• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, September 25, 2017

    "The Lions' Den" in Film


    The earliest known occurrence of the story of Daniel in the Lions' Den being adapted for film goes back to Pathé's Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (dir: Lucien Nonguet, 1905). Released within a decade of the invention of cinema it is one of the earliest examples of the spectacular in biblical films, which had been hitherto dominated by passion plays. Not only did the film make use of, the by then increasingly common, double exposure to portray angelic appearances, it also featured people trapped in enclosed spaces with real-life lions.

    The success of this film resulted in a flurry of films about Daniel in the early silent era though only Gaumont's Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (dir: Louis Feuillade, 1908) and Vitagraph's 1913 film Daniel (dir: Frederick A. Thomson / Madison C. Peters) seem to have covered this particular story.

    Surprisingly, from this point on filmmakers appear to have lost interest in the lions' den narrative. It was not until forty years after the Vitagraph film that the story would be brought again to the screen in Columbia's Slaves of Babylon (dir: William Castle, 1953). Even then the film is clearly cheaply made (particularly for a major studio) and Daniel is supplanted as the main character by the fictional Nahum. The brief lions' den scene occurs about halfway through the film and is set during the reign of Nebuchnezzar rather than Cyrus. This is because the film has made Cyrus one of its heroes who is mentored by Nahum and thus rises from a shepherd boy to king. The scene itself sees Daniel, who is wearing a large Star of David pendant, being abused by an angry crowd who jeer and throw stones at him en route to the den.

    Despite the fact that the story has not been adapted a great deal as a standalone film, it has proved to be of more interest for those making a series of films, particularly for television. Daniel featured twice in The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series in 1978-79, including a whole episode being devoted to the story in Daniel in the Lions' Den (dir: James L Conway, 1978). As is typical of the series, it's a tame affair, with an invented sub-plot that makes Daniel appear incompetent, and a very poor special effect used to portray the divine presence that keeps the eponymous hero safe.

    Another extended series to include the episode was the Welsh/Rusian collaboration Testament. The Bible in Animation. The Daniel instalment, directed by Lioudmila Koshkina in 1996, utilises a a story within a story plot structure, told centuries after the events have taken place. It uses an unusual animation style of oil paint on glass form of animation, which gives a rather gruesome appearance to some of the less child friendly moments in the story. The non-realistic animation makes these shots more permissible, yet paradoxically more disturbing at the same time and are particularly effective as the pack of hungry lions tears towards Daniel as the den is sealed.

    Whilst the story of lions' den has not proved popular in the wider culture, recent years have seen far greater interest in animated productions of the story often aimed primarily at a Christian audience. These include Animated Stories from the Bible: Daniel (dir: Richard Rich, 1993), The Beginners Bible: The Story of Daniel in Lions' Den (dir: Gary Selvaggio, 1996), Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible: Daniel and the Lions' Den (dir: William R. Kowalchuk, 1998), Veggie Tales: Where is God when I'm S-S-Scared? (dirs:  Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki, 2003) and Bugtime Adventures: It's the Pits (Jeff Holder, 2006). All five of these productions originate in America suggesting that the story of Daniel in the lions' den is in an unusual situation. One the one hand it appears to be of little interest to wider audiences, but on the other it seems to be of particular interest to the Christian community.

    Whilst the above titles could be merely suggesting popularity with children, there have also been two recent live action versions of the story the Liken Bible Series' Daniel and the Lions (dir: Dennis Agle Jr., 2006), a product of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and The Book of Daniel (Anna Zielinski, 2013) by the American evangelical studio PureFlix. The latter film spends the longest amount of time developing the relationship between Daniel and Dairius. It's also the only films to show lionesses joining their male counterparts. Daniel cites the words from Lamentations 3:55-58 as well as various fragments from the Psalms.

    The recent popularity of the story with American evangelicals suggests that this is a story they feel is particularly important them. Given the rhetoric in recent decades about traditional Christian values being under attack it's not hard to see how the Daniel story resonates with this. Daniel (and his friends) represent a beleaguered minority who are under attack from a hostile wider culture, but who, by holding true to their values, ultimately prevail. There's a double persecution metaphor here. Not only do they find the cultures of the Babylonians / Medes / Persians hostile but there is also the more raw and immediate threat of the lions.

    Of course it is precisely for this reason that the phrase "the lions' den" has entered into the wider lexicon as a metaphor for entering a hostile situation. This metaphorical use accounts for the title of Argentinian director Pablo Trapero's Leonera (Lion's Den, 2008) which tells the story of a pregnant woman's incarceration in a state prison (pictured above). Whilst the references to the biblical text are largely limited to the film's title, the sense of fear, hostility, danger, oppression but ultimately survival resonate with the danielic theme.

    The lions' den incident also comprised a significant part of the fifth episode of The Bible (2013) which manages to cover a significant proportion of the Book of Daniel. The lions' den scene portrays a genuinely terrified Daniel who is, rather oddly, clad only in a loincloth. Whilst the series was both produced by American evangelicals and with an eye very much on that demographic, it also sought to appeal to a wider audience, perhaps an indication that the story is finally finding a hearing in the wider culture, and redressing an under representation that has been in effect since the end of the early silent era.

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