THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Directed by Phillip Saville
Screenplay by John Goldsmith
The Gospel of John is a word-for-word adaptation from The Good News Bible, which brings the movie in at three hours. As an accurate and complete presentation of the Gospel of John, this film will probably be enjoyed by believers and it can also be beneficial as a teaching tool; however, based solely on its merits as a film, I found The Gospel of John to be unfulfilling.
Because the story of Christ has been told so many times, both literally in films like The Greatest Story Ever Told as well as figuratively, where a character plays someone Christ-like, in such films as Cool Hand Luke and The Matrix, the filmmakers have an unfair advantage against them. They must be aware that the audience already knows the outcome of the story before the film starts, yet they went ahead with a word-for-word adaptation. If they were trying to make an interesting movie that would speak to the uninitiated, they should have provided a new perspective and presented the material in a different and refreshing way. For example, Titanic is a film where the audience also knows the ending before the film begins, yet James Cameron found a unique and interesting way to tell that story.
Another hurdle the filmmakers have to deal with is comparisons. I couldn’t help but watch scenes and think of other films where they had been portrayed better. For example when Jesus throws the moneylenders out of the temple, the scene in The Gospel of John was done well, but I found myself thinking about how much more dynamic the scene played out with Willem Dafoe in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
For non-believers the story becomes a little monotonous. Jesus is constantly doubted throughout the film, which is understandable because many false prophets came before him. He turns water to wine, and people aren’t sure what to make of him. He cures a blind man, but people are still hesitant. He even brings Lazarus back from the dead, yet people are still on the fence on whether or not he’s the Messiah. Because of the adherence to the word-for-word adaptation, the story tells us about seven miracles, which I’m sure has a deep and profound meaning that I don’t realize, but in the context of telling a story I had already understood after the second miracle that Jesus was doubted constantly and continually by the masses, so I’m not clear what more was gained by showing all the other miracles.
There is a sequence that is almost comical in the way it is played out. After the Pharisees help turn Jesus over to the Romans, Pontius comes to them at least three times to say he can’t find a reason to kill Jesus. He suggests they do it themselves, but they claim they are bound by their religion and can’t put anyone to death. The Pharisees are completely disingenuous since they do everything they can to convince Pontius that he must proceed with the crucifixion. Pontius even gives Jesus one last chance at freedom by allowing the crowd to select a prisoner to be released; they request Barabbas.
A word-for-word adaptation ties the hands of the filmmakers. They aren’t allowed to examine characters’ motivations since there are any in the original text. Maybe it’s blasphemous to ponder, but it would have been interesting for one of the Pharisees to speak up, clarifying the reasoning for their actions. Also, even though they are adamant that Jesus isn’t the Messiah, they are unwittingly helping to fulfill the prophecy that he is, yet none of them seem aware of this. And how about Judas? Was he really motivated by the silver or did he have a higher calling?
The biggest distraction caused by the word-for-word adaptation was that John was never referred to by his name. Jesus and the apostles seemed to go out of their way not to use it. At one point they referred to him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but John comes off as either modest or egotistical.
As far as the technical side the production values looked great. Many of the aspects, from the costumes to the locations, were very authentic. Spain made a believable Jerusalem. I liked the costumes. The casting was done well and not just because the actors were talented. They looked like they were from the setting, which doesn’t happen often in religious films, although some of the fake beards were obvious. The director did a fine job of not drawing attention to himself. He let the story unfold naturally in front of the camera.
This is the first film in what is supposed to be a series of word-for-word adaptations. I’m sure they will do well and will be popular with believers; however, I’m afraid they will only be preaching to the choir, which is too bad because the Bible has many, good stories. Some viewers might walk away with answers, but I was only left with questions.