Back in the noughties, a professor of film at London University, Sue Clayton, analysed the content of the 200 most popular films in Britain and came up with a formula for what makes a perfect film. Clayton proposed that the ideal flick contains 30% action, 17% comedy, 13% good versus evil, 12% romance, 10% special effects, 10% plot (what does that mean?) and 8% music.
“I decided to apply the [perfect film formula] percentages to the Bible, to see whether it would turn into a good new-millennium major motion picture.”
The film which best matched the requirements turned out to be Toy Story 2. As a Buzz Lightyear aficionado from way back, she won’t get an argument from me. But in an idle half-hour, I decided to apply the percentages to the Bible, to see whether it would turn into a good new-millennium major motion picture. Here’s how it pans out, if you think of Genesis to Revelation as one unfolding story (as good biblical theologians should).
Action: (most of the Pentateuch, Old Testament histories) 32%
Comedy: (Job and Ecclesiastes—trust me on this, Jonah, some Proverbs, some Gospel stories) 8%
Good versus evil: (prophecy, apocalyptic, New Testament letters) 26%
Romance: (Ruth, Song of Songs, some Revelation) 4%
Special effects: (Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation, some the Gospels) 8%
Plot: (Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, OT histories, Gospels, Acts) 18%
Music: (Psalms, songs by Deborah and Mary, Revelation) 4%
No argument shall be entered into over my methodology, but you can see what a great film the Bible makes by the Clayton scale. There’s a bit more good and evil going on, a stronger plot, and arguably a little less comedy and romance, but the shape of the Bible isn’t that far off the ultimate film.
“First, the Bible isn’t as funny as Toy Story 2.”
The differences in the percentages are educative. First, the Bible isn’t as funny as Toy Story 2. There is a sobriety to the message of judgement that just can’t be lightened up. The story of humanity’s fall from God’s favour, and the wrath that remains on those who do not know him through Jesus, cannot be sweetened. It has to be told in its stark truth.
Thankfully, it is completed by the wonderful story of salvation in Jesus. In fact, in the classical way of thinking about drama, this happy ending—a marriage between Christ and his Church—would count as a comedy (in contrast with a ‘tragedy’, which ends in bloodshed). Perhaps I should redo those percentages and count the gospel message as ‘comedy’.
Second, there’s a whole lot more ‘good versus evil’ in the Bible than the optimal film. This is saying something, since Toy Story 2 is based around the battle with the evil Emperor Zurg. I guess the difference is that the battle in the Bible is far more pressing and serious. The future of the world and its inhabitants is at stake.
The romance percentage is down, unless we include the love of God for his people shown in sending his Son to redeem them…then the percentage rockets up. And there’s a bit more plot in the Bible. We can probably put this down to the fact that the Bible’s story canvases the entire history of the universe. Toy Story 2 has a slightly less cosmic scope (but only just).
“In my heart of hearts, I don’t think Bible films really work.”
Of course, there have been plenty of ambitious creatives who have attempted to make this film. Cecil B. DeMille is the most famous, with his epic movies from the 1950s. The largest scale example emerged recently as a blockbuster TV miniseries from the US reality TV makers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. These efforts have certainly been well received by viewers, and sometimes by critics. Even occasionally, church leaders and theologians have felt they had something going for them.
But in my heart of hearts, I don’t think Bible films really work. The Bible is in fact too complex, too vast, and too sophisticated in its message to translate to the screen. There are parts of it which tell a story that can be watched, but so much of it does not. The book (written and spoken) remains the most important way to access the truth about God as Christians understand it. And that means a longer, deeper and more thoughtful engagement with it is the only way to tap its riches fully.
What Bible films can do well is raise awareness of what the Bible is not. It’s not a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s not a mystical philosophy text. It’s not simply wise sayings. It is an unfolding drama about God’s interactions with the world and some of that drama works well in the visual medium.
But the big picture? It’s not really a picture at all. We need the articulation of the written word to grasp most fully the nature of infinity and beyond.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.