The Gospel of John

I’ll say this for “The Gospel of John”: It’s the most literal recreation of the Bible in film history. It is, simply, the Good News translation of the book of John, slapped onto the screen, unembellished and unaltered. The verses that are narration are spoken by a narrator (Christopher Plummer, to be specific), and the verses that are people talking are spoken by actors (no one you’ve heard of, to be specific).

I assume it sounded like a good idea at the time. I mean, you wouldn’t make a movie if you KNEW it was a bad idea, right? But man, it sure turned out to be one. Whew! What a stinker this thing is! All due respect to the Bible, but just because a book is good doesn’t mean it can be transferred directly to the screen without some streamlining, adapting and adjusting.

How literal is this movie? Well, it’s three hours long, and the book of John is 21 chapters. At the one-hour mark, we’re covering the events in chapter 7, and at two hours, sure enough, we’re in chapter 14. No incidents are given any more attention in the film than they’re given in the text, not for the sake of highlighting certain themes, not for the sake of focusing on a particular aspect of Jesus’ life, not for nothin’, no way, no how.

The result? It’s boring. How could it not be? Does anyone sit down and read the book of John start to finish? No, you read certain passages or chapters. It doesn’t make sense beginning to end, because it doesn’t have a central plot. It has vignettes and episodes, culminating in a final sequence that is only somewhat straightforward, narratively speaking. In short, to make it work on the screen, one would have to adapt it into a STORY, with a beginning, middle and end.

Much of the narration is superfluous, at times laughably so. For example, there’s a moment when the narrator says, “Jesus looked at him” while Jesus is, in fact, looking at someone. Thanks, narrator. Thanks for clearing that up. Why is extraneous narration left in like that? Because it’s in the book. Everything in the book makes it into the movie, no matter how unnecessary. EVERYTHING.

Another problem is that John didn’t write dialogue to stand on its own, and the Good News Bible doesn’t exactly translate it into flowing, natural language. John condensed what must have been lengthy conversations into a few lines, to give us the gist. The film, since it doesn’t add anything, just gives us those meager exchanges and expects it to look like a regular conversation, which it seldom does. It doesn’t help that the acting is uniformly flat, the actors merely reciting lines rather than attempting to play full-fledged characters.

The director, by the way, is Philip Saville, a British filmmaker who made a few films in the ’60s and early ’70s (including “Stop the World: I Want to Get Off”) and only sporadically since then, and nothing of note. The screenwriter, John Goldsmith, is equally undistinguished.

So it’s a bad movie. Does it have any redeeming value? See, there’s the tricky part. As a Christian, I believe anything that testifies of Christ — and here is a movie that obviously has no agenda other than that — automatically has some inherent value, if only for that reason. That doesn’t necessarily make it good as art or entertainment, of course; it just makes it a good THING, a positive force in the world. A lovely painting of Christ could be described the same way, but I wouldn’t want to sit and look at it for three hours.

D (3 hrs.; PG-13, some blood, brief strong violence.)