British Director David Batty on Translating the Gospel from Page to Screen

David Batty has written and directed films for twenty-five years, including dramatizations about the early stages of Christianity. The Gospel of John told the story of Jesus’ life through the eyes of John, with a word-for-word cinematic worldview. Now, he returns to the same subject with the Gospel of Mark, widely considered the earliest source material about Jesus of Nazareth. To find out more about Batty’s latest project, Christian Cinema caught up with the director from his native London.

Batty had just concluded shooting a feature documentary about the 1960s in My Generation, and was working on a PBS production about first civilizations, when he agreed to share his insights. The director was also waiting for word for the debut of his work on Martin Luther, a docudrama featuring interviews and dramatic key moments, on a figure that Batty calls “literally history-changing.” The more recent subjects aside, Batty quickly warmed to sharing his thoughts on translating the story of Jesus to the screen, admitting that John and Mark had very different “takes” on the same historical figure.

“You couldn’t get farther apart,” Batty said with a chuckle. “Obviously, we say Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but it’s more realistically Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Mark is generally understood to be the most literal. John was the closest to a modern film script because it deals with or gets you into the head of Jesus psychologically and spiritually, and in terms of how it’s constructed, not necessarily starting with the beginning. You have to surmise or work out through a series of kinds of flashbacks, with Jesus’ inner thoughts and philosophy.”

“Mark is much more like a superhero movie, fast-paced and action-packed, just lining everything up. It’s also the shortest.”

Batty shared that the production team intentionally didn’t shoot four films but one film with four distinct parts. The differences in the Gospels were accentuated but they worked to see the same story from four perspectives. “If we had shot four distinctly different films, we were almost agreeing then that these people weren’t in the same place. If there was a story that also occurred in one of the other Gospels, I just looked at how it was in Mark and then would recut it to conform to that but also make sure it fit into the overall pace of Mark.”

While John and Mark are available now on DVD, Matthew and Luke are filmed and being held for a later date. In all four films, Batty aimed for historical accuracy in the way they told the stories from Scripture and in his guiding principles for casting and production.

“I’ve been making films about Christian history for quite awhile but we have a historian expert on set all times,” he said. “We tried to answer questions ahead of time, but there are always questions so he could answer little queries and things.”

“We wanted to cast everyone - especially Jesus - as realistically as possible. it annoys me when stories like this cast Jesus as a blue-eyed Aryan and a bit of a surfer dude. Of course Jesus wasn’t! He was a Semitic, Middle-Eastern Jew. The actor we cast conformed to that. All of the other cast members did as well.”

While Batty cares greatly about the literal translation of Jesus’ words being depicted correctly on screen, he’s also concerned with the way that the narrative translates correctly on screen. “My strong belief behind this is that if you go and talk to experts about the Gospels before they were written down, it was passed on orally, by word of mouth. They were stories people would’ve told about Jesus around a campfire. On any evening, someone might’ve told a story about Jesus’ healing someone or about Jesus’ teachings, and the experts say the stories weren’t just told but performed. You can tell from how they’re constructed that they were meant to be performed as well. So we hoped to return them to their original form.”

Ultimately, Batty’s diligence in translating the story in word and action leads back to the importance of the message and getting it right. Even in the twenty-first century, Batty believes that the story of Jesus is a powerful message for those who will hear it (and see it) today.

Batty closed with this: “Jesus is often co-opted by a lot of people to say a lot of things. That’s often the danger of a big dense book like the Bible where you can find justification for anything. There is a power in Jesus regardless of whether you are Christian or not; he goes to the poor, the needy, the displaced, the hated, and brings them into society rather than casts them out. In the world we live in at the moment, there’s a lot of casting out. The simple message of Mark and the other Gospels is that Jesus is including those who are left out.”

The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are available now.