There aren’t that many word-for-word film adaptations of the Bible out there, but the genre — which got its start with The Genesis Project’s adaptations of Luke and the first half of Genesis in the 1970s — has grown to the point where we now have two very different films based on the same biblical text, namely the gospel of John.
The first of these films was produced by The Visual Bible in 2003, and the second was produced by The Lumo Project in 2014. (The Lumo Project’s film was released to Netflix in December of last year and is coming to DVD October 6.)
The appeal of films like these is supposed to be that they are more “accurate” than the usual cinematic treatments of the New Testament. As The Visual Bible put it in one of their press kits when they released adaptations of Matthew and Acts back in the 1990s: “No scriptwriter’s liberties. No interpretations. No dramatic license.”
But of course, that was an absurd claim. Every camera angle, every line reading, every cut from one shot to another is an interpretation of some kind. And nothing proves the point like comparing these two very different versions of John’s gospel.
One thing that especially intrigues me is how both of these films go beyond the text by incorporating visual elements that actually come from the other (very different) gospels or even from later Christian tradition. Every word we hear comes from John’s gospel, yes, but some of the things we see come from somewhere else.
Both films, for example, show the baptism of Jesus even though John’s gospel never mentions it. Interestingly, in The Visual Bible, Jesus essentially baptizes himself, without any help from John the Baptist. So the film, like the gospel, resists saying that John baptized Jesus — but it still can’t resist showing some sort of baptism.
Similarly, The Visual Bible beefs up the role of Mary Magdalene by placing her at the Last Supper and having Jesus address specific lines of dialogue to her — and it suggests, through her change in costumes, that she had a sinful past prior to becoming a disciple. Not only is this last tradition nowhere to be found in John’s gospel, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible — and yet, there it is, within the film.
But if The Visual Bible introduces just a couple elements that can’t be found in John’s gospel, The Lumo Project — which will eventually include adaptations of all four gospels — makes a point of integrating John with the rest of the New Testament, by including flashbacks from the other gospels, flashforwards to the book of Acts, and bits of action that are never mentioned by John but still fit inside his narrative.
To be sure, The Lumo Project can’t harmonize the gospels entirely. For example, in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene is by herself when Jesus and the angels appear to her after Peter visits the empty tomb, whereas in Luke’s gospel the angels appear to multiple women before Peter visits the empty tomb. In cases like that, The Lumo Project’s Gospel of John simply sticks to John’s version of the story.
But where The Lumo Project can harmonize the gospels, it does, so I’ve captured some images from the film to show how it juxtaposes the non-Johannine visual elements with the text of John’s gospel, which is read in voice-over by a narrator. And I have also captured images from the equivalent passages in The Visual Bible, to show how its interpretation of those scenes differs from The Lumo Project’s:
JOHN 1:10-13 — He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him…
The Lumo Project shows images of baby Jesus in a manger (as per Luke 2)…
…being visited by the Magi (as per Matthew 2):
The Visual Bible shows images of Jesus’ shadow (and sometimes his feet) that overlap with point-of-view shots of the people he is observing as he walks past them:
JOHN 1:32-34 — Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him…”
John’s gospel never actually says that Jesus was baptized. But the Lumo Project shows John the Baptist kneeling in the water as Jesus approaches (which may hark back to the bit in Matthew 3 where John says he needs to be baptized by Jesus)…
The Visual Bible shows Jesus baptizing himself without any help from John:
Note: In both films, John the Baptist says he saw the Spirit come down like a dove, but we do not see the dove itself (or any other symbol of the Spirit) in either film.
JOHN 3:30 — “He must become greater; I must become less.”
The Visual Bible simply shows John the Baptist speaking these words:
Note: John 3:24 does state that John the Baptist spoke these words to his followers sometime “before John was put in prison.” So the imprisonment of John the Baptist is mentioned in the text — but it is not part of the narrative action within the text.
JOHN 3:34-36 — For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit…
The Lumo Project shows Jesus reading from the scriptures (as per Luke 4)…
…and being thrown out of the synagogue (also as per Luke 4):
The Visual Bible simply shows Jesus and his disciples walking:
JOHN 5:21 — “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.”
The Visual Bible simply shows Jesus talking to the priests:
JOHN 5:28-29 — “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out…”
The Lumo Project shows Jesus coming across a funeral procession and raising a man from the dead (possibly the son of the widow of Nain, as per Luke 7):
The Visual Bible still shows Jesus talking to the priests:
Note: In this passage, Jesus is referring not to the people he will raise from the dead during his ministry, but to the resurrection of all people on the Day of Judgment — so The Lumo Project’s visuals here don’t quite communicate what the text is about.
JOHN 14:16-20 — “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever…”
The Lumo Project shows the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with wind rushing through the apostles’ hair (as per the “violent wind” in Acts 2)…
…and tongues of fire appearing above their heads (also as per Acts 2):
The Visual Bible simply shows Jesus talking to his disciples:
JOHN 18:11 — Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
All four gospels mention that one of Jesus’ followers cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest. John’s gospel is the only one that gives names for these men: Peter was the one who attacked the servant, and the servant’s name was Malchus.
The Lumo Project shows Jesus healing this servant (as per Luke 22):
The Visual Bible does not show the healing, because John’s gospel never mentions it. Instead, we see Malchus fall to the ground in pain, and Jesus is arrested:
JOHN 18:27 — …at that moment a rooster began to crow.
The Visual Bible does not show Peter crying, because John’s gospel never mentions it. Instead, the camera just zooms in on Peter’s face when the rooster crows:
JOHN 19:16 — Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
The Lumo Project shows Pilate washing his hands (as per Matthew 27):
Then, in one of the film’s more impressionistic touches, Pilate dries his hands with a cloth and tosses that cloth into the bowl…
…and the film dissolves to an image of the bowl filled with blood:
The Visual Bible does not show Pilate washing his hands, because John’s gospel never mentions it. Instead, the film simply cuts from Jesus’ face…
…to Pilate’s, while we hear the crowd shouting in the background:
And that about covers it. If I missed anything, please let me know.