Several weeks ago, Netflix dropped the latest season of its highly acclaimed show The Crown. The fourth season tells the story of the British monarchy in the ’80s and ’90s and depicts the Queen’s relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and features Princess Diana. With so many of the characters depicted still alive and in recent-ish memory for a number of viewers, the show has provoked controversy like never before.
While The Crown always creatively depicted the past, this year, this season has drawn criticism from those who claim the show is misleading viewers about the true history of the monarchy. Netflix even recently put out a statement that said it would not issue a disclaimer reminding viewers that the drama was fictional.
“We have always presented The Crown as a drama—and we have every confidence our members understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events. As a result we have no plans, and see no need, to add a disclaimer.”
This week on Quick to Listen, we thought we would tackle some of the issues stirred up by this season of The Crown by getting a sense of how they’ve been wrestled with by the creator and showrunner of The Chosen, a series portraying the life of Jesus through the stories of his followers.
Dallas Jenkins heads The Chosen, which has broken records as the largest crowdfunded media project ever, and has been watched so far by more than 50 million people in 180 countries and translated into more than 50 languages.
Jenkins joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how the show has wrestled with historical accuracy, the challenge of adding and changing characters, and how watching prestige TV affected his approach to making the show.
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Music by Sweeps
The transcript is edited by Yvonne Su
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #242
You are depicting people who are in the Gospels, but you are writing a lot of details and storyline into these people's lives that is not actually written in the Gospels. What were the principles that helped you figure out what you wanted to include, what you wanted to focus on, and what you may not have wanted to include?
Dallas Jenkins: That’s the ultimate question. When I first decided to do a show about Jesus, right away, the decision to do a multi-season show is deciding to add things that aren't in Scripture.
For example, The Chosen began with a short film I did for my church’s Christmas Eve service called The Shepherd. It was about the birth of Christ from a perspective of the shepherds. And it was 18 minutes long. If I would have just done what you often see, which is essentially a reenactment of the Bible verses, the film would have been about five minutes.
These Bible stories that we know and love so well are just typically a couple verses from the Gospels. In a movie, what they typically do when they don't want to risk upsetting anybody or doing anything that's not in Scripture, they basically go from miracle to miracle, Bible verse to Bible verse, and Jesus is the main character.
So we show him heal a blind man. And then he keeps walking and finds another person to heal or save. And then, Simon has an argument with him, and he rebukes Simon, and they go to the next Bible story. For a lot of us believers, that can be interesting because it's fun to see the stories we know portrayed on screen and to see the different actors do them.
And it's a nice visual, but it's not emotive. There are very few examples of all the Jesus films and miniseries ever done that you could say, I love it. I love watching it multiple times. it makes me cry. I enjoy it as much as I do any other film or TV show.
Maybe Jesus of Nazareth and of course The Passion of the Christ. But other than that, it's typically almost like a history presentation. When I was making that short film about the birth of Christ, I was binge watching The Wire, Breaking Bad and all these shows with my wife. Those are all shows that influenced The Chosen. I thought of what we could do if we were able to really dig into these stories and dig into these people.
You cannot tell these stories in a multi-season format without adding backstory, without giving character development. The choice to do that is a dangerous choice, which is why people criticize us for it. The majority of people who've seen the show are huge fans, but we'll occasionally get the Please, in season two, don't add anything that's not in Scripture. That's cute that you think that we haven't already had these conversations and we haven't already considered the ramifications of what we're doing.
I'm an evangelical believer. I believe the Bible is God's Word. I believe Jesus is the Son of God. I believe the Gospels are perfect and God's Word. So I have no agenda to change anything to teach the world some new truth about Jesus that they can't already find.
Our first rule is it has to be plausible, but it also has to honor Scripture, honor the intention of Scripture, honor the intention of Jesus's message, honor the people that we're telling these stories about. The disciples are all people who God cares very deeply about.
Once I believe through prayer, through preparation, through study, through my circle of influencers, consultants, friends, and my co-writers, then I'm comfortable and confident in writing backstories and scenes that aren't in Scripture.
Did you pay attention as to Are we making this guy look too good? Are we making this guy look too bad?
Dallas Jenkins: In the first four episodes, we show Simon Peter fighting for money, gambling, arguing with his brothers and brothers-in-law harshly. We see an argument with his wife. We wrote it as a plausible portrayal of a pre-Jesus Simon. We didn't feel like we went over the line into showing him sleeping around or some of these things that I would consider extreme, or murdering somebody, for example. However, we have been criticized for the portrayal of Simon, from people who believe that him doing work on the Sabbath is such an egregious sin.
In our first draft of the script, it was just Simon was doing it because he needed money. Our Jewish consultant said that's impossible, so we changed it to make it a really big deal that he had to come up with big justifications for doing it, like his life was at stake, which was partially true. We got an email the other day from someone who loved the show, but said you really need to be more accurate.
What I know about human psychology and human behavior, which is something that I studied quite a bit, is that Simon Peter would be someone who's more reckless than reckless people tend to be. When they're in fear of losing something, they will do anything to protect it, including gambling or working on Sabbath, because he was desperate to protect his family. He cared deeply about his wife. They were in deep debt. The Romans were oppressing them. He had lots of reasons to justify doing what he did. I believe it falls into the category of plausible historically.
Historically accurate doesn't mean factual, but accuracy can mean what it was back then. Is it a fact that Simon gambled in a fight club to do that? Of course, we don't know that. Is it plausible? I would say it's plausible. We know historically that tax collectors were hated by the Jews for betraying their people and working for the Romans. We know our tax collectors, obviously, we're financially minded.
We know that they were numbers people because they were accountants. We know that Matthew was a facts guy. The first chapter of his book is nothing but a genealogy divided into three equal groups of 14 names. And as we're writing all of that out, I'm like, boy, he sounds like he's on the Asperger's spectrum.
He chose a field in which he was a social outcast, and that didn't seem to bother him. I have a daughter who's autistic. I'm on the Asperger's spectrum. Not, not significantly, but I know the special needs community extraordinarily well. So that went into it. Let's portray Matthew as being on the autism spectrum.
It had never been done before on a Bible project. It would certainly make it more human and relatable. And it would give him personality. Other than our portrayal of Jesus, it was the most responded to portrayal in the whole show.
We hear every day from parents of autistic children all over the world, people from autistic community or Asperger's people who are so moved by seeing themselves portrayed on screen and seeing that Jesus was able to not, quote-unquote, heal someone with that issue but actually make use of it.
And we've had a few people say, how dare you portray Matthew as having that problem? We're portraying some of his OCD tendencies. There's nothing in Scripture that would have said that. And I would say, is it factual that Matthew had Asperger’s? No, it’s not factual. Is it plausible? I think absolutely.
Do you have an agenda when it comes to how you want to portray Jesus ultimately, and what your takeaway is?
Dallas Jenkins: My number one agenda is to introduce people to the authentic Jesus. I use the word introduce even though there are some people, including myself, we've been Christ followers our whole lives. I know Jesus fairly well; I don't know Him better than others. By doing the show and digging in deeper to what it might have been for Him to be a human being, I feel like I'm getting to know Him even better.
And I believe that the portrayals that I've seen of Him have largely not been authentic. That brings me to my second agenda: I believe that if you see Jesus through the eyes of those who actually met Him, you can be changed and impacted in the same way they were.
So that's why Jesus is one of five or six main characters. Jesus actually doesn’t make a great protagonist or main character in a drama. If you know anything about drama, for most people to like a show or movie, the main character needs to learn something.
The main character tends to grow: start the show in one spot and end up in a different spot, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Jesus doesn't do that. Jesus is perfect. Jesus doesn't need. The Scripture says He grew in wisdom and understanding when He was in His teenage years, but Jesus doesn't make mistakes.
We see Jesus through the eyes of Simon, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Matthew, the tax collector, all these people who have different backgrounds and different perspectives and different things to learn.
And they have problems to solve. They have questions to be answered, and we believe that if the audience can identify with at least one of these people and identify with their struggles, their needs, and their questions, then you can also then identify with the solution and that the Jesus providing the answer to these issues, can do that for you as well.
My final point would be that it is in the exploring of Jesus as humanity that I believe. It makes the show what it is. His divinity is inherent. We see Him do miracles in season one. We acknowledge him as the Son of God in season one. That part has been covered dozens of times in other Jesus movies and miniseries to the point where He looks divine. When you see Him, He’s got almost a halo around His head.
I'm just not as interested in that. You won't see tons of miracles that we choose to portray. And the stories we do choose to tell aren't going to be quite as much the big supernatural stuff like Jesus in the desert talking to Satan or Jesus being baptized and the dove coming down and you hear God's voice. I’m not sure that that everyone who was in the area heard God's voice. I think some of the disciples did, but it's tough to know what that would have sounded, and I'm too scared to try to portray it. Anytime you portray something supernatural like that, the audience is distracted trying to figure out how you did it. They're not actually engaged in the story. They're just going, Oh, that's cool.
Leaving all that aside, I'm passionate about exploring His humanity. And that's how you see Him in the show: tell jokes, get teased, be sarcastic, sleep, do His bedtime prayers, cut His arm, make His own food, start His own fire, stretch out His muscles, do a favor for His friends because His mom asked Him to, which is ultimately the heart of the wedding at Cana.
I believe that by doing that, people can be closer to Jesus than ever before. And that's what we're seeing.
Some of the unanswered questions about how much does Jesus know, the kinds of questions that we debate theologically, are delightfully treated as sources of humor.
Dallas Jenkins: I admit that is a little bit of me dancing on the line of how much does Jesus know and how much does He not know. I'm somewhat in the middle on that issue. There are people who believe that Jesus knew literally everything at all times and was granted the exact same wisdom as His Father has while He was on Earth. There are people who even think He wouldn't have ever cut Himself because He would have known where the table was and He wouldn't have bumped into it.
I see moments in the Gospels where it seems like Jesus is asking His Father for wisdom or for knowledge. I think that it's possible if not plausible, that He did subjugate Himself to be a human being who was imperfect and who was granted wisdom by His Father, but not necessarily in perpetuity at every single moment.
Explain the tension that you may feel introducing new characters and making sure that they also feel lived in and real, and not just foils for these historical figures.
Dallas Jenkins: It’s for sure a delicate balance, but yes, we absolutely get more freedom when we create characters. There are some limits because we want to be responsible and not slanderous, we want to be historical and historically accurate.
There are no limits to how much we can make them feel lived in. There are just limits in what directions we go. Some people are more extreme. I think Simon Peter is an extreme person, so his strengths and weaknesses are going to dance on the outer edges of the line.
We still want to be somewhat careful in that. We don't just create a new character for the sole purpose of melodrama because then it's almost like cheating. Our goal is to create effective drama. Even within the fact that we've got historical characters.
What are your expectations regarding biblical literacy in your audience? Do you expect people that watch your show to be comfortable with knowledge of the Gospels or an overview of Christ? Do you expect people to be reading their Bibles after they view it?
Dallas Jenkins: I don't think about it. That sounds harsh, but I hope you understand when my co-writers are writing, we really don't have the capacity brain-wise, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally to think about anything other than writing a great show. Writing a show that people really want to watch is extraordinarily difficult. It's why most of them aren't good. I've been making movies for 20 years and not all of them have been good.
All we can do is to make as great of a show as possible. That goes hand in hand with a show that is honoring the Scripture and doesn't contradict the character or intentions of the Gospels of Jesus. So that's another weight that we carry.
So that's two difficult weights that we carry thinking about how the audience will react. What decisions they'll make in their personal relationship with God and how much Bible they've read or how much they will read is just not possible for us to think about. Even if I tried, I don't want to be thinking about that because there's such a wide range.
There are many people who don't know the Bible who love the show even though there's lots of Easter eggs and insider stuff. In fact, many Christians have said, this is a good show, but you have to be a Christian to enjoy it because otherwise you won't get all these references.
Are the producers and screenwriters abdicating a right if people come away with a sense of things being one way and maybe they're not exactly that way?
Dallas Jenkins: Absolutely. And I think our job is harder than the job of writing The Crown because in some faith traditions, the disciples are saints and as an evangelical, my portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a different perspective on her than Catholics do.
I've been attacked by some Catholics for showing her as stressed out and worried at the beginning of episode five, when she's looking for Jesus. She looked like a common person and Joseph looked like a common blue-collar person. They see them as more like king and queen. But then I have other Catholics who are like, this is a beautiful portrayal of Mary. It runs the gamut.
These are people for whom billions of people around the world have dedicated their lives. Any movie or show that you do about historical figures, there's people who feel protective of them. But I would say that there's nothing more delicate than doing a story about Jesus, other than maybe doing one on Muhammad, because even doing one can get you killed. What would be bad is if we portrayed Jesus as imperfect, or if we portrayed, Jesus's message as something other than what it was.
Does that exist if the movie is not about the man Himself? It's interesting to see The Chosen, which goes right adjacent to that. Jesus is one of the figures, but it's not actually a show about Jesus.
Dallas Jenkins: I compare it to The West Wing where President Bartlett was the central figure. Jesus is the focus. Whether or not this was a cultural phenomenon… I mean, it's hard to think of other examples, because it hasn’t been too many. It's just extraordinarily difficult and requires a lot of money.
When you were looking for like source texts and historical documents, did you just use the Gospels for what you were trying to do, did you go beyond that, or did you pick a particular Gospel in particular?
Dallas Jenkins: The bulk of it starts, of course, with the Gospels. We've borrowed from all four of them. In fact, sometimes we choose one because that version of the story is better than the other version, or it connects better to our people.
To give a very quick example, the calling of Simon Peter is talked about in multiple Gospels and it's all different. When Jesus goes and finds Him on the beach and says, come follow me, Simon drops everything and follows Him after he has experienced the miracle, the fish.
If you looked at the synoptic Gospels, you would see that he probably called Jesus to follow him after he'd already met Him. If you really combine all the Gospels together, that is the most likely timeline it's when he met Simon. But if you read only one of the Gospels, the first time Simon Peter was introduced is when Jesus sees him on the water.
To answer your original question, we went to other sources as well. Stories that were handed down through oral history, some of which sound plausible, but weren't worthy enough to be cannon. Maybe they were part of a larger book that had other issues with it, that they didn't include in the actual Bible, but certainly contained things that were plausible within what we read in the Gospels as well.
Thank you so much. I loved all the examples and insight that you shared withus about your thought process. Maybe you can remind people where they can catch the show.
And at 8:00 PM Eastern on Sunday night, we have a two-hour Christmas special that has artists such as Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United Matt Mayer, Zach Williams, The Piano Guys, Phil Wickham, all performing Christmas songs specifically for this special. We're also going to be showing the Christmas short film that I made that started the whole “Chosen” thing. If you want to get a sneak peek of season two, that's going to be there as well.
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