In my previous entry in this series I was looking at how the stories from the Hebrew Bible that the earliest filmmakers adapted into the first silent Bible movies. The idea of canonicity naturally leads to thinking about which books of the Bible have been covered and which haven't, but there's also something of a disconnect here because few films have sought to adapt an entire book of the Bible. There are obviously those which adapt a gospel word for word (Luke 1979, Genesis 1979, Matthew 1994, Acts 1996, Gospel of John 2003 and the various entries in the Lumo Project 2014-present) then there are others which haven't gone to this extreme but whose films have been substantive adaptations of a single book (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, some of the Bible Collection films, Moses the Lawgiver to name but a few) but not word for word.
However, in general terms, complete books of the Bible have not naturally lent themselves to being film scripts. Indeed even those word for word adaptations cannot really be counted here as they are part of a specific project rather than the need to find a good plot for a film. In fact films tend to gravitate more naturally around specific character(s) than specific books. So when we think about canonicity in relation to the biblical narratives it is perhaps more helpful to think about narrative units within the Bible (which may even span the divides between specific books as some films do), rather than individual books, as is usually the basic unit which is discussed in regard to canonicity.
Which leads onto the Gospels. Aside from the few films intentionally based on a single gospel, most of the films about Jesus have harmonised the available selection of stories from the four (canonical) gospels. A few films have even widened the net here to include incidents from other, non-canonical gospels, such as The Young Messiah's use of the Gospel of Thomas. Again this is because these films tend to be about the lead character of Jesus and then filmmakers tend to pick the particular stories from the gospels which best portray their vision of Jesus. And just as I think we see certain trends in which narratives from the Hebrew Bible get made into films, I think we also see a similarly uneven pattern when it comes to which parts of the Gospels get covered and which don't. Peter T. Chattaway, for example has recently highlighted numerous narratives which "most Jesus films miss"1 suggesting that whilst some parts of the Gospels are not really considered part of any theoretical filmic canon.
Of course many of the very earliest films were films about Jesus - most commonly about his passion - but even before the start of the 20th century, films depicting the miracles of Jesus, such as Georges Méliès' Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899), were being released. One complicating factor in trying to discern any patterns in the release of early Jesus films is the way that many of these films were not released as complete units, but were available for exhibitors to pick and choose which parts of the story they wished to display. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many of these collections of tableaux were expanded over time, the "films" being re-released with new tableaux added in, or some of the older footage re-shot, often retaining the same mise-en-scène.
The most prominent example of this practice is the various films released by Pathé usually known by the title La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ). I've recently read more detail about the various films/releases under this title in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)" (edited by David Shepherd) I'm tempted to go into more detail on the various version, but I think that's something for a later post. Suffice to say for now that it appears that the popular DVD version which is usually dated as being 1902-1905 should in fact be dated to 1907 and that in addition to these two versions there was the original release in 1899 and a final release in 1913.2 With each release the number of available tableaux grew. The original 1899 version "contained sixteen tableaux; a second edition in 1902 contained thirty-two.3 By the time of the 1907 release that number had grown to 37 and this had grown again by the time of the final 1913 version to 43.4
All of which is a long way of saying that when it comes to looking at the idea of canonicity in relation to Bible films, it makes more sense to base such discussion on the basic unit of each "episode" or incident rather than individual books/gospels. Some of those may only appear very rarely, such as those highlighted by Peter in the link above; others appear far more commonly, such as the crucifixion.
Returning, then, to the early silent era we discover this is borne out by the films we find from this era. It is difficult to be precise with figures, particularly because many of the films from this era are presumed lost, some of those that remain are related to others from the period, and it is difficult to be certain in many cases whether the version that remains is the original version. Indeed the DVD version of the latest film from this era Christus features a resurrection scene entirely lifted from a different Jesus movie (there's a little bit on that here, including the comments).
Nevertheless, even treading carefully in light of the above, there are a number of observations that can be drawn. The first and rather unsurprising conclusion is that Jesus' death and birth are very much a part of this "filmic canon". Of the thirty or so films made about Jesus in the early silent era (not counting the six films about Herodias' daughter) around 18 feature the events of Jesus' Passion. The "canonical" status of this part of the story was established early on - of the eight Jesus films made in the 19th century only Georges Méliès' Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899) was not primarily about Jesus' death.
The second is that, as a group, episodes from Jesus' ministry appear appear more frequently than the events of Jesus' passion. As mentioned above just over half of the thirty Jesus films depict Jesus' death, but twenty include at least one incident from his ministry (and that is excluding the six films about Herodias' daughter, which could also be considered to be "stories from the ministry of Jesus"). Of those twenty, only nine are films that features both Jesus' ministry and death, the majority of the rest are films made about single incidents.
A look at these single incidents is instructive in and of itself. The parable of the Prodigal Son was adapted four times. The only other parable to be covered is the Good Samaritan. Then there are the miracles which include the coin in the fish's mouth, the resurrection of Lazarus and the healing of a blind man. Lastly there are more general incidents such as Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria.
The films that featured both Jesus' ministry and his death tended to be longer and include several episodes from his Ministry, many of these would not appear much in the future films about Jesus' Life. The 31 films from the 1903 Lubin series The Passion Play featured episodes such as "Christ and the Disciples Plucking Corn" and "Christ Calling Zaccheus from the Tree". Several films featured Jesus meeting those from outside Judea such as the woman from Samaria (several films) and the healing of the Widow of Nain's son in the earliest remaining Jesus film The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898).
Of course we also see other incidents cropping up that would continue to feature in a large number of films such as the woman taken in adultery, the woman who anoints Jesus' feet, the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5000.
One final point at this stage is that many of these films about Jesus do not include his resurrection. The most obvious example is From the Manger to the Cross as it is the only of the films covering both his life and death not to include these incidents, but also many of the "Passion" only films did not feel the need to include the resurrection. This is interesting as later films which excluded the resurrection were heavily criticised for doing so, even if, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) they were a variation of the passion play tradition.
1 - Chattaway, Peter T., "10 Obscure Gospel Moments Most Jesus Films Miss" 22nd February 2016 in Christianity Today - http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/10-obscure-moments-most-jesus-films-miss.html
2 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
3 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
4 - Brant, Jo-Ann. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1913/14): Pathé’s Inclination to Tell and Maître’s Instinct to Show" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.158-178
Church use paralleling modern period
Say something about gender (popularity of susanna and female pioneers, vs subsequent periods).