My granddaughter Miley was seven years old when the film My Son My Savior was released. It's Jesus' life story told through his mother and Miley was eager to watch it with me because I wrote the screenplay. At first, as we watched, she peppered me with film-related questions. Then she grew quiet. At the poignant scene where Mary weeps at Jesus' feet as he is dying on the cross, Miley turned away to hide her own tears. I reached for her but she jumped up and stormed from the room angrily shouting "Grandma! You should have remodeled the ending!"
That, of course, was not an option. To Christian screenwriters, sharing accounts from the Bible is more than a job, it's a sacred trust. Film school training, entertainment industry knowledge, and personal ambition take a knee to the imperative "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15) It's easier said than done in this difficult industry.
The writers of the acclaimed TV series The Chosen — Dallas Jenkins, Ryan Swanson, and Tyler Thompson — appear to welcome this and other tough challenges. In Season 3, Episode 5 (S3, E5), Simon Peter declares "Being revolutionary's fun!" Is he speaking for himself or for modern followers of Jesus — maybe three in particular?
A bit of revolutionary spirit probably helps with five intense pressures squeezing the writer's room. One, the writers need to correctly handle God's word. Two, they need to create a program that is entertaining, emotionally engaging, and attracts large audiences. Three, they need to work in an industry fraught with jealousy, greed, ego, and competition — an industry not known for pandering to Christians. Four, they need to be thick-skinned because it's just not possible to please or appease everyone. And five, they need financial backing, not just to launch a series but to continue it. People who give big money expect a particular outcome. Usually, the more money, the more fingerprints on the work.
Before the first episode, a disclaimer appears. It's interesting, not only because it informs the viewers, but because it creates a set of guidelines for the writers:
"The Chosen is based on true stories of the gospels of Jesus Christ. Some locations and timelines have been combined or condensed. Backstories and some characters or dialogue have been added. However, all biblical and historical context and any artistic imagination are designed to support the truth and intention of the Scriptures. Viewers are encouraged to read the gospels. The original names, locations and phrases have been transliterated into English for anything spoken."
Similar language is used to describe their approach on the Angel Studios website:
"The Chosen stays true to the details that are in the text of the New Testament. Each episode takes artistic license to fill in the many blanks where the text does not go into detail, but this artistic license is all feasible considering the details that are provided."
So, to summarize the stated guidelines for the series:
- The Chosen will be based on true stories and details in the New Testament but viewers are encouraged to read the gospels for themselves.
- The writers are free to combine or condense timelines and transliterate names and language.
- The writers will use artistic license and imagination to "fill in the many blanks", create backstories, create some characters, and dialogue.
- When the writers do use artistic license, they will support the truth and intent of Scriptures and the additions and changes will be "feasible" considering the details Scripture provides.
In the world of television and film, the phrase "based on a true story" gives screenwriters significant leeway. For example, the film Lee Daniels' The Butler is "based on a true story" and blends fact and fiction. Eugene Allen ("Cecil Gaines" in the film) did, in fact, serve as White House butler to eight presidents as depicted. However, his wife was not an alcoholic who cheated with the neighbor as portrayed. The Allens had only one son, a man who served — but survived — Vietnam. There was no second son in the Black Panthers. Those and other facts were added or altered. The real goal of the film was not to tell Allen's story but to contrast his years as butler in the White House with the Civil Rights movement. The two story lines culminate in the election of Barak Obama.
In a similar vein, many of the story lines in The Chosen and nearly all characterizations are entirely invented by the writers to support the overarching story of Jesus' role in carrying out a plan for salvation and, through the invented back stories of his followers, to create modern parallels and avatars for viewers.
As soon as a writer begins scripting the Bible for a visual medium, interpretation and editorializing are unavoidable. Why? Most accounts in scripture are brief and spare. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene's demon possession is addressed in one sentence fragment in Luke 8 and one sentence in Mark 16:9 (now a footnote because it doesn't appear in the earliest manuscripts). Using these verses, an entire plot is built for the first episode "I Have Called You by Name" (S1, E1) and Mary's relapse in "Unlawful" (S2, E6).
"The Rock on Which it is Built" (S1, E4) is based on three gospel accounts relating the calling of Simon Peter, Andrew, and Zebedee's sons, James and John. Matthew's entire account is seven sentences. Mark's, five. The gospel of John doesn't include the account. Luke provides the most information — 13 sentences including Jesus instructing the men to cast their nets again, the huge catch, and Simon Peter falling to Jesus' feet and begging "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man."
If screenwriters used only those verses, it wouldn't be enough for a 50-minute television episode. Enter artistic license: Screen Andrew is behind on taxes. Screen Matthew is unpopular not just because he's a tax collector but because he doesn't fit in. Screen Simon Peter is a gambler and con artist, punching it out in fixed fights and striking back alley deals with Romans.
Have the writers met their stated guidelines? For example, we know from the Bible that Simon Peter was sometimes impulsive and did rash things that required correction. Does this initial depiction of Peter as a brawling, petty con man meet the guideline of "feasible" and "true to scriptures"? It's subject to debate.
A bigger question, beyond the amount of artistic license, the feasibility, or even the ratio of artistic license to fact, is this: Will the audience discern the difference? Will viewers actually refer to the gospels as encouraged? The disclaimer that appears in the opening seconds of the first episode never appears again, not once in 24 hours of programming. Why? Shouldn't it appear on every episode?
As I binge-watched the first three seasons of The Chosen, I sometimes felt like Mary of Magdala, absorbed and moved to tears by the words and miracles of Jesus. Other times I felt like Shmuel, alerting like a cadaver dog on every potential theological error or perceived violation of the stated writers' guidelines. I took 12 pages of notes which included some questions and concerns. I disagree with the statement on the Angel Studios website that the series "takes artistic license to fill in the many blanks". In my opinion, the series is primarily fiction based on true events and its value lies in providing the viewers with fictionalized characters to relate to in their own search for Jesus or for something they don't even realize is missing from their lives. If my assessment is accurate, the reluctance to admit it may be because it's harder to fund.
As a writer and avid Bible-reader, I admired the writing team's imaginative character development. I was impressed with how skillfully the team wove and juxtaposed disparate Bible accounts, psalms, and prophecies into one fluid, engrossing narrative. I appreciated the production values and evocative performances of the actors — a welcome and refreshing treat in the world of faith films which often look like they had a production budget of $90. I sometimes wondered if details might be too "inside" or the exposition beyond the typical viewer's experience or interest. But then I'd see recorded testimonials from ordinary people (not erudite theologians) humbly saying the series drew them back to Jesus.
There are many things for screenwriters to learn from The Chosen. Here are twelve.
Six Things Screenwriters in General (Secular) Markets can Learn from The Chosen.
- There's an audience for moral stories or even just moral-inclusive material. That audience includes millions of intelligent, well-educated people hungry for programs with substance.
- Audiences want heroes as well as antiheroes. Instead of antiheroes, The Chosen is full of flawed heroes (and One without flaws) and it's a refreshing change from the current trend.
- The Chosen does a good job of naturally including people who are differently-abled and from different races and backgrounds. It doesn't feel self-conscious or mandated as some series do. People rally behind programs in which they feel realistically represented.
- The Chosen proves there's no need to swear at the audience. The language on our streaming service is so raw my husband and I call it "F-flix". It's not true that "everyone talks like that". When viewers retreat from hard language, they retreat from whatever message you're trying to share.
- A Hollywood cliché for writers is to pitch a project by saying "but what it's really about is redemption". The Chosen truly is about redemption. Redemption stories have power, emotional impact, and, based on the testimonials, for some, spiritual transformation.
- Finally, wherever you are, whatever you currently write, know that God really does love you and wants you to be His, just as screen Jesus says. (John 3:16) God bless you as you learn more.
Six Things Screenwriters in Faith Markets Can Learn from The Chosen
- There are many approaches to depicting Bible accounts and people (adaptations, reimagining, allegory, modernizations, fan fiction, blasphemy). Writer, be clear about the story you're telling and make sure your audience also understands what is fact and what is fiction.
- Characters in the Bible (as well as contemporary Christians) are real people with the same worries, sins, and struggles as anyone else. Don't be afraid to depict those struggles.
- Many faith-based projects, not just Bible-based, require alternate financing. Whatever the financing, it cannot influence your message when you're sharing God's word. The Chosen has faced criticism that financing and resources affiliated with the LDS (or a studio helmed by executives who are members of the LDS) influenced the show after its first season. Fuel is added to this criticism by certain script choices. Many have pointed out that screen Jesus seems to quote the Book of Mormon (S3, E3) when he says "I am the Law of Moses!" In the same episode, a rabbi demands "Are you claiming to be the Messiah or are you merely claiming to speak for the Lord as a prophet?" Screen Jesus answers "Yes" — an equivocation. He could be claiming to be either one. Writer, don't obscure truth in an attempt to keep everyone happy. Remember whose story you're telling and "correctly handle the word of truth."
- There are some advantages to being independent and working outside of the studio system. The Chosen raised start-up money through crowd funding. That's about as independent as you can get short of bankrolling a project yourself. During the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike, lasting May 2 through September 25 and SAG/AFTRA strike (in progress as of this writing), studio productions shut down. The Chosen was eligible to apply for an exemption to continue filming due to its independent status. They were granted the exemption and production resumed despite the strikes.
- TV offers a better opportunity than film when it comes to protecting your message. In film, the writer has no power or influence once the script is sold. The director is considered the author of the film and script changes are expected. This is particularly painful when you've written a faith film. Script changes made by others can hurt your reputation both as a writer and Christian. In television, the head writer is the show runner and has considerable power and responsibility. It's not easy work. I considered my time as head writer of a 26-episode series an "excruciating honor" but the sweet reward was greater script control.
- Finally, wherever you are, whatever you currently write, know that God really does love you. May He strengthen you in your work as you serve him.
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