Posted by: Ken Brown | September 24, 2009

Bible Movie Meme

Daniel McClellan tagged me with the Bible Movie Meme started by Matt at Broadcast Depth. It asks you to name your three favorite “Bible movies” and one that you would like to see made. The trouble is, like most movies based on books I love, I’ve been disappointed in most of the “Bible movies” I’ve seen.

I was pretty deeply moved by The Passion of the Christ when I first saw it, but now it just seems like a distortion of the gospel, and I’m afraid I’m one of those who finds it subtly anti-Semitic. It’s all in the camera angles and costuming, which badly contrast the noble and powerful Romans with the lowly and conniving Jews (see the left sidebar here to see what I mean, though you can ignore the over-the-top review it accompanies). There are exceptions, of course; a few Jews (mostly women) are noble and kind, and the Roman soldiers who beat Jesus are grotesque, but these are not enough to change the general impression.

There have been a few animated “bible movies” that I’ve enjoyed, including many in the Veggie Tales series, and I seem to remember The Jesus Film as a relatively good, if bland, reenactment of the Gospel of Luke. Still, my favorite films tend to embody biblical themes rather than tell biblical stories. They focus oThe Shawshank Redemption - Salvation Lies Withinn justice, self-sacrifice and resurrection, and may even include biblical allusions and imagery, but they are not about the Bible. The Shawshank Redemption springs to mind.

That said, the Bible is such a rich source there is plenty there that could make some excellent films. In particular, I’d like to see a good, complex treatment of the Maccabean revolt or the life of David. The fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE could make a moving tragedy, and the story of Esther an interesting court drama. More than any of those, however, I’ve actually thought quite a bit about how good a story could be told about the Syro-Ephraimite War and the Assyrian conquest of Palestine described, a bit unevenly, in 2 Kings 16-20 and 2 Chronicles 28-32. It boasts better outside support than most such biblical accounts, and is filled with strong drama and deep ambiguities.

As I understand the story (my Hebrew Bible colleagues can correct me), the Northern tribes of Israel (Ephraim) joined forces with the Syrians and other local powers and launched a particularly brutal invasion of the Southern tribes of Judah. The Judean King Ahaz gets desperate and appeals to the newly dominant Assyrian Empire for aid, and they respond by laying waste to the Syro-Ephraimite coalition and making vassals of the whole region. The next King of Israel then conspires with the Egyptians to rebel, gets caught, and Northern Israel is destroyed and deported. Not to be outdone, a few years later Ahaz’s son Hezekiah also conspires with Egypt, and Judah is invaded as well. Egypt, once again, fails to offer sufficient support, the rebellion is crushed, and the Assyrians take every fortified city in Judah except Jerusalem. The brutality of the conquest is well illustrated by a wall relief found in the ruins of the Assyrian capitol (now kept at the British Museum), which depicts the fall of one of those cities: Lachish. You can see some pictures of the relief here.

The details and chronology of what happens next are a bit fuzzy. According to 2 Kings, Hezekiah then agrees to pay tribute, but Sennacherib sends an envoy with a brilliantly insulting demand for surrender, and the prophet Isaiah tells Hezekiah to stop relying on Egypt and trust in God for deliverance. Hezekiah then goes into the Temple to pray and that night a plague of some sort destroys Sennacherib’s army. Sennacharib’s own account, naturally enough, mentions no such slaughter, but does suggest an unexpectedly abrupt end to the campaign, and admits that Jerusalem was not captured. It claims tribute was sent later, after Sennacherib had left.

It’s not clear that you can take any of these accounts entirely at face value, but there’s certainly enough to give fertile ground for a good film (or novel… if only I could write fiction and had a couple years with nothing else to do!). I’d probably tell the story from the perspective of a politically-minded court official who lived through the whole thing as an advisor to both Ahaz and Hezekiah. Perhaps his home was destroyed by the Syro-Ephraimite invasion and he encouraged Ahaz to enlist the Assyrian help in defeating them. I’d have him dismiss Isaiah as a fool and urge Hezekiah to pursue a similar alliance with Egypt, only to see that blow up in his face when Assyria invaded in force. Then, when everything looks dark–for Judah and our hero–I’d give him some heroically self-sacrificial role in Jerusalem’s rescue. Not sure how I’d handle the plague though.

I think it could make an engaging story of political intrigue, compromise and failed hopes, and I’d give it a strong undercurrent of faith and redemption. There are also some interesting things that could be done with the mythology of the warrior god and his Temple, the messianic hopes surrounding Hezekiah (cf. Isaiah 6-7), and much more… I did say I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, didn’t I?

UPDATE: Just realized I forgot to tag anyone! Since I suspect by now most bibliobloggers have already been tagged, I’ll go with non-bibliobloggers Carmen, Ryan, Matt, David Kern and Jeffrey Overstreet. What are your favorite (or least favorite) Bible-based films, and/or what biblical story would you most like to see made into a film and why?

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Responses

  1. I’m with you on Shawshank–one of my all-time favorites! Yeah, the life of David would be good on the big screen.

    • Shawshank works on so many levels, it’s incredible. It gets better each time I see it.

  2. Ken: I tried (in vain) a number of years ago to get a print copy of the story on which Shawshank was based. I believe it was written by Stephen King, but I may be wrong. I think “Get busy living or get busy dying” is one of the greatest lines from all of film!

  3. Isn’t that line great, especially in the context of the film as a whole?

    According to Wikipedia, it was a novella by Stephen King published in Different Seasons (as was The Green Mile, which is not quite as good, but still excellent). From the sounds of it, most of the changes from the book to the movie are for the better, but I haven’t read it to know for sure.

    Ack, now I’m tempted to blow off the rest of the afternoon and watch it again!

  4. Add to your movie idea the fact that Isaiah was opposed to Hezekiah building the water tunnel. That would add to the religious-political tension!

  5. Absolutely! That’s a particularly interesting one because I think most of us would more readily agree with Hezekiah than Isaiah, and in the long run the Pool of Siloam played a major role in the religious history of Jerusalem.

    There’s all kinds of stuff in Isaiah that adds depth and ambiguity when you start looking for tensions between religious demands and political or even humanitarian goals. As often as not, Isaiah’s condemnations of political expediency hit pretty close to contemporary “conservative” politics as well.

  6. ken, what fun! thanks for the tag–i’ll post this weekend! though i’m a bit intimidated as i don’t think i’ve given it as much thought as you, heh.

    • okay, i played.

  7. I have always enjoyed the Bible-themed movies made by Turner Home Entertainment. In particular I liked “Joseph”, starring Ben Kingsely and “Jacob”, starring Matthew Modine. The Turner films are fairly straight-forward from what is written in the Bible and don’t seem to try to add melodrama or that certain over-the-top “bible movie-ness” that is often is found in the old films. At least that is my take on their work.

    One of my favorite Bible-themed movies, of sorts, is “Leap of Faith” starring Steve Martin as a phony evangelist who travels across the country selling God to people and taking their money. He is a huckster and he knows it. But the people coming to his revival don’t know it and they go ahead and believe that God will answer their prayers anyway. And guess what? God DOES answer their prayers. A con artist can’t stop the power of God when people are their to believe His promises. And the music is pretty good too.

    • I haven’t seen those Turner films, but I do have a vague recollection of seeing that Steve Martin movie years ago. Your description reminds of of The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall, which is an excellent (and challenging) film about another evangelist who struggles with sins of his own. Why didn’t I include that one in my list?

      Anyway, thanks for the comment!


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