• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, August 10, 2007

    Book Review: Film and Religion: An Introduction

    Books about film and religion are becoming increasingly popular these days, and it's proving harder and harder for would-be authors to find a niche in the market that's really worth exploring in print. So you'd be forgiven for not greeting the release of yet another book with the words "religion" and "film" in the title with unbridled enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the new publication by Paul V. M. Flesher and Robert Torry "Film and Religion: An Introduction" breaks new ground in a couple of areas that, at least to my knowledge, have yet to be explored.

    The first thing that marks this book out as different from the others is that this volume is designed for use in the classroom. Aimed primarily at undergrads and their instructors, the book attempts to make no secret of that fact. It even opens with a "Preface for Teachers" which includes a couple of useful resources which continue the issued raised by the book. One is the Film and Religion blog, and the other features downloadable discussion guides (although at the time of going to print these had not been uploaded).

    It's important to keep in mind this book's intended purpose whilst reading it, because otherwise it might seem disjointed. It starts off with a reasonably in depth introduction before discussing a new approach to biblical films. It then pauses that discussion to discuss films about Christmas and science fiction. There follows six chapters on Bible films, before changing direction again to look at general "religious films" for a few chapters, before the final section explores how the Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam have been portrayed in film. Of course, in a classroom setting for an introductory course on Film and Religion this makes perfect sense - it's simply an overview of a broad topic, that at times is disjointed.

    The other thing that is particularly distinctive about this book is its application of the Jewish targumic method to Bible movies. I want to look at this in some detail because I believe that it should now become one of the standard approaches to studying the epic movie genre.1

    Torry and Flesher's approach is primarily outlined in chapter 1 – which, at first glance, would appear to be about Christmas Films in general and adaptations of Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in particular. The reason for this seemingly unlikely combination is that the authors consider children's novels as having "significant authoritative power".2

    This is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, if a book and its film adaptation are closely linked "then the book – if well-known or authoritative – will help authorize the film".3 More importantly, the point about targums is that they "combine exactingly accurate renderings of the Hebrew Text into Aramaic with additional material. These additions can be as small as a word or two or as large as several paragraphs".4 These additions "not only bring their own meaning, but they function as context".5

    The authors proceed to list two primary, and four secondary Rules of Targum.6 "The main characteristics of the targumic interpretation are given by the primary rules, while the secondary rules cover less frequent yet relevant features".7 These are as follows:
    Primary Rules
    Rule1:When translating or presenting the original text do so exactly.
    Rule 2: When adding material, integrate it smoothly into the translation.
    Secondary Rules
    Rule 3: A large addition may be placed at the beginning or end of the story to ensure that the new context is clear.
    Rule 4: An addition may be drawn from or imitate related material elsewhere in the work.
    Rule 5: A word may be substituted for one in the original, without disturbing the surrounding translation.
    Rule 6: Occasionally some of the original may be ignored or left out. The translation smoothly adapts to this loss.8
    Having demonstrated how movies based on Seuss's "Grinch" fit these rules, Torry and Flesher pause to discuss the paranoid cultural context of the 1950s via When Worlds Collide and The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Throughout the book the authors stress how important the cultural context is to a film's meaning).

    Having taken their time in establishing these two important foundations the writers go on to build on them by examining Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Disappointingly the important of the targumic approach starts to fade in Chapter 5 (King of Kings, and is only present intermittently thereafter (such as chapter 8 on The Passion of the Christ).

    The remaining chapters are of less relevance to this blog, but are, nonetheless interesting. I've been an admirer of both The Apostle and Field of Dreams for quite a while, so fresh discussion on these films is most welcome. Additionally, given the importance the book places on the US culture which produced the films discusses, the final chapter "Islam and Fanaticism: Only in the Eye of the Beholder?" is certainly the right note to finish on.

    Overall there's much to commend Flesher and Torry for, even if the book will seem a little bit heterogeneous for those not reading it alongside a course. In particular, use of the targumic method could become particularly significant for those studying films based on the Bible.


    1 - Some of those who have this book may have noticed that I'm quoted by way of an endorsement. They will also, no doubt, be aware that often these quotations appear out of their original context. I have no problem with that in this case. I'm happy to endorse the book. I really enjoyed reading it and gained some useful ideas. I did think, however, that it would be worth me highlighting the fact that it is the idea of approaching Bible films as targums that I'm particular excited by.
    2 - Flesher, Paul V. M., and Torry, Robert, "Film and Religion: An Introduction", Abingdon Press (Nashville) 2007, p.12
    3 - ibid. p.18
    4 - ibid. p.12
    5 - ibid. p.20
    6 - It is unclear from the book whether these rules are based on their own observations, those of other modern scholars, or if they are from ancient Jewish sources
    7 - ibid. p.20-21
    8 - ibid. p.20



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