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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One controversial Jesus movie turns 25, another turns 40

Two movies about Jesus, both of which were quite controversial in their day, are celebrating major anniversaries this month.

First, there is Jesus Christ Superstar, which premiered in New York City 40 years ago yesterday before going into general release on August 15, 1973.

I don’t appear to have written all that much about this film over the years, though I did write the following about the 25th-anniversary edition of the soundtrack in an article for BC Christian News that was first published in 1999:
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Credits where credit is due in Bible films

I recently watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) for the first time in years, and I hope to write something about it soon. But one detail caught my eye, and got me curious to see if it was part of a trend that might have popped up in other Bible movies, too.

Specifically, I was struck by the writing credits that appear during the opening titles. The film gives credit to four different screenwriters, which is fairly typical — no doubt there were other writers who worked on the film without credit, too — but the film also goes on to specify not just that it is based on the Bible, or on a particular book of the Bible, but that it is based on particular chapters within that book.

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The National Film Registry picks Parable

My friend Darrel Manson reminds me that the National Film Registry announced a few weeks ago that it will add another 25 films to its archives — and that one of the films chosen for preservation this time ’round is the 1964 short film Parable, which featured a clown as a sort of Christ-figure nearly a decade before Godspell (1973).

The National Film Registry indicates that it chose the film partly because it represents a much larger and older tradition of Protestant non-theatrical films, and partly because this particular film, which was produced for the New York World’s Fair, was somewhat controversial and thus historically significant. Here is the Registry’s blurb on the film:
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Mary Goes to the Movies / How the mother of Jesus has been portrayed through a century of filmmaking.

Making a movie about Jesus is difficult enough. Anyone who would dramatize the life of Christ must strike a fine balance between his full humanity and his full divinity, and many filmmakers have erred on one side or the other. But at least the Scriptures give us ample data to work with, and at least there is broad agreement across church boundaries that Jesus was, and is, both divine and human.

But making a movie about Mary poses even thornier challenges. The Bible says little about her life, so dramatists who focus on her life — such as the writer and director of The Nativity Story, which opens Friday — must invent whole aspects of her story from scratch. Even more daunting, for filmmakers who want to reach as broad an audience as possible, is the fact that different churches have strongly different views on Mary.

Was she as fallible as any other human being? Or was she free from the stain of sin? Did she bear any other children? Or did she remain a virgin throughout her life? Should Jesus ever be shown correcting her, possibly even offending her? Or, as the mother of Jesus, should she offer him any guidance and possibly correct him?

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