This is the first in a series looking at the Biblical Epic genre
I want to look at the question of if there is a 'Biblical Epic' genre? It's a question where it's tempting to jump to snap answers, but on closer inspection the issues blur a little. Certainly if the genre 'Biblical Epic' exists then the case is less clear cut than, say the 'Musical' genre, but that shouldn't necessarily mean that the answer to the question is a 'no'. After all, every genre is a little fuzzy around the edges. So I'm going to discuss some of the possible reasons why this might not be a legitimate genre and then mop up a few other points from there.
Biblical epics are grouped together because of their common source, rather than on the basis of cinematic common ground
I can certainly see the appeal of this point however I think three points should be made in response. Firstly, that whilst this objection might hold for all biblical films, the biblical epic is a smaller subset of that overall group. Godspell is clearly a biblical film, but many would argue that it is not a biblical epic. Secondly, whilst this genre is unique in this respect, many other genres share a common conglomeration of sources. Musicals are largely adaptions of Broadway shows. War films are usually based on the accounts of those who fought in these modern conflicts. Films Noir often come from 'pulp fiction' novels. Admittedly this is not quite the same, but neither is the point entirely irrelevant. Finally, whilst biblical epics do share the common ground of the biblical narratives, often what sprouts from it has been uprooted and replanted several times before it reaches us. Ben-Hur, to name but one example, is undoubtedly a biblical epic, but its links to the gospels are very slight indeed. Really it's an adaptation of nineteenth century historical fiction.
Biblical epics are really just a sub-division of historical epics
...but then they are just a sub-division of all historical films (i.e. films not set in the present or future) and yet the differences between a 40s-era romance and a biblical epic are clearly considerable. It's true that these things can divide and divide - Babington and Evans, for example, divide the biblical epic into three further sub-groupings - however this is relatively consistent with genre theory which focuses on what different films hold in common and what audience expectations are. The audience for 300 would not have the same appetite for The Nativity Story (2006) as they would for Robin Hood (2010) for example. Their expectations from what each of those films would deliver is quite different.
Overlap with other genres
It can be argued that certain biblical epics also clearly meet the criteria for another genre. Jesus Christ, Superstar is a musical. Various adaptations of Noah qualify as disaster movies. The observation has been made several times that The Passion of the Christ is heavily reliant on the horror genre.
However, this is not unique to the biblical epic genre. There are various westerns that are also musicals. The crossover between the woman's picture and film noir is frequently discussed, not to mention all those science fiction disaster movies. So this is just what we would expect, often resulting in some of the films around the fringes of one particular genre meeting the criteria for another.
What arguments are there in favour of a biblical epic genre?
The classic understanding of genre is that whilst the auteur theory centres around the filmmakers' perspective, genre theory is all to do with the audience. Genres function as a signpost for the potential audience to quickly understand the kind of film they are likely to see. A film of a particular genre will meet certain expectations. Some of these expectations might be subverted, but essentially the audience will broadly know what to expect. As James Monaco (2000: 300), looking back at the fifties and sixties when genres and biblical epics were both in their heyday, puts it:
The elements were well known: there was a litany to each popular genre. Part of their pleasure lay in seeing how those basic elements would be treated this time around.1If this is, indeed, the key point then clearly biblical epics meet this criterion. Fans of biblical epics know the kind of thing they are going to get. Indeed, if anything it was the genre's failure to adapt and subvert itself that lead to the 'death' of the genre in the late sixties.
The other classic definition of genre is that it is essentially a gathering together of a group of films with common characteristics. This essentially cuts both ways. On the one hand if this was the sole criterion then a certain group of films could indeed be grouped together and called a biblical epic, or whatever someone wanted. However this can also be seen as a weakness as it does rather undermine the whole premise. If there is little more to genre than a subjective grouping of films based on perceived similarities, then what exactly is the point? Suffice to say, that this is where the second element comes in, that of audience expectations and marketeers' shorthand. Indeed some argue that the point of genres is their predictability. "(T)here are a limited and predictable range of features; where characters and events are more predictable and where our expectations are more likely to be fulfilled" (Phillips 1999: 166).
In a future post I'm going to look at what some of those characteristics might be for the biblical epic genre and later still I hope to look at a few more modern biblical epics to see if the genre characteristics of the traditional epics still hold in the twenty-first century.
- Monaco, James ( 2000), How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia, Third Edition, New York: Oxford University Press
- Phillips, Patrick ( 1999), 'Genre, Star and Auteur - Critical Approaches to Hollywood Cinema' in Jill Nelmes (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies, Second Edition, 161-208, New York: Routledge
Labels: Epic Genre