Most Easters at my suburban Catholic elementary school, a teacher would roll out a portable television to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told, a 1965 retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. The movie was a dud from its initial release, so it’s unsurprising that my impression of Bible epics growing up wasn’t so good: interminable sequences of priests and prophets yelling overwrought dialogue at each other, and the most predictable of plots.
To be fair to my school, there likely weren’t a whole lot of contemporary options at the time. Between David and Bathsheba, Esther and the King and The Ten Commandments, Hollywood had a long run of biblical blockbusters in the postwar era, but the commercial flop of The Greatest Story Ever Told put producers off the genre for a few decades. With a few exceptions, a similarly hyped retelling wouldn’t appear until Mel Gibson’s controversial and historically fastidious The Passion of the Christ in 2004.
But in the coming months, we may be spoiled for choice. This past spring, the History Channel launched The Bible, a ratings-busting series that crunched the book into 10 episodes and drew nearly 13 million U.S. viewers its premiere night. Next spring, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky will offer his take on the story of Noah’s ark, starring Russell Crowe in the title role. At least two Moses epics are also in the works. True to current pop culture tastes, vampires may also get involved: Will Smith is set to direct The Redemption of Cain, a film that adds a twist to the curse of the Old Testament’s first murderer. It’s difficult to say what these future releases will be like, but I’m hoping they don’t fall into the same traps as the History Channel’s wildly popular — and wildly disappointing — series.
Beginning each episode with a disclaimer that the show tries to stay as true as possible to the spirit of the book, The Bible goes on to employ nearly every cliché in biblical cinema. To start, almost all the main players are visibly Caucasian (and in cases where that’s not clear, the vaguely British accents should drive the point home). Some notable exceptions are an Asian angel who brings some martial arts justice to the city of Sodom, a Middle Eastern Satan (both, it should be noted, literally aren’t human) and a caricature of Samson, who comes off as more of a ham-fisted buffoon than a judge of the Israelite people. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a female character with a role more complex than mother, temptress or nagging wife. Women vital to the storylines of the Old and New Testaments are either non-existent or reduced to a few perfunctory lines of dialogue. Sarah and Mary, the mothers of Isaac and Jesus, rarely say anything more significant than “Please spare my son!” Mary Magdalene’s back story is completely cut out; you could count on one hand how many times she is referred to by name.
But perhaps the most glaring omission, for a work based on a religious text, is the lack of any real struggle with faith, or new insight on figures we’ve had a long time to explore. The Bible’s final episode does spend some time considering the work of the Apostles in an era when their beliefs were still largely unwelcome, but otherwise its characters mostly go through the motions of stories we’ve been telling ourselves for thousands of years. They never come to life as people faced with challenges or the capacity to do both good and ill. The sting of Judas’s betrayal is dulled from not seeing how committed a follower he initially was of Jesus Christ.
Whether literal or simply inspired by the text, the best Bible adaptations offer real characters with problems that echo our own. A Serious Man, the Coen brothers’ 2009 film loosely based on the Book of Job, challenges viewers’ expectations of a faith-based movie. Larry Gopnik, a middle-aged physics professor in 1960s suburban Minneapolis, is a Jewish family man with a stable, if boring, life. He’s on the verge of tenure. He’ll soon celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah. One day, Larry’s wife leaves him for his best friend and a dissatisfied student tries to bribe and then blackmail him for better marks. Someone starts writing nasty letters about him to the tenure-track committee. His brother gets arrested by the cops, his new neighbours start acting batty and he can’t shake the feeling that every search for spiritual advice seems to be in vain. Gopnik’s story isn’t a comforting tale, and it doesn’t end well for everyone. But what the Coens do offer are some darkly funny insights on why bad things happen to good people and what motivates goodness in the first place.
Even traditionally evil characters can have personal moral quandaries, and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah recognizes this, making one of the Bible’s more stereotypical temptresses a real person with inner thoughts and motives. DeMille’s hokey 1949 film about the Book of Judges’ cautionary tale on choosing your lovers wisely is often credited as the catalyst for the long run of Bible epics Hollywood cranked out in the 1950s and ’60s. It happens to be a favourite of mine. If you know the story, you’ll know Delilah doesn’t come off too well in it. She takes a payoff from the Philistines to learn the secrets of their Hebrew enemy, the strongman Samson. After seducing him, she gives him a fateful haircut. Taking some narrative liberties with the tale, the film suggests that Delilah was not only genuinely in love with Samson but that her betrayal was spurred by one of our stranger human habits: to hurt the one you love before they have a chance to hurt you back. Hedy Lamarr’s vampish, sylphlike Delilah still hits all the notes of a calculating man-eater, but unlike The Bible’s cookie-cutter icons, she becomes a human being with a beating, if strongly misguided, heart.
Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor in Toronto.
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