The Problem with Creative Liberties

I’ve always been fascinated by people who write historical fiction and fan fiction. I like the idea of taking either characters from history or established characters of fiction, and creating new stories or extended back-stories about them. It’s the creative license granted to writers that allows them to use their imagination to conjure up new stories. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, historical fiction can be quite entertaining.

Lee and I were invited to an advanced screening of the new movie Son of God last night. The movie grew out of The Bible mini-series produced for the History Channel, and it breaks my heart to say that it might as well be historical fiction.

I premise everything by saying I am by no means a Biblical scholar. I am proud of how far I have come in my faith journey having read the Bible more in the last three years than I had in all my time previous to that. Furthermore, I am light-years away from being where I’d like to be in terms of being versed in Scripture, and every day I discover something new and different about the Good Book. That being said, it was surprising to me how much I knew and recalled about the story of Jesus. In the context of viewing the film, I found myself questioning lots of points along the way.

The movie begins with a voice over. The narrator is John, author of one of the four gospels. From that moment on, I assumed – and maybe this is where I went wrong – the movie is a portrayal of Jesus’ life as told by the Book of John. Umm …. not exactly.

For starters, there are changes in chronology from the movie to the Gospel of John. Jesus going to Jerusalem and chasing out the merchants occurs early in John (John 2:13-21), but in the movie, that scene is presented much later. The movie also omits what I consider to be major moments in the life of Jesus, such as the performance of His first miracle at the Wedding in Cana, and the testimony of John the Baptist.

The story of Lazarus really threw me into a tizzy. In the movie, Jesus learns of Lazarus’ death, is taken to his tomb, whereupon He enters the tomb, declares to Lazarus, “I am the Resurrection,” and brings Lazarus back to life. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus declaration about being the Resurrection was made to Martha (John 11:25), and Jesus never entered the tomb of Lazarus. Instead, He called out to Lazarus from outside the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43).

The arrest of Jesus gets overly complicated if we’re again expecting the movie to be told from the perspective of John. When they come to arrest Jesus, Peter lashes out, grabs a sword, and slices off the ear of one of the high priest’s servant. In the movie, Jesus tells Peter, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Jesus then proceeds to heal the ear of the servant. Biblically speaking, this did happen. However, the matter of the sword is accounted in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 26:52), and the healing of the ear in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 22:51). John’s telling of the arrest of Jesus is completely different.

Pivotal in the story of Jesus’ arrest is Peter’s denial of Jesus. We all know the story: Peter declares his loyalty to Jesus, a loyalty for which he is willing to die. Jesus replies, ““Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.” (John 13:38). Peter did go on to deny Jesus three times, with a time gap between the first and second denials. In the movie, Jesus tells Peter he will deny Him ‘before the sun comes up tomorrow’. In the next scene, it’s already daylight, and Peter goes on to deny Jesus in one, quick, thirty second scene.

One final, pet-peeve criticism I have about the film – and believe me I have many, many more – is the portrayal of Pontius Pilate as a blood-lusting, brutal, and barbaric governor who couldn’t care less about the Jewish people he was governing. Growing up, I only knew of Pilate as the reluctant one who did not want to condemn Jesus to death. The phrase “I wash my hands of this” is derived from Pilate’s reluctance as accounted in Matthew 27:24. For some reason, the writers of the movie chose to portray Pilate and his representation of Roman rule as an over-the-top and cruel prefect with only selfish intentions and ambitions. To make matter’s worse, the film makes the character of Pilate’s wife a somewhat pivotal figure. She’s mentioned in scripture only once (Matthew 27:19) and not by name. In the film, she has a recurring presence that is based solely on the imaginative interpretation of the screenwriter.

This brings us back to the issue of creative license. I understand many of my points can easily be dismissed as nitpicking. As I discussed the movie with my friends, they brought up valid points about the positive message of the film and how Jesus is portrayed as loving and courageous. I get that, and I agree the film has its merits. However, my concern is that in the end, the movie is deceiving anyone who doesn’t know Jesus and confusing those who do.

Taking creative liberties with former presidents or characters from a vampire series is wholly inconsequential. We the audience understand it is fiction. As followers of Christ, however, we believe God’s Word to be the living truth, and I recoil at the idea of re-writing the gospels for the sake of theatrical gain. What’s worse, there’s no need to do it. The story of Jesus is a beautiful and inspiring story. What the producers of this film have done is, instead, to present Jesus in an almost cartoonish manner, all for the sake of a money grab.  The writing comes across as if someone put together the script not with a Bible in hand, but rather with a series of Cliff’s Notes of the four gospels.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). Those are Jesus’ own words. When telling His story, it’s my personal opinion that is should be as close to the truth as possible.