Not too long ago, I was cleaning out some of my kid’s children’s books and there was one on Noah’s Arc. The book contains lots of cute pictures of animals and a family on a boat, but needless to say there were no depictions of a drunk Noah or of drowning people screaming for survival. Was the book biblically accurate? that depends. The book was contextualized for a specific audience with the purpose of trying to retain some of the principles of the narrative.
Paintings, dramas, plays, photographs, music, and film-making are creative expressions of a message. They are in a sense stories about stories, meant to impress upon emotions and desires. Even sermons and commentaries themselves are extractions from the Bible text, with the purpose of relaying an important principle or idea. Theologians call this ‘exegesis’ but it too is a form of creative interpretation.
Because film-making uses the medium of storytelling, it is usually held to a higher level of criticism, especially if the portrayal is about something that happened in history. However, unlike the specific ‘documentary’ genre, is a movie really suppose to retain accuracy of historical detail? and what exactly is the accuracy that is important to the story? For example, when I watch a movie about Lincoln, I expect that there will be accurate representations of important events, but even decisions about what is left out on Lincoln’s life or what events are exaggerated, is itself an interpretive method of the narrative.
I understand the concern by evangelicals. If the Bible stories are inspired writings by God, then any alteration of that story, even under the guise of creative license, is itself a risk. But I suppose the question then would be… is it a risk worth taking? The only Bible most people will ever see, is that in the form of Hollywood’s moving pictures.
In terms of Bible portrayals in film, all of the Jesus movies have been creatively interpreted. Even the latest ‘Son of God’ movie which ranked high among evangelicals can be easily picked apart for inaccuracies. The famous ‘Ten Commandments’ movie starring Charlton Heston is one that comes to mind as being epic entertainment and yet lacking in Biblical detail. All of this Biblical concern misses the point though, when it comes to making movies for a popular culture.
The real issue is does the movie alter the meaning and purpose of the story to relay a different message? Is there an agenda or intent that blatantly changes the story?
The balance and tension between creative interpretation and story accuracy is the real key to a successful Biblical adaptation.
In my opinion regarding Jesus movies, one movie that fails would be ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ while one that succeeds would be ‘The Passion of the Christ.” They both were creatively well done, but the balance was tipped too far in the extreme on the former.
For the success of a Biblical adaptation in film, there is a level of contextualization that connects the narrative to the audience. This may not always require exact details, but does capture the essence and meaning of the story. This I believe, is how exegesis works in the movies.