The Prodigal Son: three filmed interpretations (and more)

Today was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in Eastern Orthodox churches, and once again, I found myself thinking about how our gospel reading for the day had been handled in different films.

The parable of the prodigal son appears just once in the Bible, in Luke 15, so of course it is featured in the word-for-word adaptation of that gospel produced by the Genesis Project in the 1970s. And just as the Genesis Project dramatizes some of the other parables while Jesus recites them, so too it dramatizes this one. You can watch the relevant sequence by clicking here.

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The Publican and the Pharisee: four filmed interpretations

Today, in Orthodox churches, was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. It’s the day when we read the parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the Temple to pray; while the Pharisee spent his prayer bragging that he was a great and righteous man, the tax collector begged for God’s forgiveness — and it was the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, who “went home justified before God.” And so the parable reminds us that we need to pray in humility, and that it is not our place to judge our fellow human beings.

We read this parable on this day to remind ourselves that Lent is only a few weeks away, and that we should approach the season of fasting and prayer humbly, and without judging our fellow churchgoers (or, indeed, anyone else). And, naturally, as I pondered this parable, my mind turned to a few film versions of it.

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The latest attempt to film all four gospels word-for-word

Every now and then, someone embarks on a quixotic quest to film the entire Bible, word for word. In the 1970s, the Genesis Project got as far as filming the books of Genesis and Luke, the latter of which was condensed into the Jesus film that is now distributed by Campus Crusade. More recently, there was the Visual Bible, which produced adaptations of Matthew and Acts in the 1990s and then, after a change of ownership, an adaptation of The Gospel of John in 2003.

Yesterday I came across what seems like a more modest project: an attempt to film all four gospels under the collective title the Lumo Project.

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The Bible to get shorter running time, bigger screens

It’s already a record-setting TV series and a record-setting DVD release. Now The Bible is headed for theatres… or some similar public venue. Deadline reports that producer Mark Burnett made the announcement tonight while promoting one of his “reality TV” shows.

The series, which condensed the entire Bible down to about seven hours (or ten, once you add commercials), has reportedly been re-cut into a three-hour movie. Burnett has not yet decided whether to distribute the movie himself or to accept one of the “many offers” he has received from potential distributors, but he’s currently looking at releasing it in the fall — possibly in theatres, but also possibly in arenas.

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Could Moses have a cameo in the next Bible episode?

A thought suddenly occurred to me: If Jesus, a New Testament figure, can make two appearances, however obscured, in the Old Testament section of The Bible, is it possible that the cross-overs might go the other way? Could any Old Testament figures have a cameo or two in the New Testament section of the mini-series, which resumes this Sunday night?

It would be very easy to do this: All the mini-series would have to do is include the Transfiguration as part of its depiction of the life-story of Jesus. The Transfiguration, you may recall, is when three of Jesus’ closest apostles saw him talking to Moses and Elijah — and Moses has already played a significant role in this series.

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Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they’ve seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

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