• 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.


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    Matt Page

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    Monday, October 24, 2016

    The Canon Around the Millennium

    The impending arrival of the new millennium was accompanied by an unprecedented volume of productions in a surprisingly short amount of time. The Golden Era of biblical epics had produced over 90 Old Testament films in just a seventeen year period; the experimental era a similar number in 22 years. But between the start of 1990 and the start of 2004 there were around 120 different productions to gain some kind of significant release based on the Hebrew Bible alone, not to mention the 25 or so films to feature Jesus in some form and a handful of productions based on Acts.

    The numbers of films getting a mainstream cinema release was fairly low. The Prince of Egypt (1998) enjoyed box office success, but no other film enjoyed such a wide release. That said there were many more independent films produced for the cinema. In addition to The Prince of Egypt the three years from 1998 to 2000 also saw the release of Hal Hartley's millennium reflection Book of Life (1998); Superstar (dir. Bruce McCulloch, 1999), featuring comic cameos from Will Ferrell as Jesus; Mary, Mother of Jesus (dir. Kevin Connor, 1999) starring a young Christian Bale as Jesus; and the Welsh-Russian animated collaboration The Miracle Maker (2000) directed by Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov.

    Whilst the ever increasing costs of producing successful mainstream movies, for a audience that was perceived - perhaps incorrectly - to be shrinking, meant that big cinematic releases were few and far between, the genre was thriving in other areas. Production arrangements were changing radically, most significantly in the area of collaboration. Television companies from different countries would come together and pool their budgets to produce films that could be broadcast on their different networks at home, often with some dubbed dialogue. Following release they could also be sold on DVD. This was the model used by Luxe Vide for their expansive Bible Collection series which ran to seventeen episodes.

    Another new area of development were films made more for Christian audiences might be broadcast on Christian television networks as well as enjoying a DVD release. Indeed the preponderance of animated series aimed more at children in this era (including The Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible (fourteen biblical entries), Animated Stories from the Bible (thirty-six entries) and Veggie Tales, whose more fluid adaptations make them harder to quantify.

    A few years into this period cinema celebrated its hundredth birthday and the centenary of the first Bible film followed a few years later, so by this point, few of the main stories from the Bible had not been covered at least once. However many of those that had only been sparsely covered in the past - not least when compared to their prior significance in the Bible, interpretative teaching from the Bible and church art - began to gain greater coverage. Just as the filmic canon was beginning to be established, it began to be challenged.

    The most significant challenge to the established order was The Bible Collection's 1998 adaptation Jeremiah (dir. Harry Winer). Whilst a few films had touched on the fall of Jerusalem only the 1922 German film Der Kampf um Jerusalem1 had previously given any real significance to the prophet associated with the Bible's longest book.2 Along similar lines the "Animated Stories from the Bible" series produced cartoon versions of Daniel (dir. Richard Rich, 1993) and Elisha: Man of God (dir. Richard Rich, 1994). Daniel was also included as an episode in the Testament: The Bible in Animation series of short films aimed at a more grown-up section of the market. It is undoubtedly significant that all of these projects had strong links with the church and perhaps saw part of their mandate more as popularising the stories of the Bible than continuing cinematic tradition.

    However, there were also filmmakers from outside of Christianity seeking to re-engage with the stories that filmmakers had appeared to forget such as Israeli director Einat Kapach's film Bat Yiftach (Jephtah's Daughter, 1996). One other interesting development in this period was the release of the Liken Bible Series which contained both episodes based on biblical stories and other based on the Book of Mormon such as Nephi & Laban (dirs. Dennis Agle Jr., Aaron Edson, 2003) and Ammon and Lamoni (dirs. Dennis Agle Jr., Aaron Edson, 2004).

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    1 - For an interesting paper about the history about this once unknown, then found "orphan" film read Jan Christopher Horak's paper, "The Strange Case of The Fall of Jerusalem : Orphans and Film Identification"
    2 - Based on number of words in the original language.

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