• 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


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    Tuesday, October 29, 2013

    The Bible and Writing Coherrently

    I've been meant to be writing a proper piece on the History Channel's The Bible miniseries for quite a time now, but on top of having too much else to do and exhaustion to contend with, I now find myself with a major case of writer's block. Fun times. Getting those first few opening lines has never really been my strength as a writer, but this piece, in particular, is proving a major challenge.

    So I thought I'd hash out a few thoughts here in the hope that it will at least get something going, or help anyone who hasn't visited my blog for quite a while to see that, yes, I do still produce content, right?

    One thing that has really stood out to me about this film is the opening disclaimer that flashes up at the start of every episode.
    This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavours to stay true to the spirit of the book.
    I've thought a fair bit about both sentences, but one thing I've really been thinking about is the staying "true to the spirit of the book" bit. The first thing to say is that it's a little unclear whether this is the spirit of the book or the Spirit of the Book. An all-caps font is used and whilst (proper) "capital letters" are very slightly larger, and the "S" doesn't appear to be, I could be wrong. The use of Spirit rather than spirit is fairly significant in this situation. Every adaptation is judged by whether or not it has stayed true to the "spirit of the book". But a capital would suggest the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead. Staying true to that is rather different.

    But of course the Bible - as smart aleck Bible teachers are also so keen to tell us - is not a book, it's a collection of 66+. And whilst the same "Spirit" might be behind them all, it's by no means a forgone conclusion that the same spirit is behind them all. The spirit of Ecclesiastes, say, is very different from the spirit of Acts, or Leviticus or Revelation. Stylistically it makes sense to talk about acoherence. David's psalms don't feel the same as Jesus' parables, which differ again from Moses' purity laws. This is how it should be.

    All of which raises some interesting questions when it comes to one program trying to cover a significant proportion of the Bible. How coherent should the visual style of the different sections be? What about acting style? Editing? Pacing and so on?

    The 1990s series Testament: The Bible in Animation faced these questions by making the different sections in completely different forms. Some were stop-motion animation, others hand-drawn, but even the hand-drawn entries used a variety of styles, from the operatically delivered Elijah episode to the spiky elongated figures of the Moses entry.

    As with other, similar, projects such as The Living Bible and The Greatest Heroes of the Bible, the decision made for The Bible has been to adopt what is essentially the same style for each section. Visually this has been the grungy-with-perfect-teeth approach to costume design with the same grungy filters used on the cameras. Scene length has tended to be about 2-3 minutes. Shot length has tended to be fairly fast - frenetically disorientating at times. Camera work has often been fairly dramatic and showy. The diegetic soundtrack is quite dominant at times.

    All of the above and a lot more give the production a sense of coherence. Anyone who, having watched last weeks episode, finds themself tuning in late will know they had reached the right programme instantly despite having leapt from the Babylonian era to the Roman one.

    It could, of course, be argued that the parts of the Bible that this series shows us are all essentially a variation on the historical narrative. That, in itself, is a good enough justification for formal coherence. It's notable, for example, that whilst The Bible Collection varies its style in episodes such as the Apocalypse one and the creation one the styles are far more divergent than they are for the majority of the series.

    Nevertheless, the coherence isn't just an accident, it's a deliberate choice, and a choice that makes a far clearer statement about the Bible's unity than the series' dialogue ever could or would.



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