• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, August 21, 2006

    Testament: Jonah (1996)

    I first came across the Testament: Bible in Animation series back in 1999 when The Miracle Maker was in cinemas. The Miracle Maker, of course, was the climax of the "Bible in Animation" series - expanding the screen time from 30 minutes to 90 minutes and, of course, covering the life of Christ. I caught seven of the nine films years ago, but had never had the opportunity to watch the Jonah episode until recently.

    Previously, 9 stories from the Hebrew Bible had been filmed using a variety of styles of animation from stop-motion puppetry (claymation) utilised for the majority of The Miracle Maker through to a range of two dimensional techniques. The nine stories covered were Creation and the Flood, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, David and Saul, Elijah, Daniel and Jonah.

    Jonah then is the last story in the series, and, as far as I am aware the only its only feature film treatment was Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie in 2002. Production also began on Jonah and the Whale in 1960, but, sadly, was never completed. There have, however, been a number of other animated shorts, including 1992's "Rabbit Ears" series which featured the voices of Dennis Hopper and Jason Robbards. Given that the story is narrated in just 40 verses (Jonah's prayer aside), it is perhaps not surprising that it has been more readily adapted into shorter films. It could also be argued that with its vivid and dramatic plot elements most producers have imagined it is more suitable for children than for more sceptical adult audiences. This would also explain why the similarly short story of Ruth has faired slightly better on the large screen. Such a reaction fails to understand the nature of story telling of course, but it's a possible explanation nevertheless.

    As shown below, the film follows the biblical text fairly closely, although the prayer of Jonah is severely abbreviated. It opens showing the Ninevehites worshipping their false God's whilst Jonah moans under a tree about his people's lack of faithfulness.
    [extra-biblical episode]
    Call of Jonah - (Jonah 1:1-3)
    Jonah at Sea - (Jonah 1:4-17)
    Jonah's Prayer - (Jonah 2)
    Jonah goes to Nineveh - (Jonah 3:1-4)
    Nineveh repents - (Jonah 3:5-10)
    Jonah's complaint - (Jonah 4:1-4)
    Jonah and the Vine - (Jonah 4:5-11)
    For some excellent commentary, discussion and resources on Jonah, I suggest you check out the Jonah section of Tyler William's Codex Blog. In looking afresh at the story last night I was particularly struck by the oddness of the Prayer of Jonah in chapter 2. It's been standard academic opinion for a long time now that this prayer is a later addition to the story. What struck me last night however is that other than the cursory use of drowning metaphors in verses 3 and 5, the prayer really has very little to do with Jonah, the big fish, Nineveh, or getting chucked out of a boat for disobeying God. Taken out of it's context it's classic psalm material, and the link with the Jonah story is as tenuous as it would be if Psalm 40 had been inserted into the story of Jeremiah getting thrown into a pit in Jer. 38.

    Jonah is also notable for being a book where God appears to change his mind (or alternatively gets Jonah to say something God knows is not the truth). It's interesting that the film actually notes this supplementing Jonah's complaints in 4:2 with the words "I know you are the kind of god that would change his mind". It also made me wonder about the Ninevehites reaction when the predicted destruction failed to come about. Did they rejoice in their salvation, or look back with embarrassment at their reaction in a similar fashion to how our society looks back the millennium bug?

    Three other quick points about the film's treatment of the bible: Firstly, it is good to see that Jonah is swallowed by a "big fish" rather than a whale. Secondly, it's interesting how the film-makers depict Jonah/God getting an entire city to repent to a god they do not know. Jonah is arrested and brought before the king, but as he is dragged through the streets his eyes flash with fire and his words (presumably carried by God's spirit) convict all those who hear him. Sadly the effect is a little too bizarre (more Dr. Who than the Bible), and feels out of step with the rest of the film.

    Finally, the film, like the book, ends on a question, but the need to end the film within the boundaries of established filmic convention means that the images continue for a short while afterwards. Sadly this robs the film in general, and that question in particular, of the ability to challenge the audience on a personal level. Many commentators consider the story to have been included in scripture as a voice against the racism prevalent at the time. By distancing the question from the end of the film, the immediacy of its most poignant question is lost.

    Otherwise the film is a fairly strong portrayal of the story, unafraid to pose a few awkward questions. It allows the text to speak for itself rather than hampering it with extraneous commentary. Visually the animation is a bit mixed, one or two scenes are poorly thought out and look cheap and cheesy. That said, in other places it includes some impressive and striking images notably the shot of Jonah sinking serenely down from the boat, content, for the moment, that his life is in God's hands.

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