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Innocence is Strange, Unless You Have a Dog (Adapting Genesis 1-4)

Virtuous characters are notoriously more difficult to make interesting than evil ones. Perhaps it's because our sinful nature makes the audience relate more easily to other sinners. Perhaps it's because the sinful nature of creators makes it more difficult for them to realistically and sympathetically portray a truly pure character. It may even just be a taste peculiar to modern cultures - the premodern tradition of epic literature doesn't seem nearly as averse to noble characters. Most likely, there's a unique mixture of these factors and others that's at play in any particular circumstance.

You might think that because Genesis 1-4 is about characters undergoing The Fall into temptation, the characterization of virtue and purity would be a non-issue. And yet in order for the Fall to have the necessary dramatic impact what the characters are undergoing needs to look qualitatively different from the minor temptations and falls that we experience in our daily lives. We need to believe that Adam and Eve are truly virtuous and pure up until they give in to the Serpent's temptation, otherwise the significance and consequences of their decision will fall flat.

So, having looked at the challenges of what to portray in the Genesis Prologue and how to convey the cataclysmic significance of these events, let's take a moment to think through the decisions that Bible Artists need to make about how to do characterization in an adaptation of Genesis 1-4.

The Use of a Frame Narrative

As with the previous questions we explored, the use of a frame narrative is a convenient mechanism to alleviate many of the challenges related to characterization. There are a few ways this can work:

  • The Unreliable Narrator: When an adaptation positions itself as a direct encounter with events, there's no recourse for explaining away flaws or imperfections in the characterization. When we're positioned to encounter those events second-hand through a later narrator, however, this provides an explanatory escape-hatch: the flaws were due to the narrator, not the film itself. All later narrators are going to have sinful foibles and blindspots, and it's thematically interesting to see how a narrator read his or her own issues or prejudices back into the events of Genesis. Rather than being a cop out, this could call into question the degree to which we the audience have done the same. In this regard, an Unreliable Narrator would be useful for adaptations seeking to explore gender and the degree to which current dynamics are divinely designed.

  • Selective Portrayal: A narrative frame also enables an adaptation to be more limited in its portrayal of prelapsarian humanity. A direct adaptation of Genesis 1-4 will need to spend a decent amount of time establishing the status quo in Eden and will also need to walk us through a convincing psychological portrayal of truly innocent humans getting overcome by temptation. By contrast, a frame narrative can briefly and selectively flashback to glimpses and fragments of that story, avoiding the need to capture a rounded but pure human characters. Given how well known the Fall is, even in an age of biblical illiteracy, the audience can be trusted to piece these glimpses together in their head into coherent narrative. A Selective Portrayal would fit best with an adaptation that begins with Genesis 4-5, and mediates Genesis 1-3 through the memories of Adam and Eve as they see the ongoing consequences of their Fall.

  • Parallel Narratives: Rather than having it mediated through a frame character who either narrates or recalls the events, we can experience Genesis 1-5 "directly," with a separate frame narrative juxtaposed without an explanation intrinsic to the narrative. Doing so not only allows for interesting echoes and parallels, it also allows the drama and conflict of the postlapsarian plot to carry the attention and interest of readers before the Fall occurs in the Genesis plot. Moreover, although the pure and unfallen humans on their own might be difficult for the audience to connect to, our attachment to the more relatable fallen characters can undergo transference that leads us to feel a similar attachment to the unfallen characters that they parallel.

A Fallen POV Character

Paradise Lost, unquestionably the most famous adaptation of Genesis 1-4, alleviates the challenge of characterization in part by focusing its story around Satan, a character who has fallen and is consequently quite easy for us to relate with. Similarly, Perelandra, although not an adaptation of Genesis 1-4 but rather a recapitulation of it under slightly different circumstances, also centers us around a fallen (albeit still good) character, a human who is seeking to prevent the Venusians from suffering the same fate as Adam and Eve. In most cases, Satan will be the fallen POV character of choice, but there are several challenges with this approach:

  • Fool or Threat?: If Satan's efforts to oppose God are all in vain, he'll come across as foolish, perhaps even comical. When he succeeds it tempting the first humans, however, it will make it seem as though God wanted this to happen. Yet if Satan seems to pose a real threat to God's plans, that will raise theological questions of another sort, with regard to God's sovereignty and foresight.

  • Sympathetic or Despicable?: Paradise Lost is notable for establishing the now popular tradition of sympathetic portrayals of demons. While this may make for a good story, again it raises questions about God - this time with regard to his goodness. Conversely, if Satan is portrayed as purely despicable, there's a similar problem to the initial issue - purely evil characters are just as hard for audiences to relate to as truly pure characters.

  • Kicking the Can: Making the POV character fallen doesn't ultimately solve the problem of how to characterize Adam and Eve. If an adaptation has a fallen POV and then characterizes Adam and Eve in a way that makes them boring or unappealing, the dramatic weight of the Fall will still fall short of what it should be.


Even if we can't relate to someone on many other levels, a love for animals will win us over.


Other Mechanisms

Here's a grab bag of other mechanisms that Bible Arists might want to use in order to to help the audience take more interest in them:

  • Minimize Dialogue: The more Adam and Eve speak, the more space we will have to take issue with their supposed purity or perfection. A montage of their time before temptation could capture moments that help us connect/feel for them (holding each other while looking out on the sunset, laughing and playing with the animals, relishing food, etc.) without actually needing very much dialogue.

  • Unfallen Adventure: A typical adaptation of Genesis 1-2 that you find in a storybook Bible depicts the world before the Fall as completely perfect and peaceful. The Garden of Eden might as well be the entire earth, because we aren't given any sense that the world outside of Eden is any different. Recent scholarship has suggested a different picture. Eden may instead be a sanctuary of safety and blessing that God creates as a kind of nursery for the first humans amidst a still chaotic and violent world. Rather than just basking in paradise, the purpose of Adam and Eve and their descendants may have been to extend the blessing of Eden to the ends of the earth. Such a picture opens the door for Adam and Eve to experience danger and adventure (e.g. a wild sabertooth) even before the Fall, as they venture out of the Garden in hopes of initiating the work that they've been called to do. These dangers would allow Adam and Eve to experience fear and overcome it with courage - an arc that could also help us identify with them.

  • Animals & Loneliness: The first conflict that intrudes on Adam's life isn't actually the temptation of Satan, it's his inability to meet his longing for companionship. His love for the animals, which leads him to name them combined with his sense that this isn't quite all that he was meant for could create some interesting drama (or laughs, depending on how you want to play it). Even if we can't relate to someone on many other levels, a love for animals will win us over. One angle on the story would be to follow the perspective of an animal (e.g. Adam's dog) as it tries to bring Adam companionship but can't quite do enough, sees the joy of his union with Eve (but maybe feels a bit sad that Adam now spends more time with her), perhaps tries to fight off the serpent (or distract Eve from listening to it), but then mourns to see Adam and Eve give in to its lies and get kicked out of the Garden.

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