At the dawn of the twentieth century, French film pioneers Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca produced one of the world’s first feature length films. Its subject matter: the life of Christ.
A 44-minute silent movie, “La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” presents major scenes from the story of Jesus. You can see the film on YouTube today. It is endearing for its child-like simplicity: the cardboard cutout cloud on which the Angel Gabriel stands while making the Annunciation; the Pathéchrome-painted, harp-playing heavenly court the shepherds see on the night of Jesus’ birth; the boy Jesus helping his father practice his carpentry while mother Mary knits.
For all it's lack of polish, "La Vie" is a moving, and at times funny, presentation of the life of Jesus. In one scene a crippled man keeps tugging at the hem of Jesus’ cloak until Jesus finally turns to heal him. Immediately, the man leaps up and races away, his arms raised as if to say “Touchdown.” It’s a silly moment, but in a strange way its absurdity perfectly captures the truth of that event.
Today films and television shows based on Scripture are big business. Last year’s “Noah” made $362.2 million worldwide. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” brought in $268 million. On Easter Sunday, NBC debuted its 12-part mini-series “A.D.”, about the development of the early church, to an audience of 9.5 million, beating all other programs (and serving as a sequel to the History Channel’s massively successful 2013 mini series “The Bible”). In Lent, National Geographic Channel’s adaptation of FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly’s book “Killing Jesus” brought in 3.7 million viewers, the network’s largest audience ever.
But for all the polish and special effects brought to bear today, these modern retellings rarely seem to offer any new insights. What’s worse, many of them are just plain dull.
Much of the problem with Scriptural adaptations lies in our understanding of the source material. On the surface, the stories of the Bible seem akin to the plays of Shakespeare, powerful tales filled with rich characters facing all too human dilemmas.
But unlike the works of Shakespeare, the stories of the Bible are not scripts. In fact some of the best are not much more than single scenes. Wars that would take an hour to present onscreen, love stories that would need time to develop are summarized in a sentence. The 2014 film “Noah” clocked in at 139 minutes. His story in Genesis takes 10 minutes to read. It's fewer than a hundred verses.
Biblical stories are often mistaken for historical texts, when the truth their writers meant to convey was not about places and times but what it means to be human and who God is for us. In the New Testament there is no one historical life of Christ to be found, no unified Gospel hiding somewhere behind or within the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The writers were not historians but evangelists, trying to offer an experience of the living Christ to their specific communities.
Both the reticence of the Bible—its contradictions, gaps and silences—and its status as a collection of expressions of faith have significant implications for the way we tell Scripture stories.
It’s no accident that there’s been an explosion in faith-based films in the decade since “The Passion of the Christ.” At $370 million in domestic box office, “Passion” was and remains the highest moneymaker ever not just for a religious film but for R-rated films in general. The movie was in theaters for five months—the same length of time as the juggernaut “The Avengers”—and brought in another $241 million worldwide. It uncovered a massive audience hungry for faith-based material. Hollywood studio executives have been chasing that audience ever since.
For those making these films, though, there’s often more at work than the promise of a big payday. Speaking of her work producing “The Bible,” actress Roma Downey said on the website Lifeway that she and her husband Mark Burnett “felt called to do it through a real prompting from the Holy Spirit” and hoped it would reach “dark corners of the world that have never been exposed to the Bible.” The work becomes an act of devotion or evangelization, a rare opportunity to share or express one’s faith.
And yet film and television versions of Scripture rarely offer a portrait that is either surprising or relevant to us today. To watch “A.D.,” “The Bible” or “Killing Jesus” is to see the story of salvation largely captured in amber; for all the devotion that might be behind it, the characters seem somehow lifeless, their story inert.
Do Gospel, Don’t Tell the Gospel
The texts of Scripture never read as pious acts of devotion, attempts to retell an “important” story. Biblical characters have rough edges; they’re irascible, enigmatic, contradictory, ribald, sinful, funny, challenging, relatable. For all his status as Messiah, the Jesus of Scripture constantly unsettles the expectations both of those around him, and of readers—even (if not especially) in his acts of kindness.
Upon the release of Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988, furious Christians not only picketed outside MCA (the owners of distributor Universal Studios), but pretended to crucify someone dressed to look like MCA’s chairman Lew Wasserman. A movie theater in Paris was firebombed for showing it. It was banned in some countries.
Based on the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film offered a conceit that was as provocative and controversial as any religious film has ever been. In this telling, Jesus struggled to understand his purpose, and on the cross he was tempted to give up his mission and live a whole life with Mary Magdalene.
And yet what made that film so striking is that it resisted the temptation to “retell the Gospel” in favor of trying to function like a Gospel, to consider the implications of Christ’s life in a way that would unsettle and challenge people today. It gave us something new to think about. What does it mean to say that Jesus was a human being in all things but sin? Why wouldn’t he struggle or be tempted? And what does that say about the “sinfulness” of our own fears and temptations? Or the notion of church as standing in judgment of us?
In many ways today the film doesn’t hold up. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is so overdramatic and self-consumed that it’s hard to believe anyone could follow him for 10 minutes, let alone 2,000 years. (Plus, the Shaun Cassidy-haircut begs for a huge wavy comb to be found in Jesus’ back pocket.) With the exception of Judas (played by Harvey Keitel with tremendous heart and an amazing Brooklyn accent), the disciples are a distracting window treatment. Every time they open their mouths, the film screeches to a halt. (Try to watch this Sermon on the Mount without cringing.)
But “Temptation” treated “Gospel” not simply as a noun, as a series of events that “happened,” but as a verb, as the act of breaking open anew the life of Jesus. And so its insights and questions remain.
Mystery, Not Clarity
In his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, scripture scholar Robert Alter notes that the ancient Hebrew writers insisted always on the essential ambiguity of humanity. “The Biblical view of man,” he writes, entails that, “every person is created by an all-seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom,” which makes us a “bundle of paradoxes, encompassing the zenith and nadir of the created world.”
That sense of humanity as mystery and enigma is conveyed in the Old Testament through a variety of techniques. Rather than a sweeping narrative, biblical texts often leap from fragment to fragment. Characters’ motivations go unexplained, or what insights are given are only partial or momentary—in Alter’s words, “varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes.” Contradictory sequences of events are presented side by side. Always and everywhere, Alter writes, “there is an abiding mystery in character as the biblical writers conceive it.”
And yet in most films and television shows about the Bible almost nothing seems mysterious. In “A.D.,” even the Resurrection is presented not as a surprise, but as the fulfillment of prophesy. Everywhere an understandable but deadly earnestness prevails.
If you’re going to tell the story of David, Jesus or Moses today, it might be wise to make Jesus not the center of things, but a character observed and discussed by others. In George Stevens and James Lee Barrett’s 1956 “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the man Jesus doesn’t even appear until the 29th minute. And once he does, while he exudes a quiet kindness, he’s always left a bit of a mystery, even to himself; as performed by Max Von Sydow, Jesus always seems to be in the moment, figuring things out as he goes. His speeches have the rare quality of feeling spontaneous and organic. And his miracles are presented almost always in the context of large groups of shocked, frightened witnesses. (The film is worth watching for the resurrection of Lazarus alone. No film has captured that moment with the awe and terror that Stevens finds there.)
Conveying the biblical sense of human enigma has abundant challenges today. Consider last year’s Russell Crowe vehicle “Noah,” which imagines the world before the Flood as a sort of a post-apocalyptic hellscape where the Earth has been strip-mined by a sinful, Mad Max-like humanity.
Noah, in this environmentalist parable, begins as scientist/wisdom figure, the last descendant of God’s gardener Adam, teaching his children respect for the land. Yet as the Flood approaches he morphs into crazed soldier for the Lord, willing to murder his own grandchildren to accomplish what he believes to be God’s purpose.
In a sense, that combination fits what Alter calls the “post-Cubist composite” of biblical narrative, contradictory aspects of a character presented side by side to show their fullness. But it doesn’t make for a very satisfying story.
Looking in the Wrong Places
As difficult as it can be to produce a biblical story that is fresh and faithful to the insights of Scripture, that “bewilderingly complex reality” that Alter says the biblical writers are trying to capture, a world that “involves the elusive interaction of God, man, and the natural world,” can in fact be found any night of the week. It’s on television.
As “Mad Men” came to an end after seven years, viewers continued to wrestle with what’s really been going on inside Don Draper; they watch “The Good Wife” and struggle to understand what makes Alicia Florrick tick. They argue over the meaning of the last scene of “The Sopranos” or who can be trusted on “Game of Thrones.”
Maybe at this point the impulse to tell yet another swords and sandals version of a biblical story is ill conceived. Maybe the Exodus for our generation is not a Christian Bale vehicle, but the story of the survivors of humanity hurtling through space in “Battlestar Galactica,” looking for a new home, hunted by their own sins. Maybe the Fall of Man today is the story of the middle-aged high school chemistry teacher on “Breaking Bad,” who little by little forgoes everything for his boundless ambition, or the ad exec on “Mad Men” for whom old, hollow habits die hard. Maybe the Christ who can speak to us today looks less like a well-coiffed Middle Eastern shepherd than the madcap Brit who travels through time and space in a flying blue police box on “Doctor Who,” calling people to empathy and wonder and dying (and rising) in the process.
Or perhaps there’s still something for us to learn from Nonguet and Zecca’s 1903 "Life of Christ." It’s interesting; the film is filled with children. They’re with the three kings, in the heavenly court, at the River Jordan with John the Baptist, the wedding feast at Cana, the healings and the raising of Lazarus. We even get glimpses of a few in the angry crowds that follow Jesus to his crucifixion. And finally they sit with Jesus and God the Father in Heaven after the Ascension.
The film as a whole has the quality of a story told to a child. It’s simple in presentation, unafraid to make huge leaps in time or logic, and lays out events without diving into the psychology of its characters.
Maybe in the end the problem of many contemporary presentations of Scripture is not that we’re doing too little but that we’re trying to do too much. We are trying to make sense of things that the writers of the Bible were content to leave as strange, as simple, as unknowable.
Maybe from time to time all we need is what Nonguet and Zecca offered—short sequences, silent scenes, and a child’s sense of wonder.