Recently I wrote about Hollywood’s revived infatuation with the Bible. Last Sunday evening, The History Channel joined the trend with the first installment of its 10-hour series, simply titled The Bible.
From a ratings standpoint, the show was a huge success. Approximately 13 million people tuned in (14 million if you count the replay), making it the highest rated cable program so far this year. Most network shows (CBS, ABC, etc) don’t boast anything close to that.
It’s easy to explain the popularity. As The Passion taught everyone, Christians will support, in big numbers, any on-screen endeavor that remains faithful to its biblical source material and doesn’t attempt to insult or critique its inevitably religious audience (as opposed to the alternative). Almost as important, in our special effects saturated era, are the production values. And this is certainly an area where The Bible shines. The visuals on display in the first two hours included Noah’s flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the parting of the Red Sea. Each of these could stand alone in films of their own, and yet the team behind The Bible managed pretty solid renderings of all three, for one television episode. That’s quite a feat. It was certainly nothing to compare to spectacle-ridden blockbusters like Transformers or The Avengers, but considering the expectations that follow the description “A TV movie about the Bible”, it’s safe to say that those expectations were exceeded.
Beyond the production values, the series falters in some important ways. The obvious and unavoidable problem of turning the entire Bible into a movie is that the Bible is far too long. Naturally, the show’s writers had to skip. A lot. This first episode actually begins with the flood, where Noah briefly retells the stories of creation and Adam and Eve. From Noah the story jumps to Abraham and remains there for the remainder of the first hour. The next jump is straight to Moses, skipping completely over Jacob and Joseph.
Of course the gaps can be forgiven. We all understand the constraints of time. A bigger problem, to my mind, is the addition of extra-biblical and wholly unnecessary material. Actress Roma Downey, one of the show’s producers, said in an interview on The O’Reilly Factor that they wanted to make the Bible “cool” and interesting, especially for teenagers with short attention spans who rarely read. This attitude is on full display, the most egregious example being the two angels who go to Sodom to rescue Lot’s family. After emerging from Lot’s house in full armor and blinding the crowd, they whip out swords and proceed to slaughter half of Sodom on their path to escape. One of the angels happens to be of Asian decent and wields two swords at the same time, officially bringing the “Ninja Angel” into the mainstream.
It also seems that the temptation to depict Moses as thoroughly Egyptian, only discovering his true heritage by accident (which then leads to an existential crisis) is too strong for screenwriters to resist. And apparently the bitter personal rivalry between Moses and Pharaoh needed some extra intensity. When we first meet Moses he is engaged in a kind of fencing duel with his “brother” wherein he leaves a large gash on the soon-to-be Pharaoh’s face. When the two meet again years later, the cut has become a scar. Admittedly it’s not a bad image, though entirely overdone.
In the end, then, History’s The Bible is pretty good entertainment. I have my doubts about the pretty white boy playing Jesus (who looks like he just stepped off the set of One Tree Hill and put on a wig), but so far my reaction is generally positive. I would not, however, use this series as any kind of serious teaching tool, either at home or in churches. In my opinion, it doesn’t even work as a way of introducing non-Christians to the Bible, since they aren’t likely to enjoy the transition from action-packed television to the much slower and longer book. Still, while it is sub-par as education, it at least has the distinct virtue of not being heretical. For an American Cable TV drama, that’s something.
Part two of The Bible airs this Sunday, March 10, at 8:00pm.