For as long as there has been filmed entertainment, there have been producers and directors retelling the dramatic stories from the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. But the cable channel History’s coming 10-hour miniseries, "The Bible," might be the first to include an angel skilled in Chinese martial arts.
That angel, fighting an angry mob during the destruction of the city of Sodom — and an effort by the producers to make the program racially inclusive — pops up in the first episode of the five-week series, a $22 million project to bring the Bible to life for a new generation. It begins today and ends on Easter.
"The Bible" premieres at 6 p.m. today on the History Channel.
The producers know their angels (there are five throughout the program, along with a black-hooded satanic specter who often hovers in the background). The miniseries, to be rerun Mondays on Lifetime, has as executive producers the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey, a star of the 1994-2003 CBS series "Touched by an Angel," and Mark Burnett, in his first foray outside of the reality genre he helped popularize with CBS’ "Survivor."
The program came about after Burnett’s company was pitched a Bible documentary that he found sensationalized and Downey countered that they should make what she, in a joint interview in Manhattan, called "the grand sweeping embrace, the love story that is the Bible." Referring to Burnett’s expertise at marshaling massive productions in remote lands and her own experience with actors, she said, "We could handle the scale and the intimacy."
Several networks made offers, Burnett said. "It was clearly a very big idea," said Nancy Dubuc, president for entertainment and media at A&E Networks, parent of History and Lifetime. Of Burnett — whose credits include "The Apprentice" and "The Voice" — Dubuc added, "We take very seriously when a producer or a storyteller of his magnitude is incredibly passionate about something. They tend to give it their all."
What the producers delivered was historical drama with an emotional focus and digital effects that dramatize stories of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, Daniel in the lion’s den and Jesus walking on water. Shooting last year over six months in Morocco, the producers put a particular emphasis on details, down to the dust. "Something we knew we did not want to do is make a donkey-and-sandal movie for your grandmother," Downey said. The international cast includes Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus, Francis Magee ("King of Thrones") as Saul and Downey as Mary.
The program abounds with bloody swordfights, beheadings and lashings. "It is a violent story," Dubuc said, referring to the Bible. "When you have to illustrate it, that’s pretty gnarly stuff." Ten ways to open the series were considered before the production team settled on a scene inside Noah’s storm-tossed ark, as he tells the Genesis creation story to his scared children. The ark scene is not found in the Bible, but the writers contend it could have happened, given oral histories of the time. That dramatic license infuses the 10 hours. The 23rd Psalm is worked into the script when David recites it as he and his slingshot take down Goliath. (Many historians credit the psalm to him but debate when he wrote it.) Pontius Pilate’s wife appears in several scenes even though the figure has just one sentence in the New Testament.
More dramatic poetic license has been a staple of Bible movies from the beginning, starting with Cecil B. DeMille’s silent "King of Kings," which rendered Mary Magdalene as a wealthy courtesan, J. Stephen Lang, author of the 2007 book "The Bible on the Big Screen," said in a telephone interview. Conversely, Lang said, important Bible figures like Paul have been relatively overlooked because "there is no romance there."
The producers’ initial challenge was finding a narrative and choosing from dozens of Bible stories. They settled on fewer stories, Burnett said, to go "longer and deeper" into others; Joseph and his colorful coat — which Lang said is the fourth most popular subject of Bible movies, behind Jesus, David and John the Baptist — got left on the cutting room floor, to their regret. What unites the stories, Downey said, is a repetition of human failings and "people striving to get back to a connection to God."
Dubuc said, "This is an epic drama that’s endeavoring to tell the literal — as literal as we could be given our production constraints — translation of this book that has shaped the world and the people who live in it."
Downey said she believes people of all faiths will enjoy the program. But, Burnett said, "the meta-narrative of the Bible, the through-line, is the Messiah does come." To exclude the New Testament, he added, "is cheating the Bible."
Advisers including Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Los Angeles; and Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House, a megachurch in Dallas, are helping publicize the broadcast. Curriculum tools for churches, many of which are organizing viewing parties, are part of an extensive website from Christian marketing firm Outreach. In a video on the site, Burnett cites the series’ potential "to reach not only those who already go to church, but to reach a whole new generation of people, people who have never been to church."
A shortened theatrical movie, focused on Jesus’ baptism through Revelation, will be released for arenas and theaters; there is a CD of the score by the Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer ("Gladiator").
In addition to a book of 100 inspirations, there are Spanish- and English-language companion books for adults and young adults.
Downey said the producers hope to drive viewers back to the original source, the Bible. The books, however, are not Bibles, but a novelization of the stories in the script.