Why are some Bible stories turned into movies more often than others?

Why are some Bible stories turned into movies more often than others? November 28, 2015


My friend Matt Page is starting a series of posts over at the Bible Films Blog on the question of canonicity and Bible films. Among other things, he asks: Is there a “canon” of Bible films, independent of the biblical canon itself? And is there a reason why certain biblical stories get filmed again and again while others go ignored?

It will be interesting to see how Matt answers those questions. But for now, I thought I would take a stab at one part of one of those questions: specifically, which stories get told a lot, when people decide to adapt a range of stories from across the Bible?

To answer that question, I figured I’d look at three relatively recent series that were supposed to cover the entire Bible, more or less. All three of these series were produced in the past quarter-century, and they were all produced for a mainstream audience rather than a Sunday school class or some such thing; two of them won Emmy awards, and the third was very popular on cable TV and on DVD.

Here is each series, with the list of installments and the stories they told:

Testament: The Bible in Animation + The Miracle Maker — 9 half-hour episodes and one feature film produced between 1996 and 2000

  • Creation & the Flood
  • Abraham
  • Joseph
  • Moses (won the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Animation’ in 1997)
  • Ruth
  • David & Saul
  • Elijah
  • Jonah
  • Daniel
  • The Miracle Maker (Jesus)

The Bible Collection — 13 films produced between 1993 and 2002

  • Genesis: Creation & the Flood
  • Abraham
  • Jacob
  • Joseph (won the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Miniseries’ in 1995)
  • Moses
  • Samson & Delilah
  • David
  • Solomon
  • Jeremiah
  • Esther
  • Jesus
  • Paul the Apostle
  • The Apocalypse (Revelation)

The Bible — 10 hour-long episodes produced in 2013

  • Beginnings (Creation, the Flood, Abraham, Moses)
  • Exodus (Moses)
  • Homeland (Joshua, Samson & Delilah, Saul)
  • Kingdom (Saul, David)
  • Survival (Jeremiah, Daniel)
  • Hope (Jesus)
  • Mission (Jesus)
  • Betrayal (Jesus)
  • Passion (Jesus)
  • Courage (Jesus, Paul, Revelation)

On all three lists: Creation, the Flood, Abraham, Moses, David & Saul, Jesus.

On two lists: Joseph, Samson & Delilah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Paul, Revelation.

On one list: Jacob, Joshua, Ruth, Solomon, Elijah, Jonah, Esther.

So, what made all three lists? Origin stories: The beginning of the world, the beginning of Abrahamic monotheism, the beginning of the Israelites as a nation under the Law, the beginning of the Israelite monarchy, and the beginning of Christianity.

Also worth noting is that a story in which a woman is the villain (Samson & Delilah) was adapted twice, while stories in which women are the heroes (Ruth, Esther) were adapted only once. (There are positive depictions of women in the other films too, but they are strictly supporting characters there, not the main protagonists.)

If we go back even further in time, there is this series which aired on NBC:

Greatest Heroes of the Bible — 17 episodes produced between 1978 and 1979

  • The Story of Noah Parts 1 + 2 *
  • The Tower of Babel
  • Sodom and Gomorrah *
  • Abraham’s Sacrifice *
  • Jacob’s Challenge
  • Joseph in Egypt *
  • The Story of Moses Parts 1 + 2 *
  • The Ten Commandments *
  • Joshua and the Battle of Jericho
  • Samson & Delilah *
  • David & Goliath *
  • The Judgment of Solomon
  • Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar
  • Daniel in the Lions’ Den
  • The Story of Esther

Again, we see a heavy emphasis on the stories of Genesis, with seven of the seventeen episodes coming from that book (this time including an entire episode dedicated to the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was included as part of the story of Abraham in the other three series that we’ve looked at).

Other repeating patterns: Moses gets three episodes, Samson is the only “hero” from the book of Judges who gets any attention, and there are episodes based on David, Daniel and Esther. Also: Joshua and Solomon — who are frequently relegated to the epilogues in movies about Moses and David — get episodes to themselves.

However, the question of “canonicity” gets an extra wrinkle here due to the fact that, when this series was released to DVD, only eight of these stories were included, namely the ones about Noah, Abraham (including Sodom and Gomorrah), Joseph, Moses (including The Ten Commandments), Samson and David.

So there is arguably a canon within the canon of that particular TV show — and, not surprisingly, it focuses on the same popular stories that the other series focus on.

There have been other Bible-spanning film series, of course, many of them made for churches rather than regular audiences; and there is no shortage of cartoons made for kids (such as VeggieTales, Superbook or The Greatest Adventure). But I am less familiar with those shows and haven’t got time to look into all the details.

In any case, I’ll be keeping tabs on Matt’s blog to see what he comes up with there!

— The photo at the top of this post comes from the 2013 miniseries The Bible.

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