts it in cold storage. Unfortunately for him, it is stolen and sold on the black market in Russia. (People in the movie traffic in souls as people traffic in human organs, and there are special soul mules who, like drug mules, carry souls across national borders, where they are extracted and sold.) For a while, he ends up with a replacement soul, belonging to a Russian woman in a menial job, but decides he wants his own soul back.

The film is somewhat clever but ultimately unsatisfactory. It fails to offer any interesting insights into the nature of the soul which, after all, is not a thing or even something that can be defined.  The film quotes Descartes as saying that the soul is located in the pineal gland, but that just means it shares Descartes’ limited view of the soul.

A more useful discussion occurs in Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, who associates the soul with “genuineness and depth.” Moore writes that the soul is simultaneously beyond life and “tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.” The gratitude we feel when we receive gifts, the warmth we experience when we serve others, are signs of soul. Soul is present when we are enlarged and ennobled by a work of art. We encounter it when we are lifted up in public worship services and comforted in private prayer. Soul presides in our love of other human beings.

In sum, because the Faustus story is culturally familiar, it provides comic filmmakers with a useful cultural framework, but they seldom take on its broader ramifications.

Maybe some of the problem lies with a misunderstanding that Faustus himself demonstrates in Marlowe’s play. Faustus only thinks that he sells his soul to the devil. In fact, the soul can’t be sold because it is not a material object, not a noun. It is only because he is thinking materially that Faustus thinks that his contract with the devil, signed in his own blood, is final. But as the good angel tells him repeatedly, he can always turn back to his soul (and turn back to God).

The movies I’ve been talking about all start with the premise that the soul can be sold. This forestalls any deeper discussion.

An exception is The Devil’s Advocate, starring Al Pacino as the devil. Keanu Reeves plays an unscrupulous lawyer whose life becomes empty as he uses his legal brilliance on behalf of evil clients.

The film sometimes indulges in caricature and becomes overly dramatic, but it has an ending that (in my eyes) somewhat saves it. Reeves sees the error of his ways, turns toward the good, and rejects both his crooked client and the devil. Everyone is deeply impressed with his actions and begins praising him. Someone mentions political office. As the Reeves character basks in their praise, we see the devil back on the scene. He hasn’t left after all. He has just been fashioning a more subtle temptation.

We’ve had many great movies that show the costs of violating our essence (Citizen Kane for one, The Godfather for another). Living as we do in a wealthy and materialistic society, we are in particular danger of losing sight of what is truly valuable.  Good stories can help us remain true, and the Faustus plot continues to be timely. It’s just not being used very well.

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  1. Susan
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    This is a great post, Robin. It’s helpful to think about “selling your soul” not so much as a transaction that is over once and for all, but rather a commitment to get to your ends by the means and aid of the “Devil”. To see Faust as one who could not see a way out helps to dig deeper into the psyche of the “Faustian bargain.” Scenes of policemen/bystanders trying to talk down potential suicides from bridges or rooftop ledges come to mind. The conversation usually sounds something like this: “we can help you work through (whatever)” to which the suicide responds “no, there’s no way out (or back)”.

    Hopelessness is a powerful tactic of the enemy (and the Devil is certainly no friend to one’s soul). An example of this is the scene in “The Lord of the Rings” when Aragorn has brought his army to the gates of Mordor, trying to distract the Eye of Sauron and buy Frodo the time he needs to destroy the ring. They are met by Sauron’s spokesman, who shows them Frodo’s elven mail and sword, derisively announcing his death and the failure of the quest. The move is meant to bring despair and to sap the energy of the forces who come against Sauron.

    But Frodo is not dead; the hopelessness is based on a lie – the modus operandus of all who pattern themselves after the devil. The musician in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” falls prey to a familiar lie: you can’t get where you want to go unless you take a certain path. The steps on this slippery slope often include violence, deprivation, shortcuts (steroids, for instance), and isolation. Since we are often unsure about our soul’s desires, we can find it hard to believe that they are not only good but doable, and that there is another way (Dao) we can take. This alternate path is one of peace, diligence and collaboration with the loving energy of the universe that desires our desires and graciously makes all things available to us to achieve them.

    The past political posts have made me wonder if this lie (the means justify the end) isn’t often swallowed by those engaging in the political process. For instance, how many “pledge allegiance” to the belief that we have to use violence to get our ‘good goals’ accomplished? This can be more obvious when it comes to critiquing recent military engagements, but it is not far from us during elections. The use of godfather-like hits (as those recently reported in Mexico) may not be common in the US, but by using language of violence to make our political conversational partner an enemy who should be attacked and beaten, we assassinate in similar ways. Jesus’ teaching on this is strident – to call a man a “fool” is the same as murder.

    Another lie is the one that says we must use fear to motivate people. In this I find some political advisors and their tactics repulsive. I would like to believe, and indeed try to work from this belief, that love is stronger than fear or hate. And seeking to understand as a community what it means to live in love will not only move us forward, but will create the sort of environment where life flourishes. Politics of fear and hate and violence may create a space, but it will look like a bomb shelter when we open the doors to move in.

    Is there hope that Faustian souls can dump the devil and find redemption from the past and a way forward? Maybe contemplating Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” can be encouraging as the holidays approach. Certainly here is someone who had made a pact with the devil, but was repulsed enough by the face of his bed partner that he was willing to do the hard work of changing his perspective, seeking forgiveness and opening himself up to the creative generosity of love.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Back at you with “great post,” Susan. There’s so much I want to say that I think I’ll devote Sunday’s post to a reply. Just quickly here, a number of themes you mention show up in Marlowe’s Faustus including him twice contemplating suicide. It confirms for me just how great a play Faustus is. And I love your mention of Lord of the Rings. Another figure in the book who is focused inwardly on his pain and pessimism is Denethor, steward of Gondor who spends all of his time gazing into the palintir, which he thinks shows him the truth but it is a truth distorted by Sauron, the dark lord. Thus he gives up hope (and commits suicide) when he sees the black sailed ships of the enemy sailing up the river. What he doesn’t know is that those ships have been seized by Aragorn’s forces and so are coming to rescue his city, not defeat it. As is the case with Frodo’s cloak, the hopelessness is based on a lie.

  3. Jason Blake
    Posted November 6, 2010 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Excellent post (and comment!). Good insight on wise clever at the end of “The Devils Advocate.”
    Is there any other tale with such staying power? Goethe…Lenau…Thomas Mann…Gounod…Berlioz, and I’m sure I’m missing loads, all lean directly on the old scholar Faust.
    And yet it’s pop culture that generally makes for a classroom entry-point into this archetypal story: “Do you know Goethe’s Faust? Nope? How ’bout the Simpsons…?”

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    A member of my film group (we met again this past Friday to watch the heartwarming dark comedy City Island) sent me the following comment on Cold Souls:

    I actually think Cold Souls does make me think about what it means to have a soul in the ways you discuss in the paragraph after you say it doesn’t work. When the main character goes soul-less, he’s in agony – he can’t act, he can’t relate to his wife, and he realizes all of that. When he gets the Russian woman’s soul, he realizes how important souls are but also knows you can’t just have any old soul; your own soul is who you are – it’s what allows you to have relationships, to work, and so on. If he follows the woman who’s been the vessel for carrying souls in the end, I think it’s because he realizes she really understands what he’s learned from his experiences in ways maybe other people in his life can’t do (plus, she is carrying a tiny part of his soul, still). While I can see the Faustus connections, I didn’t read the movie really as a retelling of that story – he’s not selling his soul, he’s trying to get it out of his way because of all the emotions that come with having a soul – and I was intrigued by the story both emotionally and intellectually. So – that’s another viewer’s response.

    Another member of the group noted that I could also have mentioned the two Bedazzled movies.


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