Updated: Apr 21
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What is an Adaptation?
Often, when people approach an adaptation, they evaluate it based on how accurately ("faithfully") it follows the source. The assumption seems to be that the goal of adaptation is to be as accurate as possible, almost like a translation, rendering a story from one language to another with as little change as possible. Upon further interrogation, however, this assumption proves to be unrealistic and sometimes quite silly. Unrealistic, because the work of adaptation, taking a story from one medium or genre into another, necessarily involves significant changes - total accuracy is impossible. Silly, because if what you're looking for is a totally accurate version of the story without any changes, you don't want an adaptation; you want the original. If you're going to change the genre or medium of a story, you're also going to need to make changes to the story itself, because different genres and mediums tell stories in different ways and have different rules. Total accuracy can actually be a defect for an adaptation, because it often comes at the cost of making an adaptation function well as an independent work of art.
The relationship between an adaptation and its source is a bit like the relationship between a father and a son. They may have some of the same genes (the core story), but the son has other genes as well (the rules and expectations of the adaptation genre/medium) and he grows up under a different set circumstances (cultural influences and trends) , and so we're not surprised when a son resembles his father but also looks significantly different. This doesn't mean the son is an unfaithful or inaccurate representation of his father; the two are just different - and yet still related to one another.
Is it okay to adapt biblical stories?
The Bible seems to think so. Consider how the Bible often recounts the same story multiple times in different forms and genres, often with significant changes. Modern nitpickers (i.e. "discernment" blogs) might even be tempted to call some of these changes "inaccurate" or "additions."
Take for example the biblical story of the crossing of the Red Sea. The Bible first gives us this story in the form of historical narrative:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. (Exodus 14:21-31, ESV)
Next, the Bible gives us a poetic retelling of the same story:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. (Exodus 15:1-12, ESV)
Of course, since the Bible ascribes this poem to Moses, it's not exactly accurate to call it an adaptation. If anything, the Bible's historical narrative might be an adaptation of this earlier oral poem. Regardless, it's worth calling attention to the significant differences between these two biblical accounts that an overly literalistic person might call "inaccuracies":
The biblical narrative ascribes an important role to Moses. In the biblical poem, Moses is completely absent and God seems to act completely on his own.
The action in the biblical narrative is more complex than in the poem. First God opens the waters and the Israelites go through. Then the Egyptians follow them, but God throws them into confusion and the Egyptians begin to retreat. Then God tells Moses to bring the waters back down on the Egyptians.
In the biblical narrative, we're told that the parting of the sea takes an entire night. The biblical poem gives the impression that the sea piles up in a moment.
In the biblical narrative, the Egyptians are overtaken by the waters as the sea returned to its original course. In the biblical poem, God casts the Egyptians into the sea like a rock.
The biblical poem also has a detail that the biblical narrative omits: the Egyptians are swallowed by not just the sea but also the earth itself.
Now, let me be clear, I don't consider these apparent discrepancies between the biblical narrative and the biblical poem to be actual inaccuracies. The differences are a matter of genre. Historical narratives tell stories in a different way than poems. Historical narratives are more focused on the detailed and descriptive sequence of events and generally include a broader cast of characters. The poem, on the other hand, is a hymn praising God and so it makes sense that it focuses exclusively on God and his rival, the Egyptians and that it centers our attention on the most awe-inspiring moments of the story. Poems also tend to use metaphor and other figurative language and so we shouldn't be surprised to see the poem describe God casting the Egyptians into the waters like a stone or the earth swallowing them - these are elevated ways of describing what is more literally described in the narrative.
What we can see by comparing these two biblical accounts of the crossing of the Red Sea is that the Bible seems very comfortable with there being significant differences in how a story is told, especially when the story is being told in different genres with their own unique conventions and expectations. These differences don't amount to "unfaithfulness" or "inaccuracy." They are a literary license.
Of course, someone might push back and say, "Moses wrote both the Exodus narrative and the Exodus poem and so he had the right to tell the story differently. Adaptations like The Chosen are different because they aren't being created by eyewitnesses; they're being based on an existing account." If that's a concern for you, I'd challenge you to examine the dozens of adaptations of the Red Sea story in the psalms and prophets, since these certainly weren't written by eyewitnesses. While some psalms follow the details of the Exodus narrative closely, others feel free to reframe the narrative in surprising ways. For example Psalm 77 depicts the parting of the Red Sea as the waters fearfully running away from God. Isaiah, on the other hand, portrays the parting of the sea as God splitting open a mythic chaos serpent (Isaiah 51:9-10). The Bible clearly has room for adaptations that creatively develop their source material in accordance with genre expectations and needs.
So, is The Chosen a good biblical adaptation? Is it accurate?
I won't argue that The Chosen is a perfect adaptation, either by artistic or biblical standards. It wouldn't take a very sophisticated biblical scholar to poke holes in the show's depiction of certain historical, cultural, or linguistic details or in the way the show interprets certain biblical texts. At a broader level, I've also raised some concerns over the overemphasis on certain themes and an underemphasis on other themes or realities - although I think Season 2 corrected many of the overemphases of Season 1 and I'm hopefully that as The Chosen continues, future seasons will bring even more balance. For my part, I'm much more concerned about thematic accuracy than I am about historical or cultural precision, or whether The Chosen's interpretation of a text is probably overly-influenced by the concerns of modern evangelicalism.
At the end of the day, I think the most important question to ask when evaluating whether The Chosen is a good adaptation is, what type of adaptation is it? The Chosen is not pretending to be a documentary; it's not even trying to be a historical recreation. The Chosen is fictionalized history. More importantly, The Chosen is fictionalized history created for the screen with an eye toward a popular audience - not toward seminary-trained pastors or even for well-educated lay-leaders. Most of the people who watch The Chosen have never sat in a college-level Bible class or even read a decent commentary. And so The Chosen doesn't belabor minor historical, cultural, or even narratival details; it retells the gospel accounts with enough detail and accuracy to capture the general feel and themes of the biblical sources, while freely changing details as needed in order to meet the expectations and demands modern audiences have for popular-level television. That may not be your bag - but that doesn't make it insidious. And I think if the biblical writers saw what Dallas Jenkins is doing, I think they'd look on with approval.
Have posts about The Chosen like this one helped you understand The Chosen or explore it with your ministry or family? Would you consider contributing a few bucks to support my work as a writer? Right now, I'm trying to raise funds to commission artwork for The Word of Glory, my poetic adaptation of the Gospel of John. It's really simple to do using my account on Buy Me a Coffee. Thanks so much!
If you liked this post, I've done several other posts on The Chosen that you might want to check out, including explorations of how the show adapts key biblical characters and guides on how to lead your youth group in discussing each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1 & 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.
The Chosen Controversies Series
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
The Virgin Mary in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 2***
James & John in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Mary Magdalene in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth [Guides for Youth Leaders]
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara