In the Beginning…
On a cold, November afternoon in New York City, one small screening room nestled in a large hotel contained almost more excitement than it could hold. And all of the excitement was bursting from two individuals: Roma Downey (star of Touched by an Angel) and her husband, TV producer Mark Burnett (The Voice, Survivor) as they showcased an hour and a half of footage from their upcoming television miniseries, The Bible.
The Bible premiers on The History Channel on March 3rd 2013, and is set to be a project of epic proportions. With ten hours of footage making it into the final cut, it features major highlights from the biblical narrative, including the Garden of Eden, Abraham and Isaac, the saga of David and Saul, Daniel in Babylon, and the ministries of both Jesus and Paul. The producers explained several reasons as to why they chose to span the whole Bible, instead of just focusing on a single narrative.
“It’s one story,” Burnett explains. And what is that story?
“We fell away from God’s grace,” says Downey. “The arching journey [of The Bible] had to be how we got back to God.”
Each episode continues to build upon this through-line, with Jesus ultimately providing The Way back to God, according to Downey.
Another motivation they cited was that today’s audiences don’t have a great biblical epic to watch. Downey spoke to members of the press about growing up captivated by The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. But when watching that film with her own children, they are quicker to critique the outdated visual effects than to soak in the story. So, producers have done everything possible to keep the special effects fresh and true to the grand scale of the Bible itself. (Apparently the most special-effect-laden scene will be the parting of the Red Sea…watch for that!)
Additionally, Burnett and Downey want to provide an exciting means of educating people on what is actually in the Bible – something people often don’t know. The Bible is a foundational part of our society, explain Downey and Burnett, and not knowing about it can be a real drawback.
Finally, they desire to spark new passion, both in Christians and the unchurched. The project is “for a secular audience” says Mark – to pique interest in Christianity. But the religious, too, need a spark sometimes. “Some people know so many details [of the Bible],” Mark continued, “but they don’t love it.”
Long-time believers Downey and Burnett have been waiting years to make this, and their passion for the project is evident. The process began more than three years ago, culminating in a large-scale, high budget shoot in Morocco. This shoot included snakes (and professional snake catchers), long days of filming, and “dust in places we didn’t know existed” according to Downey. But during their time with the press, the film makers exuded an amazing peace and confidence about The Bible. According to the couple, God calls the right people with the right skill set at the right time. That’s how everything got done.
What to Look For in The Bible
For what it’s worth, The Bible will look and sound beautiful. In addition to the previously high standards of special effects and the desert majesty of Morocco, the score features the dynamic pair Lisa Gerrard (vocals) and Hans Zimmer (score) who haven’t worked together since the stunning soundtrack of Gladiator. With one of the world’s most beloved composers creating the aural soundscape, The Bible measures up handsomely in the music department.
Bible-believing audience members will also be delighted to know that Burnett and Downey took the job of researching and accuracy very seriously. The team of writers was aided by many orthodox Jewish and Christian scholars, theologians, and experts. When preparing the actors for scenes, Burnett and Downey were constantly discussing the context and intent of each biblical scenario. They carried around Bibles on set, and were often found flipping through its pages to get a refresher on what the Source had to say, before filming!
The writers of The Bible had a daunting task before them. They had to transform the 66 books of the Bible into a 10-hour miniseries with a single through-line. “I don’t think many of the writers are believers,” Mark Burnett admitted. However, according to Burnett, all the writers got together, studied the Bible, and the single, overarching story of man’s journey back to God emerged.
So while The Bible has benefited from intense scholarship and deep love of the Source, it remains audience friendly – specifically because Burnett and Downey were trying make a product that would fascinate those less biblically literate, not confuse them. They did add, take away, and change things to keep the stories clean, simple, cohesive, or even to add a dramatic flair. For example, some artistic liberty is taken in the saga of Abraham’s sacrificing of Isaac. Burnett and Downey wanted to add a raw, poignant twist to the story, so they crafted the scene in such a way that Sarah, Isaac’s mother, discovers what Abraham is planning to do after she finds out they have left to make the sacrifice. Sarah is not mentioned in the biblical narrative, but watching her chase after Abraham, hoping to reach them before he kills the son of their old age, is a heart-wrenching look at the scenario through a mother’s eyes.
One final thing to expect and enjoy is the celebration of ethnicity and women – something often missing in retellings of biblical stories. The cast is chiefly British, and they appear to make no attempt to hide or change their accents. Members of cast are of Caucasian and African descent – with a gentle, young Portuguese actor in the role of Jesus Christ. Much to the delight of many modern audience members, Mary Magdalene is not forgotten. In much scholarship, Mary is viewed as the “apostle to the apostles” – one who travelled with the twelve, stayed with Jesus even after the apostles fled, and was the first to see him resurrected. Downey and Burnett honor that legacy, including Mary in many scenes and travels where previous adaptations of the gospels have often left her out or glossed over her.
All in all, when you sit down to watch The Bible, expect love. The filmmakers have an intense love of the Lord, and a passion for the Bible. According to Burnett and Downey, the set was constantly awash in prayer (often led by Roma Downey, a “prayer warrior” according to her husband). Producers described to the press a beautiful moment on the last day of filming where Diogo Morgando, playing Jesus, prayed over the cast and crew in Portuguese, his native tongue.
The adaptation won’t be perfect, will likely be over the top or too dramatic in some places, and certainly won’t please everyone. It may speak too loudly to already-Christians and not garner interest of those unfamiliar with (or skeptical of) Christianity. But it was definitely made with a passion for the Lord. Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, and the cast and crew of The Bible set out to prepare the way of the Lord, and to show how great the Father’s love for us truly is.
“He’s already here,” John says from behind bars. “Out there. Speaking God’s truth. Opening the hearts of all men.”
*This Article First Published 2/5/2013