Read Like an Artist: Time Dilation

Today we'll continue our series exploring how to read the Bible like an artist with an eye toward adaptation by considering the effect of time dilation. As you read the excerpts below taken from the birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-7) and the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:4-11), see what differences you notice in how the story is being told:

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.


And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”


And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.


And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!”


And he said, “Here I am, my son.”


He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”


Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

So they went both of them together.


When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.


But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”


And he said, “Here I am.”

So, did you notice the difference?


Both passages are seven verses long, but the amount of time that each of them depicts using seven verses is very different. In the first passage, we get Isaac's conception, the nine months of Sarah's pregnancy, Isaac's birth, and his circumcision eight days later - all of it in the space of a paragraph. In the second passage, the same amount of space is dedicated to describe events that probably took a few hours at most.


Unless we're looking for it, it's easy for readers to miss the way time dilates and expands within a story. This is a narrative effect that most readers have been so primed to expect that we give it hardly any mind. At times the narrative will fly at such a high altitude above the events of the story that we can only make out the simple features and general shape of what we are passing by. At other times, however, the narrative begins to descend and as it does we start to discern more complexity and detail.


All of this is important for Bible Artists to keep in mind, particularly when adapting biblical stories from prose into film. The Bible is able to fluidly shift between high altitude overview and close up storytelling, but such shifts can be much more clunky in visual mediums.

Think about the last time you read Harry Potter. This isn't a scientific study - I'm just guessing on the details - but my hunch is that a graph displaying the relation of time lapse to pages might look something like this:

Narrative prose is particularly adept at making time feel fluid in this way. A sentence can describe a lapse of time with simplicity and elegance. Moreover, because the audience is using their imagination to participate more actively in co-creating the story alongside of the narration, they are able to fill in gaps of detail.


Image from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0241527/mediaviewer/rm2105413120

Film often struggles to create the same effect. Although it can use "X Years Later" subtitles or montages to communicate a time lapse, such devices feel much more intrusive in a visual medium than they do in prose. Perhaps it's in part because the audience of a film participates less actively in the process of co-creating the story, and as a result isn't as primed to fill in those gaps of detail. It also doesn't help that films are inherently continuous narrative experiences. Whereas readers of prose naturally pause and ponder time gaps within a story, the audience of a film is pulled along constantly.


You may be surprised to find that biblical narrative looks down on events from up in the sky a lot more often than what you're used to in modern storytelling.



Looking down from the clouds

This was one of the biggest challenges in adapting Harry Potter into film. The films thrived when they visualized detailed sections of the story, but they struggled to navigate the dilation and expansion of time. It often isn't clear in the films how much time has passed between scenes; if it is, it's due to mechanics that feel clunky and disruptive to the viewing experience. More importantly, while reading the book for several hours over the course of a week may recreate something of the experience of going through an entire year of school, sitting down and watching a two or three hour movie hardly does.

Eye Level View

All of this is important for Bible Artists to keep in mind, particularly when adapting biblical stories from prose into film. The Bible is able to fluidly shift between high altitude overview and close up storytelling, but such shifts can be much more clunky in visual mediums.


As you're reading, consider using icons like these to distinguish passages that are looking down on the general outline of events from up in the clouds from those that are viewing the details of what's taking place close-up from eye-level. It's a simple way to remind yourself of an effect that's easy to take for granted.


You may be surprised to find that biblical narrative looks down on events from up in the sky than what you're used to in modern storytelling. Keep in mind, most of our books are focused on the drama of individuals, whereas the biblical story is interested in the unfolding of God's plans over the course of thousands of years.


After you've noted the ways in which the narrative dilates and expands time, you should ask yourself some questions:

  • How challenging will it be to follow the narrative's dilation and expansion of time in my chosen medium?

  • What mechanisms can I utilize to convey the passage of time in a way that is graceful?

  • Why is the narrative choosing to focus in on certain points in time while it skims over others?

  • Are there narrative events that get skimmed over in a sentence or two that could be expanded out into an entire story in and of themselves?

  • What would effect would zooming in on these events have on their meaning/significance?

  • Which characters would stand out or have a more significant role as a result?

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