Groundbreaking Jesus movie launches with word-for-word adaptation

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |
The Lumo Project's Gospel of John is a rare word-for-word rendition of the biblical book. The other three Gospels will be released later. | Lumo Project

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – Thirty-five years after the "Jesus" film was released in theaters, the makers of a series of new feature films depicting the life of Christ hope to follow in that movie's footsteps.

But any moment when you pause for thought – such as on a day off – yes, you think about it. It's a scary responsibility, because I'm aware that we're making decisions about how we think things might have been or how we think things might have looked.

It's a tall order, of course, as Campus Crusade for Christ's "Jesus" film has been dubbed into more than 1,300 languages and may well be the most-watched movie of all time.

But the crew behind the new movies believe they have something different to offer. The first film in the series is "The Gospel of John," a 161-minute adaptation from the biblical book that will be followed by films based on the other three Gospels. All four movies are unique in that they present a word-for-word adaptation of the biblical text, with a narrator reading each chapter as the actors and actresses voice the dialogue, in the background, in Aramaic. They're also somewhat unique in that most of the the cast is Middle Eastern, unlike some biblical films that present a Caucasian-looking Christ and His disciples.

The films are part of what's called the Lumo Project, whose organizers claim it's the first time films of the four Gospels have been made using the unabridged, unedited text.

"The Gospel of John" was released in October and is available on DVD, on-demand and on Netflix streaming, although the goal is eventually to offer it online for free on platforms such as YouTube. It currently is available in three versions: King James (English), New International Version and Reina-Valera (Spanish). Other languages will be added later.

"I don't want to detract from the Jesus film, because that's been an extraordinary phenomenon and will keep going on, but it is in the same vein as that," movie director David Batty told the Christian Examiner, referencing the goal of offering the film, worldwide, for free.

A Lumo Project trailer calls the films a "groundbreaking multi-language resource" that is "set to transform the way in which people engage, discover and study the life of Jesus through the Gospels."

"The Gospel of John" and its sequels also differ from other Jesus depictions in that the actors themselves aren't voicing the actual words. That is done by the narrator, who reads the biblical text. This method, Batty believes, will make translations into other languages more realistic.

The movies were shot in Morocco and the cast, for the most part, are Moroccans. The other three films have yet to be released.

The Christian Examiner recently spoke to Batty in depth about the film and the project's objectives. Following is a partial transcript:

Christian Examiner: How did you get involved in this project? Was this your baby?

Batty: It was sort of half my baby, I would say. About six years ago a film producer by the name of Hannah Leader, who also is a Sunday School teacher, was trying to find video material for her Sunday School class. She felt there was nothing out there, and she was very frustrated. And she thought, "Well, maybe I should make something, then." By trade I am a documentary filmmaker. I was making a series for the Channel 4 here in the U.K. called the "History of Christianity," and she knew that I was doing that. She called me and said, "Hello, I am a film producer and I want to make a film about the Bible." For a moment I thought it was a prank call, but thankfully I didn't put the phone down on her. She was very determined. And my next question was, "Which parts of the Bible do you want to film?" And she said, "All of it." But what she meant was all of the New Testament. That was the start of the journey. Although she wanted it to be a feature film and to feel like a feature film, she also wanted it to feel real, like it was a documentary. We were trying to put the audience in amongst the crowd, as if you were the 13th disciple or a member of the crowd as Jesus is doing a healing. I tried to film it as I would if I were filming a documentary.

Christian Examiner: As a filmmaker, what types of challenges did it present using a word-for-word biblical script?

Batty: You can't add anything in; you can't take anything out. That's your script. To be honest, when I was first told that, that's a slightly scary thing, because as a filmmaker that's one thing that you change all the time. The script is there to work for you, and not the other way around. I thought it would be a very, very difficult thing, but actually once we got into it, it was actually quite liberating. We've produced them initially in the New International Version and the King James Version, but we can do any version anybody wants. If somebody comes up with the money, I can dub any version on it, and in any language. So it should be accessible to anyone and everyone.

Christian Examiner: What is it like to being involved in a project where you're making a film about a man people believe was God? Was it different than making other documentaries and films?

Batty: Yes, of course. During the daily grind of things, you forget and you just get on with it. But any moment when you pause for thought – such as on a day off – yes, you think about it. It's a scary responsibility, because I'm aware that we're making decisions about how we think things might have been or how we think things might have looked. They are decisions, they are opinions. And everybody has their own opinion about how things look or how things happened. I was aware that sometimes people wouldn't buy into what we've done. That said, I never deliberately set out to shock or scare people away. What I wanted to avoid was times when we just had Jesus sitting on a rock, talking. I felt if we resort to that, we might as well resort to having people just read the text.

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