Journey to Bethlehem (2023) By Adam Anders
Journey to Bethlehem (2023) Director: Adam Anders Writers: Adam Anders, Peter Barsocchini, Stars: Antonio Banderas, Milo Manheim, Fiona Palomo, Geno Segers, Joel Smallbone, Moriah, Omid Djalili, Rizwan Manji, Stephanie Gil, Lecrae, Antonio Gil, Alicia Borrachero, Maria Pau Pigem, Ricard Serra, Antonio Cantos Runtime: 98min Rated: PG (Canada) PG (MPAA) for thematic elements.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers).
Imagine the story of the Nativity of Jesus as a comedic live-action musical intended for a family audience. The plotline sprinkled with melodies covers the involvement of the Magi from the East, the interest of Herod the Great in the birth of the Child, the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, the visitation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and her subsequent miraculous pregnancy with the baby Jesus and the couple’s journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus there. That’s Adam Anders’ Journey to Bethlehem.
Often when adapting biblical accounts from Scripture writers and directors run into the same problems whether it’s a movie like Darren Aronofsky's fantasy epic Noah (2014) or Journey to Bethlehem. The key challenge is dealing with the fact that there’s often not much dialogue or details provided by Scripture–or at least not enough to make a modern drama, musical, or historical epic without adding to what’s already there. Certain filmmaking genres may lend themselves better to certain Biblical accounts, so perhaps a comedic live-action musical intended for a family audience is better suited for the Nativity story than Christ’s passion and crucifixion. Even so, devout Christian filmgoers will hopefully expect that any liberties taken would still reflect the truth of Scripture and history in a way that their faith isn’t made light of. This is where a comedic live-action musical starts to get dicey; not everyone will share the writer’s sense of humour. That said it isn’t impossible; many people both young and old have loved the humorous Mike Nawrocki Veggie Tales children’s shorts and movies. A couple years ago there was a light-hearted animated family film, also produced by Affirm Films, called The Star (2017) which threaded this needle of telling the story of the birth of Jesus by employing a common Sunday School Pageant fictional devise of incorporating the story’s animals into the plot. While The Star was light-hearted and took it’s liberties it somehow managed to do so respectfully even while dealing with the central difficult topic of Mary’s virginity and her miraculous pregnancy.
Like Reckart’s The Star Anders’ Journey to Bethlehem falls victim to the common sin of conflating the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Wise Men. St. Matthew writes in his Gospel, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him’” (Matthew 2:1-2). The key word is “after.” Matthew makes it clear that the wise men came from the east after Jesus was born not when Jesus was born. The Gospel writer even notes “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11) — house not stable. This misrepresentation is a longstanding issue encountered in everything from Christmas cards to nativity sets, to films and TV shows, mainly because the birth of Christ in the western Church’s liturgical calendar begins the 12 days of Christmas and ends with the Wise Men’s visitation on the 12th day— Epiphany. Director Anders, while knowing the Magi didn’t arrive at the birth of Jesus, has said he accepts the creative license that puts them at the nativity. This means he really wasn’t interested in working out a creative way to be faithful to Scripture in telling the story. This is not ignorance of the factual Scriptural truths it’s willful misrepresentation. This isn’t to say Anders isn’t passionate about the project or God’s Word. Neither does it mean he doesn’t have good intentions. What it does mean is that he’s willing to fudge details to please his intended audience.
In his film Anders makes melodramatic adaptations: Herod the Great (Antonio Banderas) is a two-dimensional over-the-top mustache-twirling villain with no human nuance in his paranoia; Mary (Fiona Palomo) and Joseph (Milo Manheim) are embroiled in a Disney-like prince and princess romantic comedy Bollywood-style courtship; and the three Wise Men are clearly operating as slapstick lowbrow comedic relief. The script might have been better served as an animated feature because animation invites a greater degree of suspension of disbelief.
The Magi are particularly difficult to put up with. In addition to the conflation of their arrival with the birth of Jesus, the Wise Men manage squeeze in a joke about smelling like sheep dung further conflating them with the shepherds watching their fields at night. How so? Anders has them hiding from Herod near Bethlehem disguised as shepherds! So, it is them—not the actual shepherds—who are greeted by the angels in the hills outside Bethlehem. While the characters of the Virgin Mary and Joseph end well, and the actors do a fine job with the material they are given, their characters’ origins are problematic. Mary is presented as a stubborn teenager at odds with her parents over her betrothal desiring to be a school teacher like her father with no interest in motherhood. She even sings lyrics like, “Maybe married means that I’m kissing all my dreams goodbye” scornfully describing her future as, “keeping house and making babies, going shopping, all the chores.” And Joseph is portrayed as an incorrigible flirt who, even though he knows he’s engaged to be married, inadvertently attempts to strike up a romance with Mary in the town’s market not knowing she is the one he’s arranged to marry. These additions to the Scriptural account are intended to provide drama and romance but end up calling into question the integrity and nature of the real Biblical personages of Mary and Joseph. Having some kind of romance between them could provide dramatic tension but the question is how best to do it while remaining faithful to the Scriptural account, especially when it’s aimed at families. Thankfully they are not shown kissing until after the birth of Jesus.
One interesting choice was to include the first son of Herod the Great, Antipater. Historically, he died right around the birth of Christ Jesus in 4 A.D. as ordered by his father. Here Anders supposes that Antipater’s death could have been somehow entangled with the birth of Jesus. Although an interesting idea it would fit better in a film adaption more like Kevin Reynolds' Affirm Films’ historical drama Risen (2016) about a Roman tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), tasked to find the missing body of Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead.
A veritable laundry list of assumptions permeates Journey to Bethlehem. Viewers with a high view of Scripture will certainly find it hard to take. On a positive note, for families desiring to watch something that isn’t filled with violence and foul language, Anders’ film delivers. With Journey to Bethlehem they will find a rather light-hearted if extraordinarily silly account of the birth of Christ. The question is: Are families well-served by such a rendition of the Biblical account? As Christmas approaches, or in years to come as Christmas rolls around, Anders’ film ought not substitute for attending a faithful church to hear the Biblical account read and preached and to sing together the beloved Christmas hymns of the Christian faith. Also, if families do see the film they should certainly sit down together and read Luke 1:26–56; 2:1–21 and Matthew 1:18–25; 2:1–18 then talk about what the film got right and what it made up. Lastly, it’s ill advised to tell tall tales when it comes to recounting the Bible, especially when liberty is taken with what details are actually present in Scripture. At the very least have fidelity to God’s Word. This will go a long way to avoiding misconceptions and false ideas about what is found there. Adaptation inherently has its limitations and challenges. While a high degree of fidelity is not as important when it comes to adapting works of fiction, there is more at stake when it comes to adapting historical events and religious texts. The fact that Journey to Bethlehem is a comical family musical doesn’t excuse its misrepresentations of the Scriptural account regardless of the filmmaker’s intentions. Sadly, it’s quite possible for someone to mean well and be wrong even when it comes to sharing their Christian faith.
For those who think this is a hard take on a project produced with good intensions, on the one hand, consider what Saint James writes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” On the other hand, consider what he says immediately after that, “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:1–2). The sins of Journey to Bethlehem are forgivable and something to learn from. Affirm Films has a mixed bag of “faith based” films under its belt; some like Andrew Hyatt's Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018) have great merit and are well executed while mileage varies with many of their other projects. Would that they would learn from what is artistically accomplished in a faithful way and steer clear of projects where they fail to hit the mark.
What about the music? Anders is joined by his singer/songwriter wife Nikki Anders and composer Peer Astrom in creating the music for Journey to Bethlehem. Astrom previously worked as the composer for Adam Shankman’s musical Rock of Ages (2012) and is credited as a producer of featured songs in eighty-eight episodes of Glee (2009-15). For those familiar with these projects Journey to Bethlehem will provide few surprises. As might be expected the film occasionally incorporates a couple lines or a verse from beloved Christmas and Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” and “O Holy Night” however the rest of the music is specifically crafted for the film. The strongest of these is “The Nativity Song” which shows a high degree of reverence for its subject deftly incorporating hymn lyrics and new lyrics.While some will enjoy Journey to Bethlehem because of its warm-hearted intentions, family friendliness and musical flair, it is unfortunately hard to recommend. For families interested in diving into the Christmas story this year, they should be encouraged to read it together out of the Bible and join with their fellow Christians at church and not at the movie theatre or around some streaming service. This is yet another example of the Book being better than the movie.