Apocalypto and Collapse

2 minute read

There has been quite a bit of discussion about how Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto fits or doesn't fit certain good or bad cultural stereotypes. Such as:

  • He employed Maya actors (good).
  • He shot a fictional mural of a beheading (bad).
  • He used the Maya language (good).
  • He exploited violent colonialist stereotypes (bad).

When I read this review of the movie, a sentence struck me:

It is not an obsessive opera like Mr. Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," but rather a pop period epic in the manner of "Gladiator" or "Braveheart," and as such less interested in historical or cultural authenticity than in imposing an accessible scheme on a faraway time and place.

Haven't you noticed that Apocalypto is basically a novelization of the Maya part of Jared Diamond's Collapse?

Here's the plot outline of the movie from IMDB:

As the Maya kingdom faces its decline, the rulers insist the key to prosperity is to build more temples and offer human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young man chosen for sacrifice, flees the kingdom to avoid his fate.

If you want to read a short version of Diamond's claims about the Maya, you can find them in this online version of Diamond's Harper's magazine article from 2003:

Bringing matters to a head was a drought that, although not the first one the Maya had been through, was the most severe. At the time of previous droughts, there were still uninhabited parts of the Maya landscape, and people in a drought area or dust bowl could save themselves by moving to another site. By the time of the Classic collapse, however, there was no useful unoccupied land in the vicinity on which to begin anew, and the whole population could not be accommodated in the few areas that continued to have reliable water supplies.
The final strand is political. Why did the kings and nobles not recognize and solve these problems? A major reason was that their attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not have the leisure to focus on long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.

Diamond pushes this simplified version of Maya history as an allegory for U.S. ecological hubris.

Gibson apparently has taken the same tale and made it -- like his other movies -- into a morality play about individual liberty and defense of family. He's less into ecological hubris, and more into the dangers of unrestrained power. That's probably a good idea, since films about ecological hubris are generally very dull.

On the other hand, films about abuse of power generally paint with a very broad brush. And when the premise (as in Collapse) is that the abusive power is used stupidly, the morality play can reach absurd proportions.

In any event, if you're looking for the social zeitgeist behind this Apocalypto phenomenon, it would seem to derive from these widespread assumptions about Maya ecology and political structures that Diamond has helped to popularize. Collapse itself already simplifies vastly to make his point about ecologies and social regulation. The entire book is a case of "imposing an accessible scheme on a faraway time and place."

Gibson has certainly simplified far more to make the situation dramatic. But clearly the two are tied together, and plausibly the film wouldn't have its form without the book.