It may be one of the most widely read books of poetic essays, with estimated sales of more than 100 million since it was first released in 1923, but so far Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran's best-known work, The Prophet, has yet to see any major move towards the silver screen.
Thanks to an eclectic group of filmmakers working across a variety of different borders, however, that is about to change. News emerged early last year that Mexican actress Salma Hayek had teamed up with film executives Clark Peterson and Ron Senkowski to help produce an animated adaptation of the book, which tells the story of Al-Mustafa, a prophet who awaits passage home on a ship after being away for 12 years.
Now, it seems, Hayek – who is of Lebanese descent – has her wish, and pre-production of the film is underway, with co-financing coming from the Doha Film Institute, Participant Media, and several other regional and international organisations. Each of the book's chapters is to be directed by a different filmmaker in a different style, with Roger Allers, who directed The Lion King, overseeing them all to ensure that the story flows from one to the other.
The line-up of directors is an impressive one, featuring Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Joan Gratz (who pioneered the animation technique known as claypainting and won the Oscar for Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase in 1992), Chris Landreth (Oscar-winner for CGI animated short Ryan in 2004), Nina Paley (Sita Sings The Blues, which won a Crystal Bear at the 2008 Berlinale) and Oscar nominees Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells) and Bill Plympton (Guard Dog and Your Face).
Also among the renowned list of filmmakers is the UAE's own Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of the popular animated TV show Freej, who is now busy at work on the project. "Our office is covered with sheets of drawings," he says, adding that he currently has a team of 15 involved, which is likely to swell up to close to 100 once production starts.
Harib came on board with the project late last year, after a recommendation from the Doha Film Institute. "They were keen to have an Arabic director involved," he says, claiming that it's something that is adding to the pressure. "Since I'm the only Arabic guy and everybody else had been nominated for an Oscar or something, I have a heavy burden on my shoulders to step up to the game."
Each director's portion of the film will be between three to five minutes long and should be based on a chapter, or a particular verse of notion from that chapter. Harib chose the one entitled Crime and Punishment. "It's a fascinating chapter, especially because of what is happening in Arabia. It's very metaphorical, showing how we are very connected as a society. There's one part that says we are only as good as the best of us and only as bad as the worst."
Harib, however, admits that he hadn't read The Prophet before the film project came along, and initially struggled to understand the chapter. "I read it maybe a dozen times and did not understand a word of it. In the end I had to buy a cheat book, 'The Prophet for Dummies' or something."
But now, he's joined the international ranks of Gibran fans, and understands why he's considered the world's third most-read poet behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. "It's a really amazing book. It's not written by human hands, there's something godly about it."
While Harib might be most famous for Freej, which he describes as "his baby" and tells the story of four old Emirati ladies living in Dubai, he says his work for The Prophet will be different. "My team is dying to do something that is not wearing a mask, and this is the chance. We're also going to be doing it in 3D."
The chapter needs to be submitted by October, which could mean the final completed film will be ready for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in November. It also means that Harib has his work cut out till then. "In animation, we're running behind schedule. There's going to be no new Freej this year."