When it comes to Bible stories, Hollywood likes to play favorites. The upcoming Christian Bale-starring epic Exodus: Gods and Kings will be the latest in a long line of high-profile onscreen adaptations of the Old Testament’s Moses story, including Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments and the 1998 animated hit Prince of Egypt. Earlier this year, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah became the third screen adaptation of the Biblical Noah’s Ark story in the last 15 years. The many films about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus merit their own category page on Wikipedia.
But when’s the last time anybody made a big-budget feature film about Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale, then spit out alive on the shore of Nineveh three days later? Or Mary Magdalene—or even David and Goliath? There’s an abundance of compelling Bible stories without their own epic-proportioned film adaptations, so I asked some religion scholars which other Biblical characters’ stories deserve to be told on the silver screen. Here’s what they suggested.
The Samson story was a popular one among the scholars. Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Notre Dame, called the Samson story, with its miracles, intrigue, and vindication, a compelling one, “if a bit NSFW.” Ed Silver, an assistant professor of religion at Wellesley, adds that the book of Judges is full of this kind of dramatic narrative, but imagines that this particular story presents a challenge for adapters, because it’s “too weird and too ambiguous to make an easy transition to film.”
Indeed, the strange adventures of the super-strong Samson encompass much more than just his famous encounter with Delilah, and they do lack a clear moral message. As a young boy, Samson tears apart a lion with his bare hands; “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power,” reads Judges 14:6, and he tears the animal apart “as he might have torn a young goat.” (Uh.) He later mystifies the guests at his own wedding and angers his new wife with an unsolvable riddle. The Bible also notes that he “led Israel for 20 years in the time of the Philistines.”
Then, of course, Samson falls in love with Delilah, a prostitute, and Delilah sets out to discover the secret of Samson’s strength when some Philistines offer her 1100 shekels of silver to do so. Samson reveals to her that if his hair is cut, his strength will leave him. The Philistines shave off his hair while he sleeps in Delilah’s lap, gouge out his eyes, and take him prisoner. After Samson’s hair has grown back, the Philistines summon him to perform as the entertainment at a celebration at a temple; Samson, now blind, asks God to help him exact revenge on his enemies, and, acting as though he’s feeling his way between the pillars of the temple, he pushes them over and lets the entire structure collapse on himself and the Philistine leaders.
The Samson and Delilah story is a popular one in several realms of pop culture: Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila, for example, produced the famous orchestral “Danse Bacchanale,” and in 2002, Regina Spektor recorded the tender “Samson,” which imagines a love affair with Samson from a female point of view—possibly Delilah’s. It’s also worth noting that there are already at least two existing feature films about Samson and his lover Delilah—Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 adaptation and an Austrian silent film from 1922—and a few TV movies.
Still, though, the epic of Samson could use a modern update, because of…
Key scene: … the temple crumbling down on top of the Philistines. (Obviously.) The special effects available to filmmakers today could give Samson’s final act of destructive rage the full measure of cinematic badassery it deserves.
The story of Esther is one of a genocide narrowly averted. Hadassah, also known as Esther, a beautiful Jewish orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai, is chosen by King Xerxes (Ahasuerus in Hebrew) to be his new queen after the original queen is deposed. On Mordecai’s orders, Esther tells no one that she is Jewish, and she marries King Xerxes.
But trouble begins looming when the king commands the people to kneel before a nobleman named Haman. Mordecai, being a faithful Jew, will bow down only before his God; Haman, angered by this, gets permission from Xerxes to issue an edict to “kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and little children—on a single day” (Esther 3:13 NIV).
Esther faces a choice, and she wheedles back and forth for a while: If she goes to her husband and asks for mercy for her people, she risks violating the law (punishable by death) that prohibits approaching the king uninvited. At Mordecai’s urging, however, she asks Xerxes to issue another edict granting the Jews the right to assemble and fight back against their attackers. Xerxes grants Mordecai and Esther permission to write a decree in his name and seal it with his signet ring. Thanks to Esther, the Jews roundly defeat Haman’s forces, and Haman is hanged.
Key scenes: There’s a Lord of the Rings kind of feel to the Esther story. It has a clear-cut hero-vs.-villain showdown at its center, and passages like this one in Esther 8—with its citadels and its meaningfully color-coded apparel and its choice of a fast horse as the default means of transportation—read almost like condensed chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien novels:
A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies. The couriers, riding the royal horses, raced out, spurred on by the king’s command. And the edict was also issued in the citadel of Susa.
Mordecai left the king’s presence wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold, and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.
This part of the story, this process of rallying the Jews in their many cities, has a building momentum to it that’s reminiscent of the Lighting of the Beacons in The Return of the King—or, at least, it could be, with a sprinkling of cinema magic. And because a hefty portion of the Biblical story focuses on the Jews’ defense of their cities, it’s easy to imagine a Lord of the Rings- or Hobbit-style adaptation of the Esther story expanding its one- or two-paragraph passages about war into grand, sweeping 30-minute battle scenes.
Joseph’s story is one of adversity overcome by unshakable faith—and perhaps a little Pollyanna-ish optimism. It starts out pretty rough. Joseph’s multitude of half-brothers get jealous when Joseph, a young man at the time, has a dream that he interprets to mean one day he will rule over all the rest of them. The half-brothers sell him to some merchants traveling to Egypt. Joseph becomes a slave in the house of the captain of the Egyptian guard; his new master’s wife tries to seduce him and then gets him thrown in prison by accusing him of rape when he rebukes her. Then the prison buddy whose dreams Joseph correctly interprets gets out of jail and promptly forgets his promise to help Joseph get out too.
But then: Joseph saves Egypt from a famine by predicting it from the Pharaoh’s dream, and he becomes an Egyptian government official. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food when the famine hits their homeland of Canaan; they are delivered to Joseph, who helps and rescues his half-brothers even though they don’t know that the man helping them is their brother. When he finally reveals his identity to them, he tells them not to be angry with themselves for selling him as a slave, for “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5, NIV).
Yes, Joseph already has a musical to his name. But the story—which, as Moss points out, is a crucial one in the Biblical canon because it explains how the Israelites got to Egypt—probably deserves a big-budget film adaptation, too…
Key scene: … if only so that one particularly emotional moment can get the cinematic treatment. In Genesis 43:29, Joseph sees his full brother Benjamin for the first time since childhood. He blesses Benjamin, then has to hurry out of the room to go and weep in his private chamber. It’s a poignant moment that could only benefit from a close-up on a barely-holding-it-together Joseph.
The story of Ruth is a small but lovely one about a good woman and a good man finding each other. Plus, as Moss points out, it stands alongside the story of Esther as one of a few very compelling stories about women in the Bible.
Ruth, newly widowed and living in her late husband’s home country, decides to stay with and care for her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, even after Naomi urges Ruth to go back to her country and remarry. Ruth moves to Bethlehem with Naomi, and there, Naomi tells Ruth to go to her relative Boaz’s fields and pick up the leftover grains after the harvesters have gone. Boaz sees Ruth in the fields gathering grain and tells his harvesters to leave some for her; Boaz and Ruth fall in love and eventually marry.
The Ruth story is simple and brief, and it unfolds mostly in vignettes and short scenes—which means it could lend itself nicely to a short-film format. (This is also probably why the most famous film adaptation of the tale begins with a newly invented origin story for Ruth.)
Key scene: Thomas Hood’s 19th-century poem “Ruth” envisions the moment Boaz sees Ruth in the fields for the first time, and Eric William Barnum’s 2005 choral setting of Hood’s poem brings it to lush, elegant musical life. It’s easy to imagine that moment translating gorgeously to the screen.
The last book of the New Testament is among the Bible’s most controversial; its majestic and strange imagery is often interpreted as an allegory for the world’s end and the second coming of Christ. Adela Yarbro Collins, a professor of New Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale Divinity School, said she’d like to see an “artistic” adaptation of the book of Revelation “to counteract the Left Behind series.”
Conveniently, Revelation comes with a framing story: A narrator calling himself John explains in the first of 22 chapters that he’s about to describe a series of visions sent to him by God. But that’s about all that’s convenient or clear-cut about Revelation.
Some of the visions that appear before John are instructive. The voice of God tells him what messages to relay to the seven churches in Asia, for example. Then there’s a deluge of bizarre, possibly allegorical hallucinatory visions. The book of Revelation is where the famous horsemen of the apocalypse and the pearl gates of heaven first appeared in literature. There are also angels, a horned seven-headed beast, creatures covered in eyes, locusts with human faces, and a gleaming new version of the city of Jerusalem descending from on high, to name a few. Satan appears in the form of a dragon.
Key scene: Revelation, Collins points out, likely wouldn’t work all that well if adapted as a traditional scene-by-scene narrative. But that’s not to say it wouldn’t be magnificent to behold on film. Most of John’s visions are short bursts of vivid imagery. (For example, Revelation 6:12 reads, “There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shake by a strong wind.”) Many of them are based in the natural world, some are accompanied by the occasional disembodied or angelic voice—and each is wide open to interpretation. In other words: Paging Terrence Malick.