12 Bible Movie Adaptations for Easter & Passover: The Gospel Acc. St. Matthew & The Gospel of John

Updated: Jul 13, 2019


Today I turn again to adaptations of Jesus' story, The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the Visual Bible's The Gospel of John. But whereas some of the adaptations I looked at earlier in the week felt free to create and add to the gospel narratives as much as necessary to serve the creative purposes of their makers, today's adaptations are notable for how strictly they follow their sources. Tomorrow I will go on to look at a couple more gospel adaptations that, while not as interested in creating episodes from scratch, still reframe those episodes in creative ways.

Photo from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058715/mediaviewer/rm41820416

Directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini [The Gospel According to St. Matthew]; Philip Saville [The Gospel of John]

Starring: Enrique Irazoqui (Jesus), Susanna Pasolini/Margherita Caruso (Mary), Settimio Di Porto (Peter) [The Gospel According to St. Matthew]; Christopher Plummer (Narrator), Henry Ian Cusick (Jesus), Stuart Bunce (John), Daniel Kash (Simon Peter) [The Gospel of John]

Adapting: The Gospel of Matthew; The Gospel of John (GNT)

Synopsis [The Gospel According to St. Matthew]

We begin by seeing the reaction of Joseph to Mary’s news about Jesus’ birth and follow the visitation of angels, Jesus’ birth, the wise men, the slaughter of the innocents, and the escape into Egypt. We jump forward to John the Baptist’s ministry, Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the desert, and Jesus’ early ministry. Jesus sends out his disciples, we see a montage of his teaching, followed by key miracles and altercations with the Pharisees. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, confronts the Pharisees and chief priests in the temple, has the last supper, gets arrested in the garden, tried, and executed on the cross. Jesus is buried. When his mother returns an angel bursts forth announcing that he is not there but is risen. The disciples rush to Galilee where they meet Jesus and are commissioned.

Synopsis [The Gospel of John]

The entire Gospel of John is narrated and, except for the prologue, directly depicted.

Photo from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0377992/mediaviewer/rm2875891456

Major Influences

For evangelical wooden literalists who are skeptical about the changes that most Bible movie adaptations find necessary, The Gospel of John provides a welcomed adaptive strictness and specificity.

The Primary Biblical Source

Whereas many Bible movies adapting Jesus’ life draw on all four gospel accounts in order to create an amalgamated account, both of these films chose to follow only one gospel account of Jesus’ life and did so quite closely. Matthew only very rarely creates its own dialogue, preferring either to use the original biblical text or to have characters communicate with each other through non-verbal language, while allowing the audience to conclude what is happening based on our assumed knowledge of the biblical story (e.g. Mary telling Joseph about Jesus’ conception). For the most part it follows the flow of Matthew’s gospel, only making a couple alterations, most likely for the sake of narrative flow and time. John takes this all a step further, allowing no original dialogue and including all of its source’s narration in the original order that it was written. Although it occasionally leaves space for characters to act or communicate with each non-verbally and for some additional action (mostly walking) during narration or Jesus’ long speeches, other than this it takes very few liberties with regard to plot.


The Audience’s Perceived Biblical Literacy

Although both films work according to similar formal principles (follow an original gospel account as closely as possible), they seem to make very different assumptions about the audience.

John seems intended for 2 ideal audiences. For evangelical wooden literalists who are skeptical about the changes that most Bible movie adaptations find necessary, The Gospel of John provides a welcomed adaptive strictness and specificity. It would hardly be surprising to hear about such audiences watching the film with a Bible open, checking to make sure that each line is true to the source – and finding their effort rewarded. But John isn’t just for the well-versed converted evangelical; it’s also clearly an evangelistic tool for the biblically illiterate. That’s why, instead of choosing a more literal or beautiful translation as its source for narration and dialogue, the film instead opts for the rather ugly but plain language of the Good News Translation. Even though the translation often masks the repetition and word play of the Greek source, it assumedly is easier for the first time listener to follow than more literal translations.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew doesn’t seem quite as concerned about the ability of its audience to follow the narrative. Several events are executed with little to no dialogue or explanation, precisely because it’s assumed that we the viewers already know what’s going on. The film was made in Italy while the Catholic Church still maintained a strong hegemony over the population and so the average person was quite aware of the basic events of Jesus’ life. If anything, they were less aware of the specific contours of Matthew’s gospel (the average Catholic was exposed to a whole-cannon picture of Jesus’ life and was unlikely to read through a whole gospel on its own), and so the little alterations made to its narrative structure were hardly a concern.

Much has been made of the fact that the director of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was an atheist, communist, and populist. In the end, however, his determination to render an adaptation that was faithful to the biblical text (not, in his mind, faithful to history) meant that his atheism had a limited effect on the film.

The Role of Multiple Artists or Contributors

Much has been made of the fact that the director of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was an atheist, communist, and populist. In the end, however, his determination to render an adaptation that was faithful to the biblical text (not, in his mind, faithful to history) meant that his atheism had a limited effect on the film. His populism might have had more effect – not in direct changes but rather because of how it led him to utilize peasants and other non-professional actors for the majority of his cast. The effect of this choice is that the expressions and acting that the actors contribute are less polished and more subdued than the usual Hollywood film, which actually provides the movie with a degree of simplicity and humility that seems fitting.

The Gospel of John’s cast goes in the opposite extreme direction. Most of the actors are drawn from Shakespearean theater, the effect of which is that their expressions and vocalizations can at times feel a bit bombastic and overplayed, particularly as they follow immediately upon the narration and don’t have enough ample space to air like they might in a theatrical production. It’s also worth noting that, even though John was made as late as 2003, the casting still fails to break out of the normative Anglicizing that was already recognized as problematic by that time. Even more troublesome is the rather strange choice to make the high priest’s servants all black. Historically it’s much more likely that these characters would have been in debt servitude, but the choice to depict them as black could easily suggest to the uninformed view that Mediterranean slavery was raced-based like American slavery was, which in turn could make Paul’s temporary condoning of it seem much more difficult to stomach.

Important Note:

Although I reviewed The Gospel of John produced by the Visual Bible, a similar project was undertaken more recently by Lumo in 2015, and they navigated ethnicity (as well as other adaptive issues) with much more adeptness. I chose to focus on the Visual Bible because it is the older and more influential version, but the Lumo version is arguably superior.


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