• 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


    Thursday, December 27, 2012

    Scrooge Films, Poverty and the Bible

    I did a talk a few weeks ago on different film portrayals of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and how they relate to the issue of poverty and the Christian message. I chose the reading of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 as I have a hunch that it was somewhere in Charles Dickens’ mind when he wrote “A Christmas Carol”. Perhaps he wondered what would have happened if Abraham had been overruled? Certainly Dickens’ Yuletide yarn is eerily similar to today’s gospel reading. Both are parables about rich men and about the importance of how we treat those in need. Like Luke’s story Marley realises too late the dreadful error he has made, but in Dickens' novel Marley is allowed to warn his friend, Ebenezer Scrooge the peril he faces if he does not change his ways and seek “to interfere for good, in human matters” or to make “mankind his business”. "A Christmas Carol" is, in many ways, an extended parable.

    As someone who has been reviewing films for the last decade you get used to people talking about the movies as 21st century parables. There’s a lot of discussion about what parables actually are. But by taking a moral issue and forging it into drama, parables help us to examine the ins and outs of that issue in ways that can be fresh, challenging and surprising. They give us fresh perspective and help us grapple with questions that may have ceased to grab us. And this is an ongoing process. Some scholars believe that in telling this parable Jesus himself was putting a fresh spin on an even older story. Dickens in turn made those issues more contemporary for his audiences and for more than 110 years different film directors have sought to take Dickens’ work and cast it in a new light for the people of their own day.

    And ‘A Christmas Carol’ does seem to be particularly suitable to adapt. Of the 324 screen portrayals of Scrooge’s story on IMDB, at least 70 were based on ‘A Christmas Carol’, almost twice as many as adaptations of Oliver Twist and 3½ times as many as any of the others. Does I counted 7 playing on terrestrial TV over the Christmas period in the UK. The latest of which was made in 2009 starring Jim Carrey. It’s in 3D reflecting one of the ways this story adapts well to the fashions of its day.

    Go back a few years and you’ll find Patrick Stewart starring in a version rich in CGI. In 1928 at the advent of sound the first Dickens talkie was "A Christmas Carol" and if you go back to the very first version of this story, from 1901 you’ll see how it uses very primitive special effects which were starting to be discovered. The BFI have made this film freely available on YouTube, and it's worth remembering that the film was made over a century ago in 1901, far closer to the publication of the original novel than to today.

    The apparitions that fly past at around the 1m45s mark rely on people knowing the story, but essentially they show the events of the Christmases past that have shaped Scrooge. The first shows his return to his father’s house after years of spending Christmas at his decrepit school. His beloved sister welcomes him back. The second, with impressive economy shows the end of his relationship with Miss Fezziwick, who finds herself squeezed out by Scrooge’s pursuit of financial security.

    It’s not something that is talked about often, but I think these two scenes are pivotal in the story of Scrooge’s life. Why else does the ghost, or if you prefer Dickens, choose to show us them? The villain we meet at the start of the story was not ever so. He was a rejected child even spending Christmas day at school, and a poor school at that - Dickens describes the decrepit school and classrooms at some length and noting that there was "not too much to eat". These early events seem to have shaped Scrooge quite significantly.

    There’s sometimes a lot of talk about child poverty today in Britain. Government figures suggest that the number of children living in poverty is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3. And such poverty doesn’t just have an effect on their past deprivation, or their present hunger, it affects their future health and shapes their attitude to life. They all too often believe that poverty is their lot in life, and lacking hope and aspiration settle for life at the bottom of the pile. No wonder the UK has one of the worst records on social mobility in the western world. Despite the occasional heart warming rags to riches story, the reality is that for the vast, vast majority, those who are born poor will, in all likelihood, remain that way.

    Perhaps unexpectedly, Scrooge is one of those success stories. A poor apprentice who rises to run a successful business and grow wealthy. But “how profits a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Seemingly hurt by his childhood rejection and poverty, Scrooge’s brief foray into the warmth of love of his family and colleagues is slowly smothered by his desperation to avoid the poverty that afflicted his childhood. It’s not apparently greed but a yearning for security that drives a wedge between him and his finance. It’s a pivotal point in the story of his life:

    From here Scrooge is done for. Having grown up in isolation he has learned to cope with it and since the death of his sister also seems to have occurred around this time, he seems to have retreated into isolation once more consumed by a desire to avoid poverty. As he explains “there is nothing on which (the world) is so hard as poverty”.

    It’s not long before the next apparition - the Ghost of Christmas Present - is taking him to the household of his employee Bob Cratchitt. It’s arguably the most famous scene in a story crammed with iconic moments, but it relevance to Scrooge is easily over-looked. Firstly, here is a child also in poverty, but whose father has taken a different path to that of Scrooge’s father. Instead of sending him away, Tiny Tim is kept in the bosom of his loving family. Secondly, Crachitt’s family live in poverty, but have found the happiness that so seems to have eluded Scrooge. Tim has flourished despite his apparent adversity. Thirdly, I suspect there’s something of a grudging admiration for the fact that Crachitt has never begged - Scrooge is amazed to find out about Crachitt’s sickly child. These, I think, are what underlie Scrooge’s turn around rather than simply Tim’s cute way of saying “God bless us every one”.

    It’s perhaps no coincidence that this part of the novel is where the brunt of its scriptural allusions are found. Most significantly Tim’s hopes for his presence in church which I’ll quote here “he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

    Given the course of the rest of this story this line is pretty significant. Prior to the haunting of Scrooge, Tim is on course for an early death, but as Dickens tell us in closing the book, Scrooge’s repentance and intervention means that Tim lives to a good age. And so there’s an interesting implication that whilst Jesus has apparently not healed Tim directly, Scrooge has been able to be a vessel for God’s purposes. By using his money to make a difference to Tim’s life he has stepped into the role of healer.

    I don’t know what your views on God’s healing today are, but Dickens’ subtle suggestion is that by being more generous with what we have, we can actually change the life chances of those in poverty. It is as true in our own day as it was in his. On average, the 20% most deprived people in this country will die 7.5 years before earlier than the richest 20%, and in some places it’s even more extreme. In fact whilst we like to think our world has changed since Dickens’ day, it’s rather depressing to see just how relevant the book is to our world. Some films have sought to narrow that gap for us, such as the 1988 film Scrooged starring Bill Murray, or ITV’s modernisation on the story from the year 2000 starring Ross Kemp. Even the perennial Christmas Classic It’s a Wonderful Life is an inversion of the story. Yet so much of the original novel is relevant in its own right. Take for example an early scene where Scrooge is approached by two men seeking to help the poor. His arguments are not a million miles away from those that some offer today. (Here’s the scene as portrayed in the 1984 version starring George C Scott.)

    There are no longer any workhouses or debtors prisons, but teachers still regularly encounter kids without beds at home or that come to school hungry - I’ve had reports of that from a teacher I know who works at a nearby school just a couple of miles away. Yet some people today when faced with the plight of those living in poverty still resort to these same tactics - denying the problem, convincing themselves that paying their taxes absolves them of any further responsibility, or claim that they are all idle. It’s disturbing how many newspapers and politicians are content to peddle the myth that the poor are idle, despite the fact that more than half of all children living in poverty in this country are from working households. And whilst the phrase "surplus population" is more in line with Thomas Malthus than any of our current populations there does seem to be a shift away from seeing children are a gift from God towards them being a burden on the tax payer.

    The words Scrooge speaks here are repeated tauntingly by the Spirit of Christmas Present later on, as Scrooge’s heart begins to soften they remind him of how awful some of his attitudes have been. In fact it appears that Scrooge has been isolated from the realities of poverty in his own day. Faced with the image of the starving children "Ignorance" and "Want" he is horrified and gasps "have they no refuge or resource"?

    "If you deny him, slander those who tell others about him, admit he exists but do nothing about him." The reality is that in our country it is scarily easy to become isolated from those living below the poverty line. Listen to any public debate about poverty and someone will cite poor houses with satellite dishes - as if they have done a properly sampled survey on the issue rather than just noticed them on houses in areas they wouldn’t care to live as they drive hastily by.

    Scrooge’s about turn is radical, but the question that should haunt us is would it take such an extreme turn of events to soften our hearts to the very real suffering around us and amongst us? Poverty has a ghost of the past, and of the present, what are we prepared to do to ensure it has no future? Are we prepared to act at a cost to ourselves to alleviate the suffering around us?

    I don’t know whether Dives and Lazarus were any more real than Scrooge and Crachitt. But Jesus, Dickens and the filmmakers that have followed in their footsteps have acted from the conviction that it’s in this world that we have to address the problems of poverty in our world. We can’t leave it until after we’re dead.


    Wednesday, December 26, 2012

    The Search for Noah's Ark (2012)

    Absolutely Fabulous star and British national treasure Joanna Lumley headed out to Mount Ararat in an attempt to find Noah's boat in Sunday's ITV documentary The Search for Noah's Ark.

    Starting off in Tissington Derbyshire, before heading to Mount Ararat (in Turkey) via Istanbul. In Istanbul she "learns" that Noah is a celebrated figure in Islam as well as Christianity and Judaism: At Ararat she views the Arzap Drogue stone (rock anchor) and hears Ron Wyatt's theory that the Durupınar site is the final resting place of the Ark. Having spent time meeting the locals including those in the local museum, Lumley then meets a geologist who persuades her that the Durupınar site was simply formed by a standard geological process.

    Yet whilst Lumley is put off from her initial quest to find the ark she then decides to head to the region around Mount Judi - named in the Koran as the ark's resting place - to find if there is any evidence for the flood. She visits one of the places that claims to house Noah's remains and eventually wonders if the area flooded was actually considerably smaller than worldwide - perhaps the area between the Tigris and Euphrates.

    Lumley heads back to London next to meet with Rabbi Julia Neuberger who talks about the Noah traditions in Judaism and our lack of knowledge about the precise words used. "Was it a Raven?...sure about the names of the birds? I'm not sure". But instead of taking Neuberger's advice, Lumley goes to talk to a raven expert somewhere in the English countryside. Then it's time to meet Alan Millard in the British Museum who talks about the Gilgamesh epic and the Mesopotamian story that many suppose lies behind the story.

    After the break Lumley heads to India to uncover a Hindu version of the story even more ancient than Gilgamesh, that of Vishnu and King Manu. Having heard about the Indus region's 5000 year old trade with areas as far away as the Arabian peninsula, Lumley heads to Oman accompanied, briefly, by an audio clip of Eddie Izzard's Noah routine. When she arrives she talks to Eric Staples who enlightens her and us about the kind of wooden boats built in the time, but suggests that boats the size of the ark were unprecedented at that time and would have had to be miraculous.

    Finally Lumley meets geologist Mohammed Alkindi who finds evidence for some sort of catastrophic flood. Lumley sums up by saying that there probably is some kind of historical core to these stories, but one that has been adapted and transformed into a moral story, encouraging its audience to "be good".

    It's a rather simplified summary of the role the story plays and whilst, I suppose, I broadly agree with the programme's findings - some evidence of a localised catastrophic flood which got passed throughout the wider region - the summary seems rather undercooked. If such an event occurred the results would have been so catastrophic as to reverberate throughout the region for centuries rendering itself rife for the type of mythology we find in the Noah story. Not so much simply a prod to "be good", but a fear of the danger of the untameable natural world, the hope of a deity who can rule over it and the warning to stay on his right side to avoid similar catastrophe happening to oneself.

    The problem with the documentary, as is often the case with similar programmes is that the absolutely key information is often greatly abbreviated and given little more air time than the more trivial travel-journally type footage of, say, Lumley eating food in Istanbul and wondering if Noah had eaten a similar dish all that time ago. Lumley's opinion is apparently changed by what she hears, but the evidence which appears to persuade her is strangely absent.

    None of this is to say it's a bad programme - far from it, and given ITV's relative paucity of this kind of documentary it should be applauded for providing something rather more demanding than the X-factor and indeed giving it a fairly high profile. Lumley is a high profile TV star, and whilst clearly not an expert also refuses to revert to the cliché of feigning total ignorance about her chosen subject. At the same time as a non-expert she is able to take the audience with her.

    Secondly whilst I wish certain parts of the material could have had greater emphasis, not many aspects of the topic were entirely absent. More conservative believers might wish that more time had been given to Wyatt's theories and more literal interpretations of the Noah story, but in honesty there's not much that a documentary can really do with this kind of approach.

    So whilst not perfect, The Search for Noah's Ark is a fairly good attempt to grapple with the wide variety of specialisms that shed light on the story of Noah which is hopefully sea worthy enough to encourage ITV to be involved in similar projects in the future.

    N.B. Richard Bartholomew has also posted a review of the programme.

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    Monday, December 24, 2012

    Heavenly Holiday Film Classics

    Heavenly Holiday Film Classics is a collection of six lesser known Christmas films from days gone past. The majority go back to the fifties and sixties but at least one has their roots even further back. As a result these films are hard to get hold of and Festival Films has done a great service by collecting them and making them more widely available. But make no mistake, the films have not been digitally remastered or restored and Festival Films make no such claim.

    Silent Night:A Story of the Christmas Carol (1953)
    The first of two films on this DVD to look at the story of how "Silent Night" was written. This is the later film which focuses on the spread of the carol after an organ repair man chances upon the song in Oberndorf. Whilst this legend is popular, there's not a great deal pf evidence for it, in fact Wikipedia cites Silent Night historian Renate Ebeling-Winkler Berenguer as tracking this part of the story back only as far as 1965 - 12 years after this film (though it also mentions a 1947 play).

    Christmas is Magic (1953)
    Christmas is Magic is probably my least favourite of the six films on this DVD, although even then it's a nice film to look at even if the plot and the dialogue are rather weak. Frances Rafferty plays Julie, a young widow about to get remarried to the effortlessly grumpy, Christmas cynic, Brad. It's in this pairing that the plot first falters, aside from being stable, it's hard to really see what he has to offer her. Julie and her son Sonny meet an amnesiac war veteran by the Christmas tree in town, and when his Christmas cheer warms their hearts they welcome into their homes. If you're the type that loves Christmas schmaltz laid on thick then there's a chance you might enjoy this. This visuals do have a certain something. Unfortunately, on this one, I'm with Brad.

    Star of Bethlehem (1956)
    Star of Bethlehem (1956) is a film I've known about for quite some time, and been meaning to see, but never quite got around to it. It is one of the films available at the BFI's mediatheques. The original film apparently dates back to 1921, being the work of the German silhouette-animator Charlotte "Lotte" Reiniger (June 2, 1899 -- June 19, 1981). But in 1956 Cathedral Films re-released with narration in English.

    The film itself is simply, but effectively made. Black silhouetted characters move in the foreground contrasting starkly with the film's coloured backgrounds. The simplicity of the medium should not be mistaken for a lack of sophistication however. The graceful, skillful movements are capable of evoking genuine feeling, the birth scene, for example, evokes surprising intimacy. The one notable change in style is the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. In contrast to the rest of the film, he its the angels who light up against a dark background.

    The story is straight forwardly told, and whilst the medium and voiceover are both a little dated, younger children will still enjoy it. My 4 year old and 6 year old did at any rate.

    Three Young Kings (1956)
    Perhaps the best of the six films on offer here is Three Young Kings by director Richard Kinon. Kings tells the tale of three boys from the mission school who have the honour of playing the wise men in the village's traditional present-giving ritual. Parents provide presents for their children via the school and the eldest three children don magi costumes and go round the richer parts of town dishing round their gifts. But this year the trio take a short cut through the poorest part of the village and end up giving the presents away to those children instead - most of whom will not get presents. The pivotal scene is a delight with the three boys switching from mild annoyance at being inconvenienced to handing round other children's presents with gleeful abandon, but it's the final scene with echoes of the still-to-be-made Spartacus and 12 Angry Men in the mix that clinches it. The boy's main opponent is possibly a little too cartoon-like for my liking, but that fails to rob the story of it's genuine emotional wallop that makes it the film of all these likely to become a stable (sic.) of Christmas viewing in the Page household for years to come.

    Star of Bethlehem (1954)
    Star of Bethlehem (1954) was a pet project of actor James Mason who produced, directed and narrated the film and cast his own daughter as Mary.

    It's an funny old project. The first half of the film consists of Mason dully narrating the nativity account from Luke. It's not helped by the use of a (now) fairly archaic translation, but Mason's famous voice is renders the story dull by its lack of intonation.

    The second half however is very different, a charming adaptation of the story using children. Child actors can be a real hit-or-miss affair but these children do a decent job of playing their roles without swinging to far into honey-coated sentimentality. I'm not sure my kids would sit through the first half of this film again, but they would certainly re-watch the second part.

    Starlight Night (1939)
    The second "Silent Night" origins storyline the collection is actually the elder filmed in pre-war Austria in 1939. The timing of the film would have made it strongly political as it draws out parallels between Napolean's forced conscription in 1811 and similar events in the austria of their time, but its focus is more on the need for reconciliation once the conflict is over. These debates are focussed in on a single estranged family - a man who having lost his son in the hostilities can't forgive his daughter for marrying a survivor, not least because he is also the son of a survivor from a previous forced conscription. Even the birth of a grandson fails to melt the old man's heart. What is melting however is the snow above the young couple's house in the mountains, leaving the three of them homeless the night before Christmas.

    Finding the family bedding down in a nativity-esque stable Father Mohr decides to take action, writing a song to accompany his homily on the scandal of unforgiveness and estrangement and when he teams u with Franz Gruber the world's most well loved Christmas Carol is born, leaving the old man defenceless to his grandson's advances. At times it's a little forced, but, I must admit, I'm a sucker for stories of reconciliation and, not for the first time whilst watching this collection of films, the odd tear might have been shed.


    All in all then an interesting mix of films with different degrees of quality effectiveness, emotion and religious content and for the completists, or those keen for a bit of nostalgic content this would make a great addition to your Christmas film collection.

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