It may not be exceptional, but it is certainly telling that the most ambitious recent attempt to bring the Bible to our screens starts with two essentially pre-emptive and defensive statements: “This program is an adaptation of Bible Stories that changed our world” suggests a rebuttal to those who question why such a program even justifies a place on our screens, whilst “It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book” seems like a defense against potential criticisms that it dares to meander from the original text.
Such sentences not only reveal a great deal about the opposing and entrenched views about the Bible’s place in American culture, but also suggest what is important to the filmmakers. It’s clear, for example, that this is an adaptation eschewing the extremes in an attempt to appeal to the mass audience occupying the middle ground. In this respect, airing on The History Channel lends it at least some small degree of intellectual credibility whilst being up front about the need for artistic licence also signals a desire for a mainstream audience. Such an approach demands high production values, which the program delivers, broadly speaking, banishing memories of bad Bible films of yesteryear with their cheap sets, bad hair and pale imitations of acting.
That line about staying “true to the spirit of the book” is also rather revealing when you consider that the Bible is actually a collection of many, very different, books. The “spirit” of Ecclesiastes, say, is not necessarily the same as the spirit of Acts, Leviticus or Revelation. It’s significant, then that the production’s visual style is remarkably coherent. Throughout the series the same grimy filters are used on the cameras, and the same grungy-with-perfect-teeth approach is taken with costume design. Scene length is almost always about 2-3 minutes. Shot length is typically fairly short, the camera work is often dramatic and showy and Hans Zimmer’s key soundtrack motif pounds away time and time again. That’s not necessarily a criticism of those elements, indeed some of them feature among the production’s strengths, but it does highlight the decision the filmmakers have made to present these stories as all part of the same, over-arching, narrative.
The narrative, of course, climaxes with the story of Jesus, who features in five of the series’ ten episodes. Even figuring the show’s true running time as 6 hours and 40 minutes, that’s a lot camera time. Yet perhaps the film’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t really have anything to say about Jesus. A whole episode passes before his ministry starts – roughly the same length of time that is spent covering his ministry. Jesus performs a few miracles, utters the odd wise saying and is nice to the marginalized and disempowered, but both his life and his death seem oddly stripped of any real meaning. Ultimately, it’s unclear why his story is the conclusion to all those that have gone before.
It’s a problem that crops up repeatedly due to the program’s tendency to squander its extended running time. Time and time again elements that are, at best, only incidental are overblown or overemphasized. The opening episode deftly covers the stories of the creation, fall, flood and the patriarchs with tremendous efficiency, but devotes a considerable chunk of those 40 minutes to kung-fu angels slow-motion-hacking their way past the inhabitants of Sodom. Similarly the final episode treats us to a long scene of the pre-conversion Saul smashing up houses and torturing one particular Christian to gain information, but finds no time for the Council of Jerusalem or to adequately flesh out Paul’s decades on the road.
Eventually it becomes hugely frustrating to watch the show work so hard at prudently condensing page after page of scripture only to go and waste the extra time by hammering home the point that, yes, Jesus might have been touchy-feely. It’s like watching someone on the breadline carefully manage their food budget with the utmost discipline, only to go and blow the lot on a pot of chocolate flavored caviar. Is it the wastefulness that’s so frustrating or the poor taste? Not unrelated is the script’s tendency to slip into cliché and clunky dialogue. Having witnessed many scenes portrayed with originality and creatively, it’s the unevenness that’s so maddening.
Ultimately, then, whilst The Bible seems to succeed at achieving it’s middle-of-the-road objectives, it seems destined to live on only as stock footage for sermon illustrations. The production values are generally good, Zimmer’s soundtrack is suitably stirring and the effects are occasionally impressive, but the absence of good writing, and a coherent narrative to match the (overly) coherent visuals. mean that The Bible is more likely to be just appreciated rather than truly loved.
Matt Page has been writing about the Bible and film for over a decade and runs the Bible Films Blog.