Today I'm embarking on an ongoing project of reading through the Bible with an eye toward adaptation. The goal isn't to create an actual adaptations of each section or even dictate definitively what I think such adaptations should look like; rather, my hope is to highlight some of the questions and challenges that potential Bible Artists will face if they seek to do so themselves.
I'll begin, as you might expect, "in the beginning," although the prologue to Genesis may pose some of the most challenging adaptive puzzles out of any section in the biblical story. Generally, I'll group them into three categories: what to depict, how to convey significance, & characterization. Today, I'll look at a few issues in that first category.
Regardless how one interprets what the creation days of Genesis 1 are, a Bible Artist has to go a step further and think through how these events actually appeared in space and time...
What to Depict
The events within Genesis 1-4 stand far outside the realm of normal human experience, and the biblical account seems to emphasize this distance by its very design. Unlike, say, 1-2 Samuel, which feels culturally distant to modern readers but would have felt realistic & accessible to its contemporary audience, Genesis 1-4 situates itself "a long time ago" in a land "far far away." The laconic prose of biblical narrative can signal this distance without actually needing to reckon with some of the concrete questions that readers inevitably have about the events described. Visual adaptations, on the other hand, cannot avoid these issues - unless, of course, they find clever ways to avoid direct representation.
The meaning of the creation account itself - whether it intends to present 7 literal days, 7 analogical days, a framework, a polemic against neighboring creation myths, or some combination of thereof - is one of the most highly debated questions in modern biblical interpretation. Regardless how one interprets what the creation days of Genesis 1 are, a Bible Artist has to go a step further and think through how these events actually appeared in space and time: How do you depict God breathing life into Adam? What did "light" look like on day 1 before the sun & moon & stars were created on day 4? And how exactly does one harmonize the apparent divergences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2?
In light of these challenges, there are a few approaches that Bible Artists can take:
Anthropomorphic: This was the Renaissance's approach - to turn Yahweh into an old man sitting on a cloud or a bunch of cherubim, literally watching each of the elements of creation come into being. Such an approach almost inevitably results in a very literalistic reading of the creation days.
God's Eye Voice Over: Modern Evangelicals, wary of violating the 2nd Commandment, tend to depict only the elements of creation themselves and avoid directly representing God. In order to communicate God's activity, the words of the Genesis account are conveyed either through a voice over narrator, playing the role of God, or captions of the Genesis account, displayed on screen. This adaptive approach is attractive because it can be used to reinforce a variety of approaches to interpreting the Genesis creation days - or none at all if the adaptor carefully avoids depicting an actual chronology or sequence of events.
Character-Narrated: In the God's Eye approach, we are invited to experience the creation events directly. We ourselves hear (or see) God speaking. By contrast, some adaptations bring us into the creation indirectly, through a narrator who recounts the story for other characters at a later time. This narration may be accompanied by a montage similar to what we might expect in the God's Eye approach, but there may be a disjunction between it and the narration. Alternatively, instead of seeing images of the creation itself, we may only see the narrator speaking/engaged in symbolic drama. Or we may hear the narration juxtaposed over the top other events taking place in the narrator's timeline, creating an echo or contrast. This approach could be taken regardless of how one interprets Genesis 1, but it more naturally favors literary interpretations.
Symbolic: This is more of a variant of the God's Eye or Character-Narrated approaches, with either God or a narrator talking through the script of Genesis 1. Instead of depicting anything in a literal fashion, however, some form of symbolism is used to convey the unfolding events. This symbolism may be a 1 for 1 representation of God and the various elements of creation, or it may be something more abstract (e.g. a screen-saver-esque light show).
Non-Narrated: Like the God's Eye approach, we see a montage of creation elements, but we are not given direct narration, either from God or a character, to help us interpret it. It's assumed that we already know Genesis, and so visual cues or the narrative frame invite us to connect our prior understanding to what we are seeing on screen.
Genesis 2 tells us that Adam and Eve are naked and unashamed, but should a visual adaptation show us that reality? The mores of different cultures - and the intended audience - have lead to a variety of approaches to this question:
Full Nudity: For the Renaissance artists, the nakedness of Adam & Eve was not a problem but an opportunity to display the beauty of an idealized human body. Their cultural liberty allowed them to depict the events of Genesis 2-3 in a straightforward and natural fashion. That being said, modern adaptations have to take their context into account. It's hard to escape from how pornography has affected the way we look at naked bodies, and Bible Art that goes all out by directly showing Adam & Eve's nudity will risk coming across as either lewd - or comical.
The Sunday School Approach: Adaptations created for cultures or audiences (i.e. kids) that are less receptive to nudity (or, to be more specific, nude genitals & breasts) have found a variety of ways to depict Adam & Eve without showing off their private parts. Usually, this involves strategically placing hair, bushes, animals, and other parts of the environment to cover up the objectionable bits. This works fine for children, but quickly begins to feel a bit ridiculous and strained if deployed in an extensive adaptation for mature viewers.
Glorified Bodies: Another workaround that feels a bit less intrusive is to bathe Adam & Eve in a kind of halo or glow that obscures their bodies from us. Theologically, this approach can be used to represent the fact that Adam & Eve possess God's glory (before their fall) & may also allow for interesting connections to later instances of glory like the Shekinah, Moses coming down the mountain, and Jesus' Transfiguration. Moreover, this approach also allows the adaptation to avoid (temporarily) the question of Adam & Eve's race.
Symbolic or Stylized Depictions: An adaptation that is animated or uses another form of stylized visualization can sidestep this issue altogether by finding a way to depict humans with less detail (e.g. stick figures).
Character Narration or Limited Flashbacks: As with the creation account, the events can be narrated by a character without being directly depicted on screen - we may only see the narrator speaking or acting out events. Alternatively, if we are placed in the shoes of Adam or Eve later on, we might approach some of these events with only brief flashbacks that strategically avoid focusing on nudity
Rib-Woman & The Serpent
I was recently asking my youth group about the stories or beliefs we have as Christians that are most difficult for them to accept, and one of the first things that got brought up was the talking snake in Genesis 3. Depending on the style that an adaptation takes, they may have difficult dealing with the incredulity that many moderns have toward unnatural events like talking animals or women formed from ribs. Again, adaptations have a variety of approaches they can take:
Straightforward: Do it like it says in the book. As incredulous as moderns may be in real life, on the big screen, they're quite glad to accept CGI or animated depictions of super heroes, dragons, lightsabers, and a host of other things that are, technically, "unrealistic."
Indirect: We don't have to see every event that happens in a story. Particularly for events that would be difficult to translate visually in spite of our technical capabilities (I'm thinking especially of the creation of Eve from a rib), it might be best for us to hear that these events have taken place from other characters without actually seeing them.
Reimagined: Given the degree of symbolism involved in the early chapters of Genesis, some Bible Artists may feel the liberty to take the designation "serpent" in a less than literal fashion. Instead of depicting a talking snake, they may reconfigure the scene to involve Eve being confronted by a disembodied voice, a dragon/demon-like creature, or something that looks like an angel.
Symbolic or Stylized Depictions: See above.
Character Narration or Limited Flashbacks: Also see above.
So, there are a few challenges that Bible Artists need to think through when they're asking the question, what should I depict. Can you think of more? Let me know on Twitter @TheBibleArtist!