As many different versions of The Bible there are as a holy text, there are even more versions as TV movies and miniseries. Oddly enough, they all look exactly the same: arid, sun-baked landscapes, costume beards, swords and spears left over from a fraternity toga party, a kneejerk disavowal of getting inside these character’s heads —especially Jesus, lest he appear “too human.” First, there was Franco Zeffirelli’s seminal eight-hour opus Jesus of Nazareth in 1978, which probably remains the best of the lot, probably because it’s the only one truly interested in exploring spiritual ideas beyond the level of a rote Sunday school lessen. Over the years there have been many others like In the Beginning (2000) and Noah’s Ark (1999), with Jon Voight as a wisecracking Noah and F. Murray Abraham as a gleefuly amoral Lot (even though Lot doesn’t appear in Genesis until the stories of Abraham set centuries later, but no matter). Mary, Mother of Jesus (1999) starred Christian Bale as Christ and Pernilla August (Anakin Skywalker’s enslaved mom in The Phantom Menace) as the Virgin herself. Charlton Heston’s The Bible (1997) saw the actor who once boomed “Let my people go!” in The Ten Commandments visit the Holy Land himself and explore the historical basis for some of the Bible’s stories. Even Jesus’ betrayer got the small-screen treatment in 2004’s Judas. Perhaps the best—and certainly most original — TV Bible adaptation since Jesus of Nazareth was The Miracle Maker (2000), a Claymation version of the Gospels, with Jesus voiced by Ralph Fiennes. That version actually teased out the full-bodied emotion of the story in a way that many of these flesh-and-blood versions often fail to do.
It’s been a few years since the marketplace was that oversaturated with the Bible on TV. Now, History is trying to correct that with their ten-hour Mark Burnett/Roma Downey-produced take: The Bible. The Survivor producer has promised a complete Genesis to Revelations arc for his series, but other than the sheer completest factor, and an excitable Hans Zimmer score to build urgency, there doesn’t seem to be that much different in this version than in all the other small-screen takes. All the male actors are wearing their fake, Fellini-esque eyebrows and beards, gravel-voiced actors deliver dialogue like “I will make them bow!”, and chroma-keyed backdrops and twinkly special effects accompany moments like the parting of the Red Sea and Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. Also, there’s your signature bombastic voiceover — in this case courtesy of Keith David. The only thing that seems legitimately new about this interpretation are the ninja angels who kung fu chop their way through the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah in slow-motion.
The reviews haven’t been kind. Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald says, “With the pace of a music video, the characterizations of a comic book and the political-correctness quotient of a Berkeley vegetarian commune this production makes Cecil B. DeMille look like a sober theologian.” And yet audiences seem to be loving it. It debuted March 3 to an average of 14.8 million viewers during its two-hour premiere, making it the No. 1 cable entertainment telecast of the year.
So, if you are tuning in to The Bible, we’ve got one question for you: why are you watching?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.]