• 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


    Saturday, November 05, 2016

    The Canon Post-The Passion

    I started writing an introduction for piece about how Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a real game changer for the genre but then that spun off in all kinds of interesting ways that I hadn't anticipated and, given the deadline I'm trying to work to, I though I better press on with the main subject at hand. I'll return to it later.

    Needless to say, the film's success paved the way for numerous new projects to get the go-ahead; studios became interested in making Bible films. Church groups were inspired to think they might be able to make their dream projects viable. Whilst the rate of films being made was not quite that of the turn of the millennium, at present it's been the second most fruitful period in film history.

    It's hardly surprising that no stories were adapted for the first time, but again there seemed to be a trend towards stories treasured by the church improving their overall representation. In terms of the Hebrew Bible this was very much swelled by the History Channel's series The Bible which covered episodes across both testaments. Many of these treatments were quite short - indeed the entire Hebrew Bible was crammed into just five episodes of around forty minutes each, but characters such as Jeremiah, Daniel, Jonah, Elijah, Gideon and Joshua all received rare appearances. The perceived wisdom that Christian audiences only wanted Bible films for all the family - an argument which had been annihilated by the success of The Passion - was turned on its head in this series which far from minimising the violence in the Bible, upped the ante and selected stories where violence was a key element, at times even going beyond the text to introduce more violence into the production.

    If the violent elements in the Bible were, at last, being recognised the same could not be said about sexual content. Early in the development of the genre filmmakers such as DeMille had recognised sexual content inherent in the text and been happy to exploit it to their own ends. At first the introduction of the Production Code stymied this and then for a while sexual content followed by a moral lesson warning of its perils created a conduit under which sex in Bible movies thrived. But as the Code's power began to wane other genres filled the niche leaving biblical epics without their monopoly and, barring the odd exception, they retreated to comparatively low levels of sexual content.

    This trend is particularly apparent in the 2008 adaptation of the Book of Hosea Oversold. It's not hard to imagine the lurid spectacle someone like DeMille would have made of the story of Hosea who married a prostitute under God's instruction. The film relocates the story in modern day America and the woman in question is a stripper rather than a prostitute, but even with this modification this church-sponsored production leaves sexual content the minimum. Nevertheless the adaptation of this story - only the second time Hosea had ever been featured on film - reinforces the wider trend. Content that is cherished within the church is filtering through to the selection of stories which are adapted into biblical films.

    The success of The Passion of the Christ also led to the re-emergence the passion play film. This was a popular feature of the earliest silent movies - with only a limited runtime available it's hardly surprising that this was the aspect of Jesus' life that was most commonly featured - and of course there have been instances of it in the interim, such as Jesus Christ, Superstar. However a tradition that was almost lost in some sectors of the church was jump-started by Gibson's film and in it's wake numerous filmed passion plays emerged such as Color of the Cross (dir. Jean-Claude La Marre, 2006), The Manchester Passion (dir. Phil Chilvers 2006), The Passion (dir. Michael Offer, 2008), Su Re (dir. Giovanni Columbu, 2012) and Killing Jesus (dir. Christopher Menaul, 2015). These adaptations of the Bible curtail the canon of gospel stories getting filmed in favour of one (admittedly highly significant) part of his life.

    Aside from the re-emergence of passion plays, Gibson's film also led to other Jesus biopics finding their way into cinemas. Both Son of God (dir. Christopher Spencer, 2014) and The Nativity Story (Dir.Catherine Hardwicke, 2006) appeared in multiplexes; films where Jesus made an (in some cases extended) cameo appearance such as this year's Risen and Ben Hur have also enjoyed wide releases; and various other films such as Last Days in the Desert (2016) and Mary (dir. Abel Ferrara, 2005) have appeared in art-house cinemas.

    Some of the titles in that list also highlight another trend which has become more apparent in recent years - the use of apocryphal/ non-canonical works as a key source. Adaptations of contemporary novelisations based on a combination of a gospel harmonisation and the author's imagination go right back to the silent era. What was emerging was the adaptation of ancient sources, which claimed to be historic, and even eye-witness accounts, but which have never been considered part of the official canon.

    Abel Ferrara's Mary featured scenes taken from the Gospel of Mary. Whilst this year's Young Messiah was an adaptation of a modern novel, it contained several episodes drawn from both the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James.1 Mesih/Jesus the Spirit of God (dir. Nader Talebzader, 2007) drew on the Gospel of Barnabas as well as the Koran to the extent that Jesus does not die but is taken up to heaven just before his crucifixion and replaced by a physically transformed Judas. Indeed, several productions have, to varying degrees, based their stories of biblical characters on the accounts in the Koran, including Saint Mary (dir. Shahriar Bahrani, 1997), the 35-hour long TV series Prophet Joseph (dir. Farajollah Salahshoor, 2008) as well as Salahshoor's Ayyub e Payambar (1993) about Job and Ebrahim Payambar / Ibraheem, the Friend of God (dir. Mohammad-Reza Varzi, 2008). Sometimes these have used the Koran to augment the biblical accounts; at other times to replace it.

    Finally what's interesting about the adaptation of the Hebrew Bible is how the same stories that have been popular in previous decades have been selected again in the last few years since Gibson's film, but have been presented in a more creative, less conventional and more subversive forms. As I mentioned in a previous post in this series the same six stories have frequently been the subject of larger productions particularly in those periods in which Bible films have been popular at the box office, the six being Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, Exodus, Samson and Delilah, David and, of course, Jesus. The mainstream Jesus films I have mentioned, briefly, above. From the Old Testament stories the two examples that spring immediately to mind from this contemporary era are, of course, Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014) and Ridley Scott's Exodus: God's and Kings from the same year. Sodom and Gomorrah formed the main part of the comedy Year One (dir. Harold Ramis, 2009) as well as touching on other episodes. Whilst, at the time of writing, nothing has been released, Ridley Scott is apparently directing a film about David and two of the main three US networks have adapted the story for television - the modernisation Kings (2009) and the rapidly jettisoned Of Kings and Prophets (2016).2. That only leaves Samson and Delilah, which despite a number of smaller adaptations is yet to get the blockbuster treatment. With the superhero genre dominant at the moment, surely it's only a matter of time.

    1 - For a detailed analysis of the scenes in this film, and their sources, see Peter Chattaway's - "The Young Messiah: a scene guide"
    2 - "Fox, Scott Free and Chernin Reteam on Biblical King David Film", Justin Kroll for Variety, July 8, 2014.