Recently at the Cannes Film Festival, actress Salma Hayek premiered parts of her film adaptation of the 1923 spiritual classic The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. The animated film, reflecting the episodic format of the book, is divided into eight separate short but related films, each with a different director. Some critics remarked on the oddity of this celebrated Hollywood star choosing as her first producing project what most of us think of as a somewhat old-fashioned spiritual classic. As the L.A. Times put it, it’s “for meditative types.” But she’s far from the first celebrity to become taken with the small book of verse on major life topics, from love to parenting, in its 90+ year history.
Let’s start with Elvis. His Memphis girlfriend, June, received a copy for her high-school graduation in 1956, before regifting it to Elvis when he seemed sad one day. After that, The King carried it with him, in his glove compartment, on his nightstand, and when he went to Germany as a soldier. Reportedly it gave him comfort after his mother’s death. He would underline and annotate copies and give them away to friends. Sample annotation: “A singer can sing his songs, but they must have a ear to receive the songs.”
We don’t know when John Lennon got his copy, but by the time of the Beatles’ infamous visit to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, he had a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s later book Sand and Foam, which is where he borrowed the “Julia” lyrics, “half of what I say is meaningless…” and “when I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind.” Nobody gets to Sand And Foam without first knowing The Prophet.
Its fame with famous people didn’t end in the 60s, and it wasn’t just for the counterculture. Maureen Reagan, the President’s rebel daughter, had it read at her third wedding in 1981. Flip Wilson, 70s-era TV talk show, memorized the entire book and used to go on the road reciting it with Gibran’s distant relative and biographer (confusingly also named Kahlil Gibran)—and also before Congress, on behalf of a successful resolution to build a Kahlil Gibran memorial in Washington, D.C. George H.W. Bush read at the dedication ceremony in May 1991. Earlier that year, in March, when Barbara Walters televised tour of General “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf’s Gulf-War bunker, a copy of The Prophet was proudly displayed on his camouflaged nightstand. Apparently it was good PR to be shown with a book by an Arab writer.
Which brings us back to Salma Hayek. Although we think of her as “Mexican-American,” she is actually “Mexican-Lebanese-American.” Her ancestors left Lebanon in the late 19th or early 20th century in search of a better life, as did The Prophet’s author Kahlil Gibran. Gibran came to the U.S. 1895, at age 12, with his mother, two sisters and brother. Hayek, who is 47, has said that she was first introduced to The Prophet as a child by her grandfather.
Like Hayek, Gibran spent most of his life and career outside of the country of his birth. Between his last visit to Lebanon in 1910 and his untimely death in 1931, Gibran was for all intents and purposes American, part of a thriving immigrant community in first Boston and then New York, where he lived, painted, and wrote in a studio apartment on East 10th Street. Adapting Gibran’s most famous book into a narrative film won’t be easy, which is why it hasn’t been done before, but Salma Hayek is just as qualified to do so as anyone else, perhaps more so.