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Bible Movies: Why Is It So Hard?

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Over the last few days, about 75% of my social media newsfeed seems to be taken up with reactions to the new “Noah” epic starring Russell Crowe. Do Christians like it? Do non-Christians like it? Do people who like well-made movies like it? (For the most part the answers seems to be no, no and no; the best analysis of the movie I’ve seen, and one of the few with anything positive to say, is here). A couple of weeks ago it was a barrage of posts by people telling me that I either must see, or absolutely must not see, the new “Son of God” movie.

Making movies about the great stories of the Bible is tricky. It’s rarely done well. Religious people get upset if you deviate too much from the text. Other viewers don’t like the movies if they stick too woodenly to a literal interpretation of the text. And no matter which audience you’re trying to target it towards, the mere fact that you’re dramatizing one of our culture’s most famous stories, stories that millions of believers hold dear, stories in which your characters have unironic conversations with God or may even BE the Son of God … well, it tends to produce uninspired scriptwriting and wooden acting, as if everyone involved in the film is overwhelmed by the great seriousness of what they’re doing.

In all the years of keeping my Adventist kids appropriately occupied on rainy, snowy, cold and windy Sabbath afternoons, I have seen a LOT of “religious” movies and “Christian” movies and “Bible” movies. I am convinced there are only two really good movies based on Bible stories, and they are these two:

Prince of Egypt (1998) and The Miracle Maker (2000) have several things in common. Both were made, as I understand it, with the consultation of a lot of Biblical scholars (mostly Jewish scholars in the case of Prince of Egyptwhich is how it should be done in adapting any story from the Hebrew Scriptures. Both taken some liberties with the storyline to heighten dramatic effect (in the case of Prince of Egypt) or to create a relatable viewpoint character for young viewers (in the case of The Miracle Maker). Yet both remain true enough to the original story that all but the most nit-picky believers recognize the beloved Biblical tale and find it familiar. Both are made for kids, or at least for “family entertainment,” but aren’t cloying or annoying for adult viewers. Both tell the story well enough and have enough artistic merit (the high points being the beautiful claymation-style puppets in The Miracle Maker, and the soaring musical numbers in Prince of Egyptthat even those who aren’t believers can appreciate them as great stories, they way I might appreciate a terrific adaptation of a Hindu epic (and by the way, you should also check out the movie Sita Sings the Blues).

The two most important similarities these two movies share, though, are 1) They are both animated movies. Different styles of animation, but both animated movies. I really think this matters. Human actors often seem bowed down by the weight of the importance of the characters they’re portraying. As soon as you see an animated movie you’re freed from the restraint of thinking this actor “is” Jesus, or Moses, or whoever. Even if the voice actor is really well-known, the fact that you’re looking at a cartoon or a puppet somehow eases the pressure of having to imagine that actor in such a portentous role. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my two favourite Biblical movies are animated.

And finally, 2) They both feature Ralph Fiennes. He’s Ramses in The Prince of Egypt and Jesus in The Miracle Maker, and he’s equally velvety-voiced and wonderful as the good guy or the bad guy. Need I say more?

So if the idea of Noah and Son of God both leave you cold for various reasons, and you’ve missed either of the above-mentioned movies, check ’em out!


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