The Problem with Putting the Bible on the Silver Screen

Mark Beuving —  March 4, 2013

History Chanell the BibleLast night, the History Channel aired the first episode of their series on the Bible. I watched the previews for this show with curiosity. For one thing, Hollywood isn’t known for its efforts to protect the accuracy or intent of Scripture. For another thing, if the History Channel wrote a history textbook, it would contain at least a chapter on each of the following: World War II, antiques, aliens, truckers and loggers, and conspiracy theories; then there would be a concluding chapter entitled “Other Things that Happened.” So as I watched previews for a dramatized film version of biblical stories, I was skeptical.

If my Facebook feed is any indication, the show proved controversial. Some are arguing that it was very reverent and preserved the intended message of the Bible, even if some of the details were change for the new medium. Others are outraged, concerned that the Bible was changed to make a good show. Most people seem to be falling in between these two positions.

I was only able to watch the first 20 minutes (though I plan to keep watching), so what I will offer here are some thoughts on what we should expect from a film version of Bible stories, rather than what the History Channel did specifically. I feel that many of the negative reviews seem to be stemming from a misunderstanding of how the Bible might work as a movie.

So what should we expect when we go to see the Bible on the silver screen? Well, don’t expect too much. Haven’t we all watched a film version of a beloved book only to be disappointed that it wasn’t as good as the book? This is because books and film work in different ways. If a book could be easily and accurately adapted as a movie, then these movies wouldn’t need writers. The story is already written, why rewrite it! Right?

History Channel JesusMovie-adaptations need writers because we read books differently than we watch movies. A book can tell you Frodo threw the magical ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Your mind conjures up a wonderful image of what this “looks” like, based in part (though only in part) on descriptions the author provides. But the movie has to show you the details. They have to show you lava flowing, rocks shaking and falling, a convenient rock peninsula that seems to have been built for throwing magical rings into the lava below. Thousands of details that a writer can leave out have to be thrown into a movie.

So when the Bible says that Jesus fed five thousand and picked up basketfuls of leftovers, a film presentation would have to show you people’s faces. It would have to interpret their reaction to getting increasingly more bread and fish from a single man. The Bible doesn’t tell us if the people sat still for this, if they were dead silent or talkative, or if they fully realized what was going on. A film has to make a decision on each of these things in order to portray the event.

Similarly, a book can give you extended dialogue on what a character’s motivation is, or pause the action to describe the significance of what’s happening. A film has to keep moving. It can fill in some gaps with a narrator (which the History Channel chose to do), but much of the interpretation comes from the visual depiction and the action and interaction of the characters.

So back to the question. When the Bible hits the silver screen, we shouldn’t expect it to be a word for word retelling of biblical events. Aside from necessitating the longest film series the world would ever see (or wouldn’t see, because it would be immediately cancelled), this would make for a bad movie (can you imagine the many many episodes on Numbers, or the similarity between the Kings and Chronicles episodes?). Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is indeed the greatest story ever told. But God chose to record his story in a book. The doctrine of inerrancy says nothing about how that book should adapt to film.

Can some events be left out? Can some dialogue be extrapolated in order to present the significance of what was happening? We’re left to make those decisions on our own. Just keep in mind that it’s not an issue of Hollywood trying to change the Bible, these are decisions we’d all have to make in trying to present the Bible visually.

These are a few thoughts to help us consider how well the History Channel did. We have to keep in mind that they took on an audacious project, one that we would all find exceedingly difficult, and that we would all be criticized for undertaking.

But there is more to be said. Tomorrow I will give some concluding thoughts and show why many of the concerns presented are justified. Then I will explain why I tend to disagree with most of the concerns.

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Mark Beuving

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Mark has worked in youth, college, and worship ministry since 1999, and now serves at Eternity Bible College as the Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Simi Valley with his wife and two daughters.