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Word-for-Word Biblical Adaptation…Wha?
by Chris Bellamy

“The Gospel of John”
Toronto Film Studios
Directed by Philip Saville
Screenplay by John Goldsmith, based on The Book of John
Produced by Chris Chrisafis and Garth H. Drabinsky
Starring Henry Ian Cusick, Stuart Bunce, Daniel Kash, Alan Van Sprang, Andrew Pifko, Scott Handy, Steven Russell and Christopher Plummer
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

The voice over for this scene from “The Gospel of John” might go something like this: “Jesus stood in the room, looking down.”

They say it’s the greatest story ever told, and for good reason. Religious or not, Christian or not, the story of Jesus of Nazareth is nonetheless a pretty good yarn, and the material is ripe for cinematic adaptation.

Screen depictions of the story of Jesus Christ are aplenty, ranging from the deadly serious (“The Last Temptation of Christ”) to the entertaining (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) to the satirical (Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) to the educational (all those church videos you watched in Sunday School).

The newest offering in the Jesus genre is “The Gospel of John,” which bills itself as a “word-for-word” depiction of The Bible’s Book of John. But while this film is professionally made and obviously had enough financial backing to make it to the big screen, unfortunately it more closely resembles an as-seen-on-TV Bible study video for Christian teenagers.
That’s not to say this film is incompetent. In fact, it’s far from it. The acting isn’t bad, the sets are nice and the filmmakers seem to have had their hearts in the right place.

But what Saville can’t seem to get a handle on is how to turn this material into a powerful and thoughtful narrative. There’s a stark contrast between this film and something like Martin Scorsese’s wonderful “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which, despite some flaws, was an emotionally powerful and heartfelt dramatic work.

Like that film, “The Gospel of John” focuses on Christ’s ministry in and around Jerusalem, up through Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Narrated ad nauseam by Christopher Plummer, the film is detailed and meticulous — and that is precisely the problem.

The movie was probably doomed from the get-go simply because of its storytelling structure. The fact of the matter is that a word-for-word depiction of The Book of John just isn’t interesting, despite the material. A word-for-word depiction of any historical or fictional work is uninteresting. This film has the same problems that doomed last winter’s “Gods and Generals.” It gets so bogged down by every single detail — every speech, every parable, every meal, every miracle — that ultimately the soul of the story is lost.

The most glaring and annoying flaw — and there are many — is Plummer’s incessant narration. The filmmakers were apparently so in love with every detail of the story, they chose to not only show us everything, but tell us at the same time. Instead of letting us absorb a potentially beautiful story, they beat us over the head with it.

You might have to see it to believe it, but the narration is practically constant throughout the film’s entire three-hour length (and trust me, it feels a lot longer). The narrator says, “Nathaniel kneeled down before Jesus.” And then — lo and behold! — Nathaniel kneels down before Jesus, right before our very eyes. That pesky narrator even butts in during conversations. He’ll tell us, “Jesus looked at him and said…” And then Jesus will look at someone and tell him something. And so on. It’s hard to believe professional filmmakers could use a tactic so amateur.

The narration is only one of many factors that make “The Gospel of John” a boring and redundant experience. I can’t tell you how many times we hear the same exact speeches, the same exact lessons, the same exact words. That’s fine if you’re reading the Bible — but what Saville fails to grasp is that books and movies are worlds apart. What works in print might not on celluloid. It wasn’t long before I felt like I was seeing the same few scenes over and over again.

Saville and screenwriter John Goldsmith could have made a good film here. Instead, what we’re left with is a good idea that’s so ponderous and meticulous, there’s really no story left at all.

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