How Much of The Master Is Based on Scientology?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 19 2012 11:45 AM

How Much Scientology Made It Into The Master?

L. Ron Hubbard and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master."
The Master's Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, right) was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard.

Photographs courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News and The Weinstein Company.

In the many months leading up to the release of The Master, much of the talk surrounding the film was about its relationship to Scientology and Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The New York Times reported that director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Newest Work Is About … Something,” while we at Brow Beat followed how each trailer seemed to “Inch Closer to Scientology.”

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

So it may be surprising to some that discussion of the movie since its limited release in New York and Los Angeles has focused less on its relationship to Thetans and Xenu and Tom Cruise and more on its relationship to the Oscars, Anderson’s other work, and the human condition. This is the correct reaction, of course. As Slate’s Dana Stevens noted in her review, “it’s clear Anderson is mostly interested in using Hubbard’s life as a springboard for thinking through larger issues of faith, power, free will, and belief.”

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But the movie does draw extensively on Scientology and its past. Anderson finally admitted outright a couple weeks ago that he based the charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on Hubbard, adding that much of the film “related to the early days of Dianetics.” What parts of the movie, exactly, are based on Hubbard and the secretive religion he founded? We’ve seen some of the similarities broken down as they existed in an early screenplay, but much of the film has changed since then, and many of those parallels did not make the final cut. So herewith, we’ve compared these two religions and their founders to delineate exactly where Scientology ends and The Master begins.

“Processing”

Scientology centers around a procedure called “auditing,” which uses probing questions and other techniques to identify traumatic memories (called “engrams”), to drain them of their power. Dodd’s spiritual practice, called The Cause, employs similar techniques, prompting "guinea pig and protege" Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) to revisit painful experiences and others to go back before their birth and beyond. Both leaders’ techniques also seem to have their origins in hypnosis, another practice at which Hubbard had become very skilled, and in each case variations have included compelling people to stare at each other without looking away, or even having people take turns heckling each other.

While Anderson changed the name of “auditing,” he hardly changed the questions involved. Many of the questions Dodd asks Quell can be found nearly verbatim on the “Oxford Capacity Analysis” test Scientology uses to recruit members. Here are a few examples of the OCA questions that Dodd uses:

1) Do you make thoughtless remarks or accusations which later you regret?
6) Do you get occasional twitches of your muscles, when there is no logical reason for it?
8) Are your actions considered unpredictable by other people?
15) Are you often impulsive in your behavior?
21) Do your past failures still worry you?
100) Are you logical and scientific in your thinking?

Books

Lancaster Dodd, like L. Ron Hubbard, spreads his word primarily through his books. Hubbard founded his church on the basis of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950 and known among Scientologists as “Book One.” The Master depicts the lead up to the publication of The Split Saber, which is published in May 1950 and known among members of The Cause as “Book Two.”

But why the odd name “The Split Saber”? Anderson may have been inspired by the grandiloquent title of Hubbard’s rumored early manuscript, Excalibur, which the Church of Scientology says that Hubbard wrote in 1938.

502px-L._Ron_Hubbard_conducting_Dianetics_seminar_in_Los_Angeles_in_1950
L. Ron Hubbard leading a Dianetics seminar in Los Angeles, 1950

Wikipedia

Family life

Just like Lancaster Dodd, L. Ron Hubbard had multiple children with multiple wives, and many of his ex-wives went on to become his critics. (In The Master, Amy Adams’ Peggy Dodd says that Dodd’s ex-wives have become some of his most vocal opponents). In an earlier version of the script, Dodd, like Hubbard, was married to a woman named Mary Sue. However, in the finished film Dodd’s wife is named Peggy.

The other family member who figures heavily into The Master is Dodd’s son Val, who appears to be Dodd’s eldest child. In one scene Val tells Quell that his father is “just making it up as he goes along.” While it was reported that this line got Tom Cruise up in arms, the scene is straight out of the life of L. Ron Hubbard, whose first son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr., after helping him establish his church, went on to denounce him as a “fraud.”

A writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher.”

Dodd, like Hubbard, likes to tout academic credentials, though neither of the men’s claims seem to hold up to scrutiny. Dodd credits himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher” while Hubbard is thought to have credited himself as “a Nuclear Physicist and a Medical Doctor.” According to The New Yorker, Hubbard “failed to graduate from George Washington University.”

“Man is not an animal.”

One of the ideas Dodd returns to most frequently is his belief that “Man is not an animal.” Indeed, one of Dodd’s main goals is to take Quell from being a “silly, silly animal” to reaching “a state of perfect.” This echoes the Church of Scientology’s own take on human nature, which departs from the theory of evolution. As one of the religion’s official Web sites claims, “Scientology proved, for the first time, that man was a spiritual being, not an animal.”

Reincarnation

Dodd never lays out his full theology in The Master, but we do get bits and pieces. The Cause, like Scientology, promotes the idea of reincarnation, believing that through “processing” people may recall past lives.

And as in Scientology, these past lives may stretch back billions or even trillions of years. In The Master, one skeptic questions how Dodd’s beliefs about man could go back trillions of years, noting that the Earth is only a few billions of years old. But if Dodd is like Hubbard, he may be thinking of battles from before Earth. In his 1952 book The History of Man, Hubbard told of the previous 60 trillion years of his readers’ existence, and according to The New Yorker some Scientology members today “sign contracts for up to a billion years of service.”

Move to England

In The Master, we last see Dodd sometime later in the 1950s, when he has relocated to Britain. (The timeline isn’t obvious.) There, he works in a mansion on a hill in the English countryside. Hubbard similarly moved to the English countryside, in 1959, where he set up shop in a Sussex mansion called Saint Hill Manor.

Miscellany

Some of the similarities between Hubbard and Dodd are more incidental. For example, there’s a scene in The Master in which Dodd goes out to the desert to play a game of “Pick a Point.” The game involves choosing a point on the horizon and then racing there as fast as you can, even if that means riding a bit recklessly. The suspense of the scene echoes an incident in the life of L. Ron Hubbard, who crashed a motorcycle in southern Spain in 1974, suffering a broken arm and several broken ribs.

Both men love boats, too. Dodd, like Hubbard, is fond of doing his thinking while on the sea. When Quell first meets Peggy Dodd, she tells him that working on the water helps Dodd escape the distractions of naysayers and critics. As The New Yorker reported in its article on Paul Haggis, the sea “provided a ‘distraction-free environment,’ allowing Hubbard ‘to continue his research into the upper levels of spiritual awareness.’ ” Hubbard of course eventually established a whole fleet of boats, staffed with young volunteers, called the Sea Organization.

Of course, as with the rest of the film, Anderson adds his own details and personal touches to complete the picture of the man he’s (mostly) invented. Did L. Ron Hubbard have an affinity for the song “Slow Boat to China,” as Dodd does? Who knows. But Anderson may have caught an interest in that song from someone else entirely: his former flame Fiona Apple.

Previously
The Minor Works of Paul Thomas Anderson

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