Bible in Film

Adding to The Good Book's longstanding history on the big screen.

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In the aftermath of the hotly contested 2004 election, pundits and pollsters grew convinced that values, not politics, were the determining factor in George W. Bush's narrow re-election victory. Voters hungering for old-fashioned, God-fearing values chose the born-again Bush over John Kerry (or so the story went). Religion reemerged as an influential force in mainstream American society, and the trickle-down effect of this electoral revolution extended to pop culture and Hollywood in particular. The filmmaking process being what it is, some of these films are only now beginning to see the light of day, facing a profoundly different political and cultural climate than that of 2004.

While the subject of much media speculation, this is hardly the first time that films have turned to the Bible for inspiration.

bible in cinemaThe Bible has been a regular guest in movies since their inception, in one of two guises: as moral lesson or as spectacle. In movies ranging from Cecil B. DeMille's shlock masterpiece The Ten Commandments to Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue, movies and the Bible have gone hand in hand, bringing God’s word, or some modern semblance thereof, to the masses. Two 2007 Bible-themed films--the Steve Carell vehicle Evan Almighty, and the sketch-comedy omnibus The Ten-- take their inspiration from the Bible, seeking fun and occasional moral uplift from the Good Book. Their efforts are bumpy at best.

Evan Almighty

In Evan Almighty, Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) hears God's voice, and sees his presence everywhere--in Baxter's SUV, outside his suburban McMansion, in the private sanctum of his Congressional office. Embodied by Morgan Freeman (of course), this is God 2.0-- folksy, amiable, and completely personalized. God, as it turns out, is soliciting Evan's help for a little ark-building project. Without specifying why, and with the "how" clarified by a crisp new copy of Ark Building for Dummies, God politely, but unstintingly, demands complete, unquestioned obedience, and Evan Baxter--husband, family man, Congressman--listens.

Outside the realm of overly sentimental "family" comedies, though, the people convinced they hear God's voice are too often demagogues and extremists. They are the ones who behead journalists, stone Sabbath violators, and demand fidelity to papal edicts from their politicians. Their unshakable assurance is born of a conviction that each of their beliefs is built on a rock-solid foundation of God's will. The God of demagogues is a tyrannical, demanding sort who requires from disciples an unbending devotion and a willingness to lash out at those who do not meet his requirements. Evan's God is a far cry from the lord of the Old Testament or of Islamic fundamentalists. However, the implication of his conversion into an unbending, obedient servant of God's will is a plot development whose far-reaching implications have clearly not been thought out by the film's writers. Evan Almighty seeks to render God fuzzy and lovable, but still, for the film's creators, it is only through unstinting obedience to God's voice that a measure of happiness can be acquired.

Evan relives the experience of Noah, who built an ark (surrounded by his jeering neighbors, some versions of the story say) and took in two of every kind of animal to protect them from God's determination to swallow the earth whole and start afresh. In his attitude, though, Evan Baxter shares far more in common with another biblical hero: the ever-unsure Jonah. Called upon by God to visit the iniquitous city of Nineveh to inform them of the lord's impending wrath, Jonah flees from God's call, seeking relief on the high seas. Evan similarly avoids his summons, treating the visions he has of God as practical jokes or side effects of overwork. God's asking of Evan to build an ark is not only annoying and impractical; it's a bit embarrassing. Once Evan accepts that God is truly present, truly asking him to build an ark, the most difficult step in the journey to accepting God's presence is sharing his secret with others. Being God's chosen, it turns out, is not an easy thing to share with others. Contrary to the bittersweet Jewish experience, Evan finds chosenness almost immediately rewarding, both personally and morally. He may experience the lofty position God has thrust him into as a burden, echoing the traditional Jewish notion of being chosen as a mixed blessing, but Evan's God, being more New Age than Old Testament, means the burden does not have to be carried for long.

The Ten

The Ten, in comparison, uses the Bible not as moral text, but as storytelling manual. The film, directed by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer), uses the Ten Commandments as a springboard for ten short films, each one inspired by one of the commandments. "Inspired" is about all that can be said of these comic sketches' relationship to the biblical text, which bear only the loosest of relationships to the actual Ten Commandments.

Wain, along with his co-writer Ken Marino, were creators of the MTV sketch-comedy series The State, and The Ten feels like a series of particularly uninspired bits from that much-loved show. Most will leave viewers scratching their heads in two regards: first, as to how they bear any relationship to the commandments in question; and second, what their creators could possibly have been thinking in coming up with them. The Ten has a smattering of moments of comic exuberance, including Liev Schreiber as a suburban father who buys up dozens of CAT-scan machines, engaging in a pointless battle of consumerist one-upsmanship with his next-door neighbor. But inspiration, whether of a comic or religious variety, is for the most part sorely lacking.

The Bible as Spectacle

Evan Almighty and The Ten are both examples of the Bible film rendered contemporary-- outfitted with the latest lingo and character types in an attempt to appear up-to-date. In this, they bear a resemblance to that greatest of all biblically-inspired films, The Decalogue, which, like The Ten, spins off ten tales inspired by each of the Ten Commandments. What for The Ten is a lazy plot device is essential to Kieslowski’s comic/tragic conception of the universe, and such hazy philosophical concepts as "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" are weaved directly into the fabric of his characters' lives.

The Bible, for The Decalogue, is a morality lesson, not a leisure-time activity. Its precepts are as relevant to the inhabitants of a Polish housing project as they were to the Israelites wandering in the desert some 3,000 years prior, and the film's tales of blood-thirsty justice and cruel fate magically render the lessons of the Ten Commandments as part and parcel of our daily lives, not dusty precepts out of the distant past.

This tendency stands in contrast to the other brand of Bible film--those interested in bringing the Bible, unsullied, to the big screen. This usually goes hand in hand with the desire to blow the Bible up larger than life size. The Ten Commandments is undoubtedly the most famous of these efforts (which reach back to D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance). The 1950s were perhaps the high-water period for such "faithful" adaptations of Biblical narratives, almost all of which required extensive revision of the stories in question.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.