• 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


    Monday, July 12, 2010

    The Kingdom of Heaven

    Not the Ridley Scott crusades epic, but an episode from the series The Animated Stories from the New Testament which I managed to pick one up cheaply from "The Works" at Christmas. The series has also recently appeared in my local Christian bookshop. Whilst my daughter has watched this entry a couple of times now, yesterday was the first chance I'd had to sit down and watch it with her.

    The Kingdom of Heaven, directed by The Fox and the Hound's Richard Rich, is the 8th entry in the 24 part series and deals with Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom from Matthew 13. Thus we get enacted versions of the parables of the Wheat and the Weeds, the Merchant and the Pearl, and the 10 "Maidens" (Matt 25) as well as an explanation of the Parable of the Sower. This main section of the film is introduced and concluded by the same scene showing the return of of a glowing, Ready-Brek, Jesus, based on Matthew 25.

    The most obvious criticism of this film, and I presume the series in general, is the filmmakers decision to use the King James Version of the Bible whenever Jesus speaks. This made it very difficult for my 4 year old to understand even the gist of what he was saying - despite the fact that she occasionally enjoys stories read straight from an adult Bible. To animate these stories, particularly using playful and appealingly animated characters, but to make the words they are saying (and the points of these parables) utterly impenetrable, seems rather foolhardy. I know that there are Christians who hold the King James version in very high regard indeed, but surely this is a case where, even for them, pragmatism should have triumphed idealism. That said, given the General Synod of the Church of England's failure to do the same in its recent vote on women bishops, perhaps it's me who is being too idealistic.

    Whilst the animation is nothing special, it's competent enough and is reasonably in keeping with various other TV cartoons, though as it was made in 1991 it obviously predates CGI. There's a nice dissolve from the future return of Jesus introduction to the historical Jesus teaching to a largish crowd, but otherwise nothing too spectacular. The cartoon doesn't introduce wacky characters or gimmicks to get the story across, although it does personalise some of the crowd members and people in the parables.

    The stories themselves are told in a reasonably straightforward fashion, but with the occasional obvious omission. Take for example the Wheat and the Tares. We're told that the weeds are thrown into fire, but just as someone is about to explain this part of the story they are conveniently interrupted.

    Sometimes, however, telling the stories in such a straightforward fashion means that the viewer is no more informed than they were before, perhaps even more confused. Take for example the story of the 10 virgins. The parable is contextualised a bit, we meet the groom and 3 of the girls, but its far from clear why what happens to the 5 girls needed to. In reading the story we are aware of the strange cultural gap separating us from the parable's original context. But visualising it and drawing us into the characters creates more problems than it solves. The bridegroom is left turning away the 5 girls simply because they don't have enough light. They don't offer an explanation for their lateness / lack of light. He doesn't suggest they move a few feet closer so he can see their faces. The result is that the Jesus figure comes across as inflexible and mean. We're left thinking poorly of him, not the ill-prepared women.

    That said, such visualisation can work in a positive way too. The Parable of the Merchant and the Pearl - told in a song, rather than in prose - really made me wonder what was it about the pearl that made the merchant sell up. There's a real contrast here with the man who discovers buried treasure. He makes a risky but sound investment. Who wouldn't have acted likewise? The merchant, on the other hand, presumably knew the comparative value of the various items, so unless the pearl's seller has undercharged him (which is certainly not stated or implied in the text) then he stands to gain very little, if anything, on a purely material level. The value the merchant assigns to the pearl is far higher than that of the majority. Perhaps it's irrationality, perhaps it's just an attachement that surpasses his physical needs, but whatever the explanation, he finds the pearl / the kingdom utterly compelling.

    So whilst the decision to use the KJV cripples the series pretty severely, the film does produce a few new ways of looking at familiar gospel stories which is, of itself, something of great worth.

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