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The original source material may be regarded as the greatest story ever told, but this TV-series effort probably won't rank as the greatest screen adaptation of the greatest story ever told.
The Bible is an ambitious and, of course, well-intended five-part, 10-hour miniseries that premières Sunday at 7 p.m. on History, but like most other attempts to turn biblical prose into scripted entertainment, this one seems as if its writers were somewhat overwhelmed by the challenge of adapting a tale whose scope and historical time span are so massive.
Beginning with a glimpse at the Old Testament stories of Noah, Adam and Eve and Moses and continuing through the New Testament until the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Bible, despite its imposing length, is essentially a sampler-style overview of some of the best-known stories in Judeo-Christian tradition.
Produced by the devoutly Christian husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) and Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel), this faith-friendly production definitely has its heart in the right place. The non-biblical truth of the matter might be that even in this age of sophisticated digital effects, the grandeur and miraculous happenings in the text from Genesis to Revelation are simply beyond the capabilities Hollywood storytelling.
That said, however, Burnett and Downey (who also appears later in the series as Jesus's mother, Mary) do deserve some credit for giving it an earnest try. As they state in an onscreen text declaration, The Bible "endeavours to stay true to the spirit of the book."
What that means, probably, is that this mainstream adaptation will not encounter any of the Christian-community backlash that awaited earlier, more stylized big-screen productions such as Martin Scorsese's 1988 feature The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson's self-financed 2004 project The Passion of the Christ.
During production, Burnett and Downey shared scripts and sought feedback from members of the religious community and invited church officials to visit the set during filming in Morocco. As a result, the project has enjoyed the support of evangelical leaders in the weeks and months before its prime-time premiere.
Prior to its TV broadcast, The Bible has already been screened several times for large assemblies of the faithful.
In a barrage of interviews leading up to the series' première -- with an emphasis on promoting the project in faith-based print and online publications -- the couple has maintained the position that this is a by-the-book telling of biblical tales.
"There's a calling involved in making this," Burnett said in a recent interview with The Washington Times. "The Bible is God's truth. This series is treating the Word of God as truth, in a straight line."
It's a bold statement and something of a stylistic departure for Burnett, who has gained a reputation as a master of shrewd casting and subtle manipulation while producing popular reality-TV titles ranging from Survivor and The Apprentice to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Shark Tank. In reality TV, selecting specific personality types and creating opportunities for conflict are the keys to creating drama and attracting an audience. The Bible's game plan seems to be offering appealing version of beloved stories to the faithful rather than seducing viewers with clever production gimmicks.
If it works, the multi-faceted production/promotion strategy could attract a worldwide audience that Burnett has suggested will number in the hundreds of millions.
The series is basically divided in half, with the first part dealing with biblical text before the birth of Christ and the second part dealing with Christ's life, crucifixion and return. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado plays the drama's pivotal role, bringing an appropriate level of serenity and unshakable purpose to his portrayal of Jesus.
In episodes provided for preview, earlier parts of the series -- the B.C. years, essentially -- play mostly like a series of vignettes connected by narrator Keith David's authoritative commentary. After Jesus arrives, The Bible takes a slightly smoother and more straightforward approach.
Overall, it's a reasonably well-told series of stories; some segments translate to the screen more effectively than others, and like past attempts to dramatize portions of the Bible, scenes are more successful when they focus on human interaction rather than depending on special-effects interpretations of miraculous events.
As is the case with most religious stories, this is a series that will prompt polarized reactions -- there will be true believers (that this is a compelling, inspiring TV program), and those who remain skeptical (that it's a worthwhile investment of viewing time).
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