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Reality TV Goliath takes up Bible miniseries challenge, hopes for better outcome
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey on the set of "The Bible," the 10-hour miniseries Burnett produced and directed.
March 2nd, 2013
11:00 PM ET

Reality TV Goliath takes up Bible miniseries challenge, hopes for better outcome

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
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(CNN) - Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Job” and “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.

But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.

My bad.

Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of “The Bible” - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.

We met in the lobby of the Washington Hilton the night before last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. They were in town to speak to Washington journalists and show clips from their project.

Burnett and Downey’s project tackles the narrative of the Bible, a story woven through 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament. It’s a story revered by billions as divine revelation – and one they’ve compressed into 10 hours of television. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot.

Many have taken aim at dramatizing the stories of the Bible. Few of those productions stood the test of time. They knew all that going in 3 1/2 years ago when “the light bulb went off,” as Downey puts it.

“It’s been a great fun journey right, Roma?” Burnett said to his wife of nearly six years.

“And we’re still talking to each other,” Downey said, smiling.

Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

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“In Ireland, we used to sit up and wait for John Wayne to say, ‘Surely that man was the Son of God,’ at the end of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' every Easter,” Downey said, with her thick Irish brogue dipping into a delightfully terrible John Wayne impersonation.

After showing their kids "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston, their three teenagers had one request for the Bible project. They told their parents, “Please don’t make it lame.”

Making it work

The project is personal for Burnett and Downey, coming from a deep spiritual desire for more people to see and experience the stories of their faith. As Europeans, now naturalized U.S. citizens, they are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools.

“It was time for an updating. Adding fresh visual life to a sacred text,” Burnett said.

“People have great hearts and great knowledge but no experience of filmmaking and no budgets,” Burnett said of past telling of the stories on film and television.

“Or the resources,” Downey chimed in. “We wanted to create something that was gritty and authentic. We certainly didn’t want everyone to look like they stepped out of the dry cleaners.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wir4fH6hUxw&list=UUt_Q-xP9pUFpalCF-e_ZhtA&index=18]

Burnett and Downey may not have been high on the list of many studios as producers and directors to put a massive scripted project like this together. "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" starring Donald Trump and Gary Busey is not exactly" Ben-Hur," and Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green spinning in chairs on the singing competition "The Voice" isn’t often (or ever) compared to the "Ten Commandments."

When I asked Burnett about this, he seemed genuinely insulted.

“Based on viewership, maybe I should be giving a few lessons to the people who are doing stories. Because we have five nights of No. 1 wins on prime-time television,” he started. “As a family we’ve made over 2,000 hours of American television and 8,000 worldwide.”

As he cooled down, ticking off a list of reasons why he and his wife were best suited for the job, he delved into how this project was made.

The production, he insisted, was a lot more like the production that goes into "Survivor" than nearly any feature film or television show in production.

"Survivor" typically includes a cast and crew of 400 people in a remote location with multiple helicopters and boats.

To film the Bible series, they set off for the southern tip of Morocco in Africa with a similar-size crew and hundreds of extras. Not to mention the chariots and horses.

“It was epic,” Downey said.

“Our experience with large-scale productions was very, very important,” Burnett said.

To help further bring the story to life, they brought in Lola, an Oscar-winning CGI team from London who created similar scenes for the film "Gladiator."

They went with an international ensemble for the cast because they didn’t want to distract the audience with recognizable celebrities.

Jesus was played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. Many other actors came from the Theatre District in London.

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus in 'The Bible' miniseries

The most recognizable face to most in North America will be Downey herself, who stepped into the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in the series as a young woman at the Nativity, then later in life.

“It was a privilege to play it,” Downey said. For nine seasons, Downey starred in the CBS show “Touched by an Angel,” then went on to star in a number of TV movies.

“The scripts at one point just said Young Mary, and then as the scripts progressed it said Old Mary. I said, ‘OK, we have to change that right now.’ The last thing I need to see is ‘Old Mary’ played by Roma Downey,” she said with a laugh. “So we changed it to Mother Mary.”

The budget for the 10 hours was under $22 million, Burnett said, a small price tag for a production on such a grand scale. (NBC paid $4 million per episode for the show “Smash” this season, according to an estimate by the New York Times)

“It’s not easy, even for us, to sell and get placed on prime time television, 10 hours – Genesis to Revelation,” Burnett said. “Do we wish we had 25 or 100 [hours], yes but we got 10. We got a great budget. It looks like it’s a $200 million movie. Of course it’s not. It’s just our combined experiences, our hearts and efforts that make it look like that.”

Getting it right

As they considered which parts of the Bible to shoot, they had to pare down hundreds of stories.

“The first decision was, it’s one story,” Burnett said. “It’s not a series of unconnected stories, it’s one grand narrative.”

“You could call it the meta narrative.”

The series encompasses five hours of the Old Testament and five hours of the New Testament.

They took many artistic liberties to compress the story lines while hoping to remain true to the story.

A public relations manager for the project described the liberties to me as “extra-biblical but not contra-biblical.”

For instance, in the series opener, the Book of Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Noah unfold together. Noah and his family are already on the ark while the flood waters batter their boat. To calm his family, Noah tells them the story of creation: “In the beginning! ... ” Noah bellows as he runs around plugging leaks and comforting his family and the animals.

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

Similarly, in the story of David and Goliath, when David heads out to face the giant Philistine foe, he clutches his sling and quietly begins to recite the 23rd Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” David is considered the author of the psalm, but nowhere in the text of the David and Goliath story does it address what he said as he walked out to battle and slay Goliath.

The dialogue in much of the story is similarly constructed along the lines of the bare-bones text. When Jesus calls Peter to be his disciple, Peter asks, “What are we going to do?” Jesus answers, “We’re going to change the world.” Those lines never appear in the Gospel accounts, but Burnett and Downey insist it is consistent with the text.

“Every step of the way we’ve had scholars and theologians working with us,” Downey said.

Burnett and Downey consulted a wide range of pastors and academics, including a major evangelical leader and a Catholic cardinal.

Their advisory panel consisted of many people from varied backgrounds familiar with sharing the stories of the Bible rather than of a "who’s who" of Biblical academics.

Joel Osteen, a popular television preacher and pastor of the 30,000-member Lakewood church in Houston, was among those consulted. Osteen and Burnett are friends and were developing a television series together that went on the back burner during the production of this series. Osteen even took his family to Morocco during some of the filming.

“[Burnett] would send scripts our way and ask doctrinal or Bible questions about it, but a lot of it was a friendship and an advisory role,” Osteen said.

CNN Belief: Five things we learned from Joel Osteen's visit

Osteen said much of his work was confirming if the extrabiblical material stayed true to the Bible.

His encouragement to Burnett was to “use your creativity to fill in between the lines.”

Another consultant was Rabbi Joshua Garroway, an assistant professor at the Hebrew Union College and an expert on early Christianity and the Second Jewish commonwealth (circa 530 B.C. to 70 A.D.) Judaism. He was a paid consultant on the project.

“One of the issues that came up frequently in the comments was the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach,” he said.

“The series is not meant to be a historical feature but as a representation of the biblical narrative which is at times historical and at times not,” Garroway said.

One reason Garroway thought he was brought in was because in parts of the New Testament, “there are less than generous depictions of Jews, Jewish leaders and Jewish traditions.”

One of several Jewish scholars involved, his role as a New Testament scholar was to help the production stay faithful to the text but also “diminish as much as possible scenes or statements that could be construed as overly negative toward Jews and Jewish judgment.”

While he thinks the project has an overall Christian orientation, “I think they did well.”

“I don’t think it will run into the same problems that Mel Gibson’s movie ("The Passion of the Christ") did because the producers have been somewhat conscientious about forestalling some of the things that could produce that effect in the Jewish community,” he said, referring to perceptions of anti-Semitism from the 2004 film.

Osteen thinks the project will have a lasting impact in churches. He plans to use pieces of the project in his services to help illustrate points he’ll make in his sermons.

“I know I’m biased because I’m their friend, but I think it’ll be something that will live on for generations because it’s done with excellence, not knocking anything else, it’s just this is production 50 years past where some of the other films were made,” he said.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Burnett and Downey also think this project will be their most lasting and most viewed.

Burnett said the couple have deferred all their fees for the project. They probably don’t need the money anyway. Forbes lists Burnett as among its 100 highest-earning celebrities with an estimated income of $55 million in 2012.

While the History Channel owns the exclusive North American rights to the project, Burnett and Downey own the rights to global distribution and theatrical airings, which are in the works. There is also a book tie-in, games and apps attached to the project.

For the couple, the project was not about turning a profit, though they likely will. Instead, it was about bringing new life to the stories of their faith for a new audience.

“Will it be screened in movie theaters? Yes, for sure. "Already been approached. Arenas, churches, every way you can imagine,” Burnett said.

Burnett ticked through the shows he and Downey have put together over the years. “Over the next 25 years," he said, "more people will see this than all the others combined.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Bible • Catholic Church • Christianity • Entertainment • TV

soundoff (2,068 Responses)
  1. it is

    Thank you CNN for this story. You DO know that the Judeo- Christian heritage is yours too, i hope. It would be wonderful if CNN could take a greater leadership role in mending this country rather than contributing to fractious debate. You are stewards of great media power.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • rabidatheist

      How I love that term "Judeo-Christian". Find me a single Jew that uses that phrase. It's just another attempt by Christians to make to older invented religion part of theirs.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • JJ

      What exactly do you have issue with?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  2. Lou

    Genesis 8:15-16 Then God said to Noah, "Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it."
    When the ark landed, what did the carnivores eat? All other animal life had been drowned. And vegetation would’ve also been wiped out in the flood, so what did the herbivores eat to survive?

    March 3, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • albert

      If you read the Bible, animals were know to eat vegetation. When the dove that Noah released came back to the ark, it was to indicate that their was dry lans, hence vegetation for the animals to eat.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • JJ

      Well...there you go with your logic and questions. You're seriously on the slippery slop to HELL.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • albert

      (Fixed the horrible spelling) If you read the Bible, all animals were known to eat vegetation. When the dove that Noah released came back to the ark, it was to indicate that there was dry land, hence vegetation for the animals to eat.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • JJ

      Also, just think of all the drowned bloated human, dinosaur and unicorn carcasses lying about for the Lions and Tigers to eat. Duh!

      March 3, 2013 at 8:53 am |
  3. joshua

    See video called mega kisumu revival and see hundres of people healed even hiv, cancer and blind eyes opened.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:43 am |
  4. albert

    Unfortunately, he will not be giving the "True" story. In the article, he speaks of Noah plugging holes and leaks in the Ark. There is no scriptural bases or truth behind that. So it stands to reason that he will be adding his own twist to the Bible to make money. It sounds like this mini series will do what religion has been doing for centuries; making a mockery of God by distorting what the Bible actually says.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • Oscar Pitchfork

      No, it sounds as though, like he said, he's supplying narrative to Scripture to make the story consistent and provide continuity. Does it really matter if non-provable diatribe that doesn't detract from the main message of the bible is added, if, in the long run, it makes for a better reason for people to watch it , and become convinced that maybe Gid and all this is the answer?

      March 3, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  5. DemFromSC

    I love it. The same guy who produced such intelligent and reality-based shows as “Survivor" and “The Apprentice” is now going to explain the Bible to us. In other words, let's continue to entertain people who cannot think for themselves. This is the funniest thing I've heard in a long time!

    March 3, 2013 at 8:42 am |
  6. saggyroy

    I will watch because I like mythology. I like 'Hunting Bigfoot' and 'Ancient Aliens'. I am a fan of 'B' movie science fiction.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Tea Clown

      This might be as funny as doomsday preppers or honey boo boo. A true tea fest!

      March 3, 2013 at 8:43 am |
  7. joshua

    See dr owour prophet among us. see real Bible stories in the making. see also harvest army.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:41 am |
  8. Scrybe

    So a guy who produces crap TV does a miniseries about mythology. Perfect.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:40 am |
  9. Fill in the blank.

    Who got to play.....
    The serpent (talking snake) __________
    The Levite (Judges) _______
    Pharoh (of Moses) __________
    Moses (they took the gun out of his cold dead hands, need new guy) ___________
    Judas (John Dean not available still in hiding) _________
    Goliath _________
    Jezebel (so many too choose from) ________

    March 3, 2013 at 8:40 am |
  10. Accents

    Oh good. Another period piece were cultures from around the world all speak a version of british english. accent and all.
    Sorry kids, Dad made it lame.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • saggyroy

      If they don't have British accents, how do you know it's any good?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • Dana

      Religion is not healthy for altar boys.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • rabidatheist

      A hammer. nail, and shovel changes things. Prayer........not so much.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • John

      actually I disagree – Fanaticism is not healthy for children and lends it self to teaching hate- this is found in all religions not just atheism

      My big question regarding this show will be what translation of the Bible are they using? will they be using what they were brought up with or will they have caved to use the more popular modern translations? (such as the NIV, KJV etc)

      March 3, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Rick

      Do atheists commit less crime or are we just so much smarter that we never get caught?

      This link is for John also.

      "this is found in all religions not just atheism."

      John, atheism is not a religion.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:13 am |
    • Rick

      Hey I'm new at this.

      Do a search on Google for "atheism and crime" and you will find that the amount of crime committed by atheist is far, far lower than any other religious group. We're friendlier and we don't try to force our beliefs on others.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:22 am |
  12. Blah

    "Gozer the Traveller, he will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldronaii, the Traveller came as a large and moving Torb! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex Supplicants they chose a new form for him... that of a Giant Sloar! many Shubs and Zulls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you."

    March 3, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • saggyroy

      I that from Leviticus or Deuteronomy? I forget.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • g2-46727cfba90dcecf33341b4b6a803b16

      Leviticus – "Doctor" Laura "I gots a bush, *too*!" Schlesinger useta read that crap on the air all da time, yo...

      March 3, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  13. another idiot with a keyboard

    13
    If any one lie with a man as with a woman, both have committed
    an abomination, let them be put to death: their blood be upon them.

    26
    You shall be holy unto me, because I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from other people, that you should be mine.

    27
    A man, or woman, in whom there is a pythonical or divining
    spirit, dying let them die: they shall stone them: their blood be upon
    them.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • Tea Clown

      Cool. Now let's hear the verses that condone slavery and the ownership of wives as chattel. That ol' Bible is full of human hate and intolerance.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:42 am |
  14. Dana

    It must be make believe day again.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  15. steve orbe

    I wouldn't waste my time praying for anyone of these non believers, because you've already heard about God. It's up to you to pray for yourself, not me. Your soul doesn't matter to me, I could care less about your soul.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • Dana

      What a good, loving, brain-washed, weak-minded, religious nut you are. Don't bother praying. Praying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but doesn't get you anywhere.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • clevercandi

      "I could care less about your soul."

      Spoken like a TRUE "christian"

      March 3, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  16. rabidatheist

    This should be at the top of the article in big bold letters.

    “The series is not meant to be a historical feature but as a representation of the biblical narrative which is at times historical and at times not,” Garroway said.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:37 am |
    • Tea Clown

      ...that the Bible is a jumble of man made nonsense?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:39 am |
  17. Karen

    Ridiculous.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:35 am |
  18. Lou

    The Order of Creation

    Genesis 1:11-12 and 1:26-27 Trees came before Adam.
    Genesis 2:4-9 Trees came after Adam.

    Genesis 1:20-21 and 26-27 Birds were created before Adam.
    Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 Birds were created after Adam.

    Genesis 1:24-27 Animals were created before Adam.
    Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 Animals were created after Adam.

    Genesis 1:26-27 Adam and Eve were created at the same time.
    Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22 Adam was created first, woman sometime later.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • Tea Clown

      That sure keeps your micro-biology class simple, eh geniuses?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:35 am |
    • Tea Clown

      ...the glaring contradictions are too logical for tea buddies to comprehend.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:37 am |
  19. Saint in Trenton NJ

    For those who deny the Bible, the Bible itself knew about you from the beginning. This is a message for you. Those who have been drawn to Jesus receive love and wisdom so that they may use it for GOD and their neighbor.

    JOHN 6:44 "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:31 am |
    • Tea Clown

      Self-righteous, sanctimonious "christians" are a hoot.
      -
      Judge not lest ye be judged, ye sinner. 😉

      March 3, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • MagicPanties

      and what of the millions of people that lived and died BC?

      If you actually THINK about what you are saying, well... you wouldn't say such silly things.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:35 am |
    • Brian

      You do realize that the Jesus story is just a rehash of earlier Egyptian Myths. You know, the virgin birth, the 3 wise men, the son of god etc. there was nothing new in the story, they just take an older eygptian story and change the names.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • saggyroy

      Well there's the proof I have been looking for. Thanks.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  20. Lou

    Shepherds or Wisemen?

    Matthew 2:1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."
    Magi (astronomers or astrologers).

    Luke 2:15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
    Shepherds.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Tea Clown

      I want to see Jesus' birth certificate.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:32 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.