Updated: Jul 13, 2019
In honor of Good Friday, today I look at The Passion of the Christ, one of the most unflinching depictions of Jesus' suffering, and The King of Kings, a very interesting exploration of Jesus' kingship. As I note below, they contrast significantly with the more direct gospel adaptations I looked at yesterday. They are both short form storytelling, however, and so tomorrow, I'll finish my tour of Gospel and Passover adaptations by looking at longer form adaptations made for TV.
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille [The King of Kings]; Mel Gibson [The Passion of the Christ]
Starring: H. B. Warner (Jesus), Dorothy Cumming (Virgin Mary), Ernest Torrence (Peter), Joseph Schildkraut (Judas), Jacqueline Logan (Mary Magdalene) [The King of Kings]; Jim Caviezel (Jesus), Maia Morgenstern (Virgin Mary), Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene), Francesco De Vito (Peter), Luca Lionello (Judas) [The Passion of the Christ]
Adapting: The Canonical Gospels
Synopsis [The King of Kings]
Mary Magdalene, an upper class prostitute, discovers that Judas, one of her regular clients, has taken up with a miracle worker and goes to find him on her zebra chariot. When she finds Judas, he reveals that he hopes to become powerful when Jesus ascends to the throne, but when Jesus finds her, he casts the 7 deadly sins out of her. We follow Jesus as he befriends children and performs miracles like the raising of Lazarus. He eventually enters Jerusalem and casts out the money changers but rejects the attempts of Judas (and Satan) to make him an earthly king. Frustrated and also threatened by the priests, Judas decides to hand Jesus over. After the Last Supper (which Judas secretly doesn’t eat), Jesus is taken in Gethsemane, Judas dies by suicide out of guilt, Caiaphas bribes the crowd to condemn Jesus, and he’s crucified, which causes cataclysm. When Jesus is resurrected, the film changes from black and white to color, and his commissions the disciples.
Synopsis [The Passion of the Christ]
Jesus, praying, is tempted by Satan in Gethsemane, but triumphantly rebukes him and crushes a serpent’s head. Judas leads guards to capture him and he is taken. The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John go to see the trial, during which Jesus is convicted for affirming that he is the Son of God, Peter denies Jesus three times, and Judas is driven to suicide by guilt and demons. Jesus is brought to Pilate, who, because of his wife’s dream, tries to avoid the problem by sending him to Herod, offering to free to free him for Passover, and finally by scourging him severely. Nevertheless Caiaphas convinces the crowd to call for his crucifixion. Jesus’ Via Dolorosa is depicted with excruciating detail – the Mary’s trying to comfort him and a fearful Simon of Cyrene getting conscripted to help him when he’s barely able to even stand. Jesus is crucified in the view of his mother, he forgives the thief on the cross an the crowd, and dies, leading to the earthquake and Satan’s defeat. Three days later we see Jesus risen from the dead.
Although Bible artists and moviemakers are not always conscious or intentional about how their selection of arrangement shapes the picture of Jesus that their films communicate, the creators of King of Kings and The Passion clearly are.
The Bible Artist’s Unique Interpretation & Invention
In the past few decades, there’s been a greater appreciation for how the four gospels each have their own theological emphases, which gets communicated through the selection and arrangement of the episodes in Jesus’ life. This awareness should lead us to see the differences between adaptations of a specific gospel, like those I looked at yesterday, and an adaptation that picks and chooses elements like King of Kings and The Passion. Single gospel adaptations are more likely to communicate the emphasis and themes of that specific account, whereas the selection and arrangement of episodes done by the creators of an amalgamated gospel adaptation will cause that film to have its own unique emphases and themes. Although Bible artists and moviemakers are not always conscious or intentional about how their selection of arrangement shapes the picture of Jesus that their films communicate, the creators of King of Kings and The Passion clearly are.
Our world is uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus saved us not merely by teaching us good principles but even more importantly by vicariously suffering God’s wrath, and so it’s unsurprising that many were disturbed by how much attention the film gave to the brutality of Jesus’ passion...
The theological emphasis of The King of Kings is clearly communicated through its title: what does it mean for Jesus to be the king above all other kings. We explore this theme by approaching Jesus through Judas and Mary Magdalene, the former who comes expecting power, the later who gets humbled and experiences his spiritual power over sin. The film continues to keep this theme in our mind by investing a surprising amount of time in the debate over taxes and Jesus’ unwillingness to challenge Caesar in an earthly way, even as he is working on a piece of wood that we later realize is a cross (his alternative challenge to Caesar’s rule). Judas’ betrayal is shown to be motivate by his conflict with Jesus’ philosophy of kingship and Satan’s temptation is clearly tied to the question of how to rule. And in Jesus’ final debates with Pilate, the question of his kingdom is at the forefront.
The Passion also clearly suggests its theological emphasis through its title, namely, the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death to deal with sin. Our world is uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus saved us not merely by teaching us good principles but even more importantly by vicariously suffering God’s wrath, and so it’s unsurprising that many were disturbed by how much attention the film gave to the brutality of Jesus’ passion, but this was hardly an unintentional choice. By including Jesus’ teachings only as interspersed flashbacks within the primary narrative of his road to the cross, The Passion prioritizes Jesus’ suffering and suggests that it is the proper context to even understand and obey his teaching. Jesus’ suffering also gets emphasized by how the film situates our relationship to him: much of what we encounter is, so to speak, over the shoulder of the Virgin Mary, whose perspective we take on empathetically as viewers. Whereas a more objective or distant perspective might not linger quite so much on Jesus’ suffering, such detachment is impossible for his mother.
Having pointed out the unique ways that The King of Kings and The Passion communicate their own emphasis and interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life, it’s important to note that these interpretations and emphases are not themselves unique or new; both works continue in the path of well established theological traditions. Theologians have long wrangled with what it means for Jesus to not be a king of this world, and the idea that this meant that he was apolitical and more concerned with personal sin and transformation (as opposed to, say, being political but with an upside-down means of political action) has had a lot of influence over American Christianity. It’s hardly surprising that DeMille picked up on this and shaped his gospel account to suggest it. Likewise, the importance of Jesus’ suffering has a long history in Western Christianity, and Mary’s role in sorrowing over that suffering a long history in Catholicism in particular, so it’s not surprising to see how Gibson shaped his gospel account to fit the tradition that he inherited. For him this may have been a much more intentional process, as the Catholic theological tradition has a much richer connection to traditions of adaptation and representation and thus could provide more concrete direction concerning how to shape the narrative.