By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Last March, well known producer Mark Burnett and his actress wife, Roma Downey, released a 10-hour mini-series called The Bible. Many people watched the series to the surprise of Hollywood industry insiders and critics. Though it premiered on cable TV, the first episode surpassed everything else in the ratings that night. This is the first time an attempt was made to cover the entire Bible in a major film. How successful do you think it was?
The Problem of Compression
In 1966, a movie called The Bible, starring George C. Scott, revealed the difficulty of adapting the Bible to the screen. The film’s director, John Huston, wanted, to make the entire Bible into a motion picture—literally.
He got as far as the story of Abraham. By then the movie was four hours long and Huston hadn’t gotten out of Genesis! It’s the case with all big books: you can’t do it all unless you intend to make it a mini-series. In the case of the Bible, even 10 hours was nowhere near enough time. Mel Gibson understood this problem when he produced The Passion of the Christ. To do just the story of Jesus and do it well would be a problem for film. So Gibson focused on only one part of Christ’s story. The results were incredible.
Burnett and Downey didn’t set out to depict every story of the Bible; nor did they intend to do one small part of it. They made a choice early on, gathering 40 biblical scholars and theologians around them along with a team of experienced screenwriters, to cover the entire Bible, hitting only highlights with the purpose of sharing a single theme which was revealed in the opening of the first episode: Christ.
Compression and Adaptation
Rather than beginning with Genesis, this new Bible movie shows us Noah riding the storm and comforting his family by quoting the story of creation from Genesis 1; it’s an example of compression at its artistic best. From there the story runs at warp speed, delivering compression (mostly by skipping whole stories or reducing them to a sentence in the narrator’s speech) and adaptation throughout.
I loved the choice to make one of the three men who visits Abraham (before Sodom) the actor who then also played Christ—they blurred his face, perhaps to suggest the never directly stated possibility that God’s Old Testament appearances are made by the second person of the Trinity. The scene of angels fighting with swords in Sodom was both silly and cool. One critic called them “Ninja Angels.” My take: not exactly realistic, but angels are associated with swords in the Bible (Genesis 3:24), and adaptation means adapting for the medium: film is a visual medium and calls for scenes with visual appeal.
The centrality of homosexual sin wasn’t portrayed in Sodom—possibly a compromise to political correctness. The whole Samson story seemed so compressed as to be almost unrecognizable. And I was especially bothered by the fact that David showed no repentance after his sin with Bathsheba. On the other hand, though the birth of Christ was reduced to a short few minutes, the sequence was very well done.
Choices in adaptation are made for a variety of reasons. Christ’s story gets the most time in the film, so a lot gets cut from Acts to fit time limitations. One choice the producers made (which I agree with) was to sacrifice some historical realism by using a multi-ethnic cast. We might wonder why we’re looking at a black Samson with dreadlocks, but the simple reply is that we constantly stare at pictures of a white Jesus in our churches all the time. The multi-ethnic cast reaches out to people all over the world. And that’s who this movie was made for. It may not be the version of the Bible we should go to for learning God’s truth, but it worked as a version of the Bible meant to introduce nonbelievers to content so few of them know about.
In the end I’m not so bothered by the movie’s shortcomings. It is part of a rising new trend in Hollywood that may make a huge difference in the future. Given the fact that Hollywood almost completely ignored the Bible and Christian movies for about 50 years, I’ll take compression over suppression any day!
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.