“The Bible: The Epic Miniseries” carries a blue-and-white Dove symbol on its back cover, but it’s awfully tiny and doesn’t actually say “Family Approved.” After watching this popular HISTORY Channel series, I know why. If it were a motion picture, “The Bible” would have to be rated at least PG-13 for the incredible amount of graphic violence it depicts. The cameras capture throat slitting, beheadings, stonings, beatings, and the same kind of sword slashing, stabbing and hacking (with splattering blood) that we got from a movie like “300.”
1 Samuel 17: 51 tells how David took Goliath’s sword and killed him, then cut off his head. But reading it is one thing; seeing him holding up the head like a trophy is another. If you read the Bible there’s an awful lot of fighting and killing, but it’s pretty matter-of-fact. 2 Samuel 8:5 tells us “David slew twenty-two thousand men of the Syrians” and verse 13 adds that he won a name for himself in battle and upon his return “slew eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” But train the camera on battle after battle, and . . . well, you get the picture.
Which raises the issue of audience. If “The Bible” is aimed at families, then it’s really too violent for younger children and even older people who just don’t care for that level of violence. If it’s trying to move away from the corniness of the old ‘50s and ‘60s religious spectacles by infusing it with the kind of realism you’d see in HBO’s “Rome” or “Game of Thrones,” well, that’s a different story. There’s a level of grittiness here that you haven’t seen before in a biblical film or television production, and that will be refreshing to many viewers inclined to watch something as rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the title would warn.
That’s the first thing that strikes you about this series. The second is that the production values, the casting, the writing—even the segues that help span huge chunks of the book that had to be omitted—are all quite good. The CGI effects are terrific in this big-screen quality production. In fact, the only thing that reminds you it’s television are annoying “Previously on” and “Next on” montages that bookend each episode and run excessively long. But at least you can skip over those.
Speaking of which, “The Bible” covers so much ground that a lot of things would have to be cut, or else the series would run a lot longer than 10 hours. This series isn’t organized by book, but rather by story. Would it surprise you that Jonah and the Whale, the Tower of Babel, or Joseph and his technicolor dream coat didn’t make the cut? Or that the Old Testament section begins with Noah, with only a cursory summary of the Creation and The Fall of Man?
But Abraham’s story is included, as is the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua and the fall of Jericho, Samson and Delilah, King Saul, David and Goliath and David’s reign, the Babylonian captivity with Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the three men in the fiery furnace, and the more familiar territory of the New Testament: the story of Jesus’ birth, miracle-working, disciple-gathering, teachings, and eventual betrayal and crucifixion. Filmmakers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are to be commended for continuing the story beyond that, with Jesus’ disciples trying to spread the gospel and Saul becoming Paul, the great converter of gentiles. It’s a much more satisfying ending than if everything stopped at the cross.
There are some interesting choices made throughout. Rastafarians always said that Samson wore dreads, and he does so here. Herod is a corpulent gourmand, while Jesus (played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado) is the long-haired beatific messiah that everyone envisions—but he’s as believable a Jesus as I’ve seen in a film or television production. But I wasn’t impressed by the addition of physical beings dressed in armor and cloaks who were shown every time God was speaking, or who brought God’s message. For me, it was the only hokey element in an otherwise solidly conceived production.
Ten episodes are included on four 50GB Blu-ray discs.
The picture quality is superb, with an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer delivering true-looking colors, solid black levels that allow detail to show in dark scenes, and plenty of rich textures and depth of field. Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, “The Bible” offers the same HD quality as was originally telecast. Some of those desert scenes can look a little soft because of atmospheric light, and the cameras pick up refracted light a few times, but otherwise it’s a terrific presentation.
The audio is even more impressive. Without looking at the box or set-up menu you’d swear that the featured audio was a 7.1 instead of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, because the sound really fills the room and those rear speakers are often engaged. The bass has a nice rumble to it, and mid-range and high-end sounds are equally substantial. Subtitles are provided in English SDH, French and Spanish.
There are some nice bonus features here, though not so many that you’d call it “a wealth.” The main extra is a making-of feature that runs 42 minutes and covers the usual ground. But location filming in Morocco makes this feature a little more interesting, as we learn that snakes were quite a problem. Also included are a “Mary, Did You Know?” music video that’s really a new montage with Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd providing the vocals, and five short featurettes. In one of them, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey talk about the genesis of the idea for the series, and, joined by co-executive producer Richard Bedser, they talk about casting on a 14-minute feature. Hans Zimmer and vocalist Lisa Gerrard turn up on a 9-minute feature to talk about the music, a three-minute clip montage illustrates the visual effects used in the film, and a final feature (8 min.) focuses on miracles that the cast and crew feel happened on the set.
Younger children and people disturbed by graphic violence won’t be able to watch, but the rest of the family will find “The Bible” an interesting combination of the expected and unexpected. And yes, it’ll probably send you back to the Good Book to see if such-and-such is really there, because the filmmakers did take quite a few liberties. Compression often occurs, or things are slightly out-of-sequence—as when Samson takes the jawbone of an ass and starts whoopin’ ass at the Philistine’s temple, rather than afield and in battle well before that climactic incident. It’s surprisingly violent, but more faithful to the real Bible than most Hollywood productions.