Photo from the episode “The Spirit Arrives” (Adam Levy as Peter and Babou Alieu Ceesay as John)
Sunday nights have become much more exciting in my home as my family has been following the adventures of the apostles and the early church. Based on the resurrection account of the Gospel of John and the book of Acts, A.D. The Bible Continues is in the middle of an 11-episode run on NBC. The series premiered on Easter Sunday and now that we’re about halfway through, I’d like to offer some thoughts.
I am a true fangirl of NBC’s original 1985 television mini-series A.D. In my view, that was the best cinematic adaptation of the Bible ever done. (Here is a link to the original with Italian subtitles.) So when I heard that a remake was in the works, I screamed with excitement like a schoolgirl.
My expectation soared even higher when I found out that the minds and money behind this latest version is the husband-wife team of Mark Burnett (executive producer behind The Voice, Survivor, The Apprentice, and Shark Tank) and Roma Downey (actress, Touched by an Angel). Both claim to be Christians and have done an impressive job of enrolling the support of Christian leaders ranging from Rick Warren to the pope. Downey self-identifies as a Roman Catholic and Burnett hasn’t disclosed a particular denominational affiliation.
One of the persistent gripes I have about Bible epics is that they don’t do enough to set the proper historical context. Viewers are typically shown snippets of dialogue and events stitched together in film adaptations. Filmmakers usually try to cover too much ground in too little time. This was part of my concern in the previous Burnett-Downey production, The Bible (see my reviews here and here). However, A.D. The Bible Continues, perhaps by focusing on only a small portion of the Bible narrative, greatly corrects this problem. The filmmakers actually have time to develop the characters, motivations, and cultural background behind the story of early Christianity. Viewers are drawn into the Jewish and Roman leaders’ attempts to suppress the spread of the news of Jesus’ resurrection and the burgeoning church.
Some viewers will be troubled by the writers’ decision to make the political conflict between Jewish leaders and the Romans the primary focus of the plot, rather than the biblical characters. I would respond to this concern by saying that biblical epics should not be confused with documentaries, nor are they visual depictions of the written word of Scripture.
A.D. The Bible Continues toggles between history, historical fiction, and imagination. This, of course, is part of any normal Hollywood film that is “based on a true story.” Some films aspire to be an extremely accurate portrayal of real life, while others aim to be compelling cinema. It’s rare for films to achieve both. For these reasons, the A.D. writers have transformed certain characters such as Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, minor from a biblical perspective, into major ones. The writers incorporate historical sources and some informed speculation to provide the historical landscape to develop the story. The trade-off for all this is that the acts of the apostles and the expansion of the Gospel often get relegated to the B story.
Book-to-film adaptations offer their own set of challenges. Just ask any Tolkien fan about the faithfulness of Peter Jackson’s cinematic versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and you’ll get a quick lesson on some of those challenges. Film is a fundamentally different genre than the written word. The translation between the two genres requires certain adjustments—and concessions.1
Like The Bible, A.D. The Bible Continues contains a fair amount of violence. People are stabbed, beheaded (often through throats being slit), and crucified. I even shut my eyes several times. Even so, the film does a decent job of accurately portraying the brutal nature of the ancient world, without getting excessive. This series would likely receive at least a PG-13 rating if released in theatres.
Overall, Burnett and Downey’s efforts in A.D. The Bible Continues have pushed Christian filmmaking to a new level. This is a noteworthy attempt to make a biblical story for mainstream network television. Christians historically have had only minimal influence in Hollywood. Consequently, Christian cinematic endeavors have been fairly uneven and often underfunded. It takes Hollywood insiders who really understand the business to produce filmic projects at this level. And the power couple of Burnett and Downey are definitely making new inroads.