In a recent article in The New York Times, critic A. O. Scott writes about our “free-floating anxiety about stories that claim to be true,” particularly in documentary film and in shows like the recent HBO phenomenon The Jinx. As he points out, nonfiction filmmaking of late tends to “blend documentary and fictional methods in the simultaneous pursuit of art and truth.”
This blending has stirred up no little amount of audience and commentator handwringing, especially since, as Scott says, nonfiction filmmakers “have taken over some of the duties of print journalists, turning out profiles of interesting and famous people, works of reportage and advocacy on important social issues, and dispatches from exotic and overlooked places.” As such, these films have inherited some of the same anxieties we feel about reporters who make stuff up (as the recent film True Story illustrates), which is to say that we get tied up in knots when we realize the filmmakers are controlling our experience through cinematic techniques like editing, reenactments, and so on.
The trouble here is this: the difference between reporting and filmmaking, Scott argues, is that while some films aim mostly to do the work of journalism—to inform, with accuracy—others aspire to be “daring and original works of cinema,” which I think is to say that they want to be art. Great works of art, by nature, are not meant to be informational. They rely on imagination to give the viewer an aesthetic and often emotional experience.
Journalists aim to report the facts as accurately as possible, observing, taking notes, recording interviews, double- and triple-checking the details, and certainly not making them up out of nowhere or changing them (hello, Brian Williams) to make themselves look better. Journalists serve the facts in shaping a story.
Artists who work in nonfiction, by contrast, try stick to the contours of what happened while primarily serving the themes of the story. Journalism aims to inform a citizenship about the world; art aims to evoke in the audience an experience of the world. Both want to make the reader or viewer see the world in a new way, but journalism is doing that through facts, and art is doing it through emotions.
Whether the artist is justified in tweaking the facts is still hotly debated, a long-running argument about ethics that can't be settled in a column. What's interesting here is the this concern and its biblical movie analogue.
There are, as far as I can tell, three camps of viewers when it comes to movies based on stories from the Bible. The first is the literalists: if anything appears on screen that isn't on the page, then they turn it off. But this group isn't totally consistent in their concerns. They’re only concerned with plot, which is just one aspect of moviemaking. It’s obvious that the Bible isn't a collection of photographs and transcripts, so every filmmaker must make some things up.
Even the creators of the 1979 Jesus film, which draws its screenplay as directly as possible from the Gospel of Luke, have to exercise some imagination to fill in the details left out of the Bible, which are legion: what color were Jesus' eyes? Exactly what did Joseph make in his carpenter's shop? And so on.
One can, of course, make an educated guess, but it's still a guess, and could be inaccurate. The viewer, no matter how literal, makes that bargain when he settles into the armchair to watch a movie instead of read a text. (And don't forget: the reader is likely, even hopefully, filling in details with his own imagination.)
The second group of Bible film watchers see the biblical story as inspiration, but are fine with whatever happens on screen, no matter how off-book it goes. That’s most viewers who don’t feel a strong attachment to the text, and some of the ones who do but totally separate films from the sacred text. (To be consistent, they also have to be ok with superhero films that go wildly off-book, but I digress.)
The third group lies somewhere in the middle, seeing the story as an outline that ought to be followed in general, but reserving the freedom to change in minor ways, invent, or draw on other texts to serve the cinematic medium—and, more importantly, to serve the story of the text, and to evoke an experience in the reader.
Every Bible film ever made, from Veggie Tales and The Greatest Story Ever Told to The Passion to Noah and A.D. The Bible Continues, takes varying degrees of license with the text. Often, they turn to other texts and traditions to spark the imagination. The thing is, the Bible is a terse book. Whole familiar stories fill scant chapters. Lots—maybe on purpose—is left to the imagination. I have no idea what Mary, or Mary Magdalene, looked like. I’m not sure what Jesus’ laugh sounded like, or how exactly they traveled to get to the Mount of Transfiguration, or what kind of fish was distributed to the 5,000.
Maybe more importantly, 40 verses about Noah or a few chapters of the Exodus aren't enough to make a movie. (The average screenplay is between about 90 and 110 pages.) Some branches of Christianity argue that the Bible therefore ought not to be made into a film; that's a respectable opinion, but it's not shared by most Christians.
If we want to make and watch movies based on the Bible, then, we've got to be okay with some degree of imagination. The real question for most people, especially religious people, to grapple with is this: where is the limit? This may be where the documentary and creative nonfiction discussion becomes useful again.
Scott brings up films like Waltz With Bashir and The Act of Killing as movies that blend fact and fiction, but not with the intent to deceive. Instead, they are trying to act like movies, which is to say, to act like art: to provoke a powerful emotional experience in the viewer that serves the story (in these cases, stories of widespread war and genocide and so, more importantly, the cruelty of which mankind is capable).
Something writers of nonfiction talk about is drawn from the memoir writer Vivian Gornick, who talks about finding the “story” in the “situation.” What she means is that the facts of our lives often don’t immediately have a narrative shape or arc. They are just things that happen.
The real skill for the writer—or filmmaker, or even a counselor, mentor, spiritual director, or minister—is to find the “shape” of the story in the facts. Something we want to do as humans is believe there is logic to the occurrences of life, that things happen for a reason.
Similarly, the maker of a biblical film reads the text and looks for the story. Evangelicals are arguably the branch of Christianity most fixated on the biblical text, but even we aren’t good at discerning the story behind it. A lot of us think it’s just stories that “illustrate lessons,” but miss the Big Story, the story of redemption that lies underneath the whole Bible. The world got made, then broken, but someone came and he died, and thereby, he claims he fixed it. The fix is a long time in coming to its completion.
But that’s what Christians are meant to be living for: not to see themselves represented on screen, not to see an exact reenactment of the plot and their imagination about it, but the Story behind the Situation.
I’d suggest this is the real basis for looking at “Bible movies”: how well do they look at the big picture? They don’t have to get it all in, but do they fit the narrative of the Book? If all the story succeeds in doing is educating people about the plot points of the story, like some kind of live-action Flannelgraph, then we haven’t done a single thing right. If we sit and hear the story told and feel like that’s something we’ve heard, we’ve done it all wrong.
Take it from a cradle Christian, circa the ‘90s: in church we heard the same stories told over, and when we wanted to feel it, we relied on other aesthetic means to really get the story, music, mostly. We sang and raised our hands and wept. That was never enough to sustain faith, but a movie shouldn’t be, either.
And yet—and yet. There was something there.
Even more remarkably: the Bible isn’t just a book for Christians. So did the story fit the narrative? More to praise. Did it not? More to mourn, because we did a bad job of telling the Story.
We’re people of the Book. Let’s start acting like it, even when our Book becomes the movie.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.