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Adapting Jonah: Questions for Bible Artists

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

During high school, one of my first Bible adaptations was a short film adaptation of the book of Jonah, re-contextualized into a modern college, with a mysteriously locked bathroom serving as the big fish and a debauched group of college students serving as Nineveh. Needless to say, it wasn't great. Aside from my creative immaturity, I failed to properly grapple with the actual story as it's presented in Scripture, misreading the cause of his attempt to flee as being related to fear rather than hatred.

In an effort to help future Bible Artists seeking to adapt Jonah into film, I've created below a short guide to the kinds of adaptive issues that need to be grappled with. The point of the guide isn't to tell you how you should go about creating your piece of Bible Art, but rather to help you ask the right questions. Without careful thought, we tend to produce Bible Art that is fairly derivative of whatever adaptive traditions we've inherited. Of course, I've got nothing wrong with tradition influencing on Bible Art, as I've noted before, but it's helpful to be aware when that's happening and also recognize that there are alternatives, some of which may be even more faithful to the actual biblical text.

Source Summary [Jonah 1-4]

The LORD commands Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to preach against Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s pagan nemesis, the Assyrians. Jonah instead tries to escape the LORD in a pagan merchant vessel, but, when a storm threatens to destroy the ship, the pagans come to fear the LORD and respond by tossing Jonah overboard. A giant sea creature swallows Jonah, holding him three days in its belly until he repents and cries out to the LORD, after which the creatures spits Jonah out on land. He begins preaching a message of doom in Nineveh, and the pagans repent and fear the LORD, from the high king to lowly cattle. Jonah goes out from the city to see if the LORD will destroy it, revealing through his complaints that he fled precisely because he knew that the LORD would show compassion to Israel’s nemesis. The LORD attempts to teach Jonah a lesson about his compassion, but we are left to wonder whether Jonah learns this lesson or not.

Adaptive Issues

Genre: Biblical Scholars disagree whether Jonah is history, parable, satire, or a combination of all three. An adaptation doesn’t need to rule directly on this question, but creators do have to decide how historical, parabolic, and satirical they will make their Bible Art.

  • Will the adaptation attempt to create a degree of historical authenticity with regards to the setting, culture, and politics? Or will it have more of a “Once upon a time, in the grand and ancient evil empire of Assyria…” feel? Alternatively, the adaptation could re-contextualize the story into a different historical context, a move that would contribute either to a parabolic or satirical sense.

  • Will the characterization aim for exaggeration and absurdity in order to drive home a point? Or will it present characters with a degree of realism and subtlety?

  • What’s the tone employed and the mood created for the audience? Are we drawn to edge of our seats by the drama or are we laughing at the absurdity?

  • Will the adaptation be live action or animated? If animated, what will be the style? Such choices can have a significant effect on whether we perceive the story as historical, parabolic, or satirical.

Jonah’s Character (or lack thereof): Jonah may be the only anti-hero who features as the primary protagonist of a biblical book. Bible Artists adapting his story needs to decide if they will make him as thoroughly unlikeable as he is in the actual biblical account, or instead present him in a more sympathetic light.

  • Will we be encouraged to sympathize with Jonah’s hatred of the Assyrians? Or will his attempt to prevent them from repenting come across as villainous?

  • Will Jonah’s repentance in the belly of the sea creature come across as a genuine change of heart that he later doubles back on? Or is he just abusing God’s mercy out of fear?

  • When Jonah preaches in Ninevah, does he come across as intentionally abrasive and unwilling to speak of mercy and grace?

  • How does Jonah’s story arc end? Do we leave off where the book ends, unsure of how he will respond to God’s question? Or is a more definitive conclusion (positive or negative) given to him?

The Pagan Characters: Jonah accidentally brings two groups of pagans to repentance, the merchants sailors and the city of Nineveh. Historically we know that Nineveh did not transfer allegiance to Yahweh or even permanently do away with oppressive and unjust practices. Adaptations therefore need to decide how ambiguous they will leave the trajectory of these pagan characters.

  • When the sailors come to fear Yahweh, will they do so in an ultimate sense, or will they merely include him among their many gods? How seriously will their experience appear to affect them?

  • The text describes a rather noteworthy and extensive repentance on the part of Nineveh. How will the adaptation portray this? Will we either directly (through what the Ninevites say or do) or indirectly (through Jonah’s doubts) be led to question the sincerity of their repentance? Or will the repentance be presented in a straightforward way without concern for what Nineveh was like historically?

  • Are there ways that the potentially ambiguous repentance of the sailors, Nineveh, and Jonah can be juxtaposed to one another?

Depicting the Sea Creature: The modern adaptive tradition has usually presented the creature that swallows Jonah as a whale, although the word in the original is much more ambiguous. More ancient adaptations tend to have something more like a dragon. Bible Artists will need to choose not only what kind of creature will take Jonah, but also how exactly they will depict (or suggest) Jonah’s 3 day captivity.

  • Will the creature come across as realistic (in which case a whale, shark, or ancient dinosaur would be preferable) or fantastical (in which a dragon would work fine)?

  • Will the adaptation actually depict Jonah inside the whale for three days? If so, how chaotic is that journey? How is Jonah breathing and surviving?

  • Alternatively, we could see Jonah only before and after being swallowed. Or maybe we just see darkness on screen and hear what’s going on.

Depicting Jonah’s Interactions with God: Jonah has a handful of direct conversations with Yahweh. An adaptation needs to figure out how they will handle these conversations in a visual medium.

  • Will we only hear God’s voice, potentially coming from the sky?

  • Alternatively, will some sort of theophanic presence accompany the voice (a burning pillar, the Angel of Yahweh, etc.)

  • Will Jonah be presented as in a normal state of consciousness or as though he is in some kind of trance/visionary state?

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