Hebrew Bible as Lord of the Rings

When last we checked in on The Bible, I had noted that the series was, to me, off-key, not quite appropriate for any of the possible audiences, save for one: those who appreciate cheesy shows on television. The critics have mostly panned the show; biblical scholars have picked apart its inability to capture the complexity and strangeness of the biblical stories and its hopeless whitening of the biblical world; and conservative viewers (on the show’s Facebook page, among other places) have complained about liberties taken with the text.

But there must be a lot of cheeseheads, because the show continues to bring in very strong ratings. The second episode was down, somewhat, from the first (from over 14 million viewers for the first to over ten million for the second), but it still led the ratings for that evening and was the 11th rated show for the week. (I should add here that the series Hatfields and McCoys actually did much better, for what that’s worth).

If I gather correctly from emails and tweets, a good portion of these are parents who want to introduce their children to the biblical stories, and who have found the episodes reasonably good in drawing kids in enough to make them want to learn more. 

It’s hard to argue with that outcome. But by the end of hour six, I begin to wonder. Hour five and much of hour six (carrying us from the end of David to the baptism of Jesus—regrettably missing some cool stories from the New Testament of Jesus confounding the religious teachers at the temple) carries us along mostly from one sword fight and rampaging Babylonian/Persian/Roman legion to another, knocking the Jews about from one place to another. How many slow-motion scenes of the sword being pulled out from the dying man do we need to get the point? I began to feel like a parent telling a kid to turn off an excessively violent video game.

But in thinking through the Old Testament section, the parallels between The Bible and The Lord of the Rings grew unmistakably clear. Here, David is Frodo, a sprightly lad who bests Ent-like opposition with his sling; and Daniel, another Hobbit-ish young man who invokes faith in order to continue the quest. Various white-haired prophets serve as Gandalf, and the countless stormtroopers on the side of the enemies of our heroes, with their carts and battering rams constantly battering at the imperiled gates of our heroes. The portentuous music, rapid-cut pacing, and nearly nonstop action sequences also resemble the parallel epic tale as told in the recent movie. So does the exclusion of women, who in this miniseries are mostly there as villains (Hagar, Bathsheba, and of course the infamous Delilah) or as virginal princesses awaiting their turn to be given to the hero. At least Lord of the Rings had some female heroes. The Bible does, of course, but The Bible, miniseries, does not.

And that speaks, too, of my issue with the series. The Lord of the Rings is a lengthy adventure tale with lots of twists and turns for the chosen characters, but we know that it serves the purpose of a happy ending. And, god knows, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  
 
The Bible picks and chooses its stories in an attempt to piece together a narrative that fits a like genre, down to the heroic background music. In doing so, however, action film replaces dramatic story, prose replaces poetry, and convention robs the story of its fundamental strangeness. When the series needs strangeness to depict miraculous events, it invokes ninja angels and the like, ironically making the story too familiar to us.  
 
On occasion, the series turns down the volume, briefly, and we get some glimpses of biblical scenes portrayed with some effectiveness. Daniel in the lion’s den, and his later recounting of his dream life, is nicely done, for example. Sadly, that is a few minutes of film in comparison to the better part of an hour taken up with the story of Mandingo, err, I mean Samson, about as unsubtle and racially stereotyped a portrayal as one could possibly imagine. Even for cheeseheads, that portion of the show was nothing other than excruciating.

By the end of the sixth hour, Jesus is in the boat with Peter, getting ready to set out on his journey. We’ll see where this goes from here, but at least (one hopes) there will be a lot less sword fighting. Presumably we can all watch The Vikings, the show on after The Bible, to get what we want of that. But, frankly, the filmmaking style of The Vikings so closely resembles The Bible that it is difficult to tell that we’ve moved from one series to another. Genre miniseries-making trumps historical context every time.

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.