The film version of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus begins this weekend on the National Geographical Channel, the third of his books to be adapted for television. This production represents the continuation of a book franchise that includes Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, and Killing Patton–a wildly successful series that has thus far sold almost 7 million books. This is jaw-dropping for three books that, to me, seem trite and conventional–although I’ve only skimmed them. The books are co-authored with Martin Dugard, who perhaps makes it possible for the busy host of a TV chat show to publish historical thrillers every year: a pace that would crush more serious historians.
As I watched the program, I felt I was Killing Time, eager to get to the end. The script is a whole lumberyard of wooden dialogue, bits and pieces lifted from various gospels or invented. The story itself is selective in ways that distort the traditional narrative of Christ, although I sympathize with the author. I’ve written a biography of Jesus myself, so I’m aware of the pitfalls: The story comes to us through four canonical gospels and various extra-canonical texts (many of them very late). And the story put forward by the three “synoptic gospels”—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—has fairly little in common with the Fourth Gospel, attributed to John. Anybody who wishes to make a coherent tale must pick and choose among the narrative strands, weaving them together in personal ways.
Walon Green adapted the book, while Christopher Menaul directed the film. They doubtless meant well, but the movie is seriously dull and painfully misses the real interest of the Jesus story, its transformational power. It begins with King Herod, played as a gruff maniac by Kelsey Grammer. The focus is clearly on the Christmas story as told by Matthew, where the birth of Jesus becomes a tale of terror and flight. The so-called Massacre of the Innocents is portrayed in a decently horrifying fashion: soldiers stabbing young boys with swords, screaming mothers. The peaceful scene in the manger that Luke puts forward (without the massacre and the subsequent flight to Egypt) must have seemed lacking in drama.
One skips forward in this adaptation to various scenes in the life and times of Jesus, including his baptism by John the Baptist. Haaz Sleiman plays Jesus as a kind of innocent but suddenly inspired country bumpkin from Galilee. I can only assume that the weird accent that this version of Jesus and his followers use—something like the all-purpose ethnic speech that Anthony Quinn employed in Zorba the Greek—is meant to suggest a dialect of Aramaic. By contrast, Stephen Moyer plays a reasonably believable Pontius Pilate with a fine English accent, as befits a Roman (perhaps). There are various mixed accents throughout, in fact—it’s hard to decode them. One gets the idea: People at the beginning of the first century in ancient Palestine spoke a variety of tongues. Some were educated, others not. The subtlety of this may be lost on most viewers.
I have always found the baptism of Jesus, with a dove descending and voice from heaven, one of the great moments in the Jesus story. This is where Jesus hears the deep call from God. But here begins the worst aspect of this version of the narrative. Everything holy is stripped of mystery. The baptism itself looks like a home movie. There is no dove or heavenly call. Jesus seems strangely unmoved by the whole thing, and John the Baptist certainly doesn’t inspire in this peculiar version of the great, wild prophet.
The problem lies with the literalizing of the narrative. I would have guessed, thinking that O’Reilly is a Roman Catholic, he would have given us more of the supernatural Jesus. But this is a flat, realistic version of the story. A couple of healings occur, but these seem less than spectacular, and the miraculous is drained from the Jesus story. Perhaps the budget for this production couldn’t expand to include a bit of CGI?
The few scenes we get of Jesus as teacher in Galilee seem uninspired. The Sermon on the Mount—the true center of Christian ethics—is nothing but ludicrous as depicted here, with Jesus mumbling a handful of the Beatitudes from a ledge. You can’t put these things into a literal narrative and hope to inspire anyone. Matthew, in his gospel, summarized the teaching of Jesus as a kind of textbook for early Christian preachers. But to have Jesus merely reciting extracts from the third chapter of Matthew seems almost comical. Nobody is listening. Even Jesus seems bored by his recitation.
There is much talk of Zealots in this film, as it’s good for suspense. Rebels are plotting against Rome, and Jesus is himself accused of being one of them. The historical issue, of course, is that the Zealots were not really a force in Palestine at this time. They identified as a movement in the ’60s, 30 years after the death of Jesus, gathering force in the rebellion that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.C.E. But perhaps the screenwriter—or perhaps O’Reilly—only mean to suggest that there was a good deal of anti-Roman feeling among the Jews, especially those in Galilee. This is true enough.
I take greater issue with the Easter story as it unfolds in this film. The Last Supper—briefly depicted here—fails to stir, and the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is sketched rather poorly. I liked the portrayal of Judas here well enough; but the events of Good Friday are weakly imagined. There is some grisly stuff: Jesus is beaten horribly, tortured, crucified. But I didn’t get much sense of the spiritual quality of the event: the sense that Jesus is taking on this suffering for a real purpose, and that he has some awareness of his behavior.
The real problem begins with the depiction of Easter Sunday. Women go the tomb to pay their respects, and the stone is rolled away. All good so far. But when she sees the tomb is empty, Mary Magdalene smiles as if she immediately sees the point: He is risen! But it’s not like this in the gospel narrative. Mary doesn’t recognize her closest friend, her rabbi, Jesus—not until he actually addresses her by name. The film skips the great story of the Road to Emmaus, where none of the followers of Jesus even recognize him, and when—after a long day—they do, he goes up smoke: poof. The film ends with Peter back at the Sea of Galilee, where he casts his net for fish without luck. In the gospel story as told by John, Jesus actually appears on the lakeside; he tells those in search of fish where to cast. They do. In the course of things, John and Peter eventually recognize that Jesus is with them.
The whole point of the Resurrection stories—and the Resurrection itself—is that we don’t recognize Jesus when he comes back to us. Or it’s a gradual thing. The Resurrection was not the Great Resuscitation but a total transformation. I searched in vain in this film for any sense of the glory or meaning of Easter. It’s just not there.
Perhaps I should have taken seriously the warning at the outset that this film was “inspired by” events in the Bible. I don’t think anyone who takes the Jesus story seriously—as I do–will find this a satisfactory version. The problem perhaps lies with trying to put into concrete images something that is mythic, deeply spiritual. It’s impossible to see the face of Jesus without seeking that face in some concentrated way, in the practice of the faith, through prayer and action. The young man played by Haaz Sleiman seems remarkably unlike the mythic Jesus of the gospels, who moves through the world with grace and power, an exemplary soul who feels a profound connection to his father, whom he addresses as Abba.
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, is the author of Jesus: The Human Face of God. He teaches at Middlebury College.