The Bible: Thoughts on the History Channel Miniseries

My wife and I managed to watch only the first 20 minutes of the series The Bible, on the History Channel. We found the acting poor and overdone; the cultural and historical setting and background were lacking, and the behavior of the characters was unrealistic to the point of making them seem to be weirdos. It was, simply, a rather typical bad Hollywood attempt at portraying the Bible stories.

I’m trying to figure out why the overwhelming majority of attempts to film the stories of the Bible simply don’t work–to the point that I really can’t think of any that do. I can think of at least four things that make doing a film of the Bible hard:

1. The film makers are desperately trying please everyone and offend no one. It reminds me of the Aesop fable about the man, the boy and the donkey:

A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?”

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:

“Please all, and you will please none.”

Thus, because there are so many factions and points of view to try to please when crafting a movie, because there is so much money involved, because there are so many advertisers (in the case of something made for TV), and because there is so much fear that some group or church will object to something, all that can come out is soft pablum. It’s not particularly offensive, except for wasting my time, dragging, being boring, and being bereft of any real entertainment value. But few constituencies are likely to picket the studio or write nasty letters to the advertisers because of anything that shows up on screen.

2. People in general, Christian and not, tend to have a poor idea of what the Bible is really about, since most of them have barely read even parts of it. Worse, they approach the Bible naively, imagining that the people and events described would somehow not be out of place among the most stiff, staid and stuck-up Puritans in Massachusetts. If anything doesn’t fit the conception of what true holiness and righteousness are, then the stories must be forced to fit that straight-jacket. Reminds me of the story about the little girl in Sunday School. Her teacher said, “Children, what has gray fur, a big puffy tail, and hides nuts for the winter.” The child raised her hand and burst out: “It sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer has to be Jesus!”

3. The complexities and cultural differences of the Ancient World are simply hard to film; how, for instance, would a film maker explain that taking a second wife to bear a son for the first wife was normal in the culture of the Ancient Near East in which Abraham lived? Let alone all the other peculiar customs and laws and regulations? How does a film maker create the sense of the out-of-placeness of the biblical world as compared to the modern world–not just horses and camels and tents– but the whole alienness of how those people lived, interacted, and conducted business. They have no concept of democracy, western ideals, precision, or punctuality. Just a small example: when we hear the word “earth” we picture a blue ball spinning in space. No one in the Bible would ever picture that; for them, “earth” is the land they live on, that they can see around them out to the horizon–it is what is not wet, like the sea.

4. Because they are Bible stories, there is a great reluctance to recognize that the characters in the story are complex; they are something other than the most pious, upright and noble beings ever. Instead, they really are just ordinary men and women doing they best they can; they make mistakes, they do bad things, they doubt, suffer disappointment–even though they are the good guys and the heroes of the story. Filmmakers, for the reasons listed above, are afraid to portray them as human beings; it is safer for them to make them into the plaster saints that so many expect.

I do not think it is impossible to do a dramatization of the biblical stories; they are great stories. But I do think it would be impossible to do it without offending a lot of people. And given that TV and movie making is about making money–and you don’t make money if you offend too much of your audience–I’m not sure it will ever change.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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