Will The Bible be as popular on screen as it has been throughout the centuries on paper?
Despite the sacred text's popularity -- some estimate that in 2005 Americans purchased 25 million Bibles -- not all book-to-movie adaptations translate well to audiences. But for all the negative reviews that have rolled in from television critics of the miniseries, History channel is anticipating record audiences.
So what did those critics actually have to say about the labor of love created by Mark Burnett and his wife, Touched By An Angel star Roma Downey?
The Hollywood Reporter's TV critic Allison Keene found the biggest conundrum of the miniseries to be its struggle to pinpoint an intended audience.
"The Bible never seems to figure out how to present itself. It spends a lot of time in the New Testament (at least, in the Gospels), which is already very well-worn territory on TV and in film. Sometimes it stays true to scripture, but then does things like adds angels with ninja skills to spice things up. That's one thing the Bible itself really doesn't need -- it's a complex and lyrical work full of prophesies and call-backs and a sense of being one, organic, intertwined story. Unfortunately, The Bible is fractious and overwrought. Others are sure to pick apart the deviations from the sacred text, but that's just the beginning of the miniseries' issues. In the end, this is the most well-known and popular book in the history of humanity for a reason -- it's exciting and interesting and full of hope. The Bible is unfortunately none of these."
The Miami Herald's Glenn Garvin couldn't look past the History channel's hypocrisy in choosing to air such a miniseries, when they famously killed a dramatic mini-series about the Kennedy family on the grounds that its “dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”
"The Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t amount to much more than a further piece of evidence that drama and reverence don’t mix well. (To be fair, it would be the prohibitive favorite if only there were an Emmy for Screenplay In Which The Sentences ‘God Has Spoken To Me’ and ‘God Will Provide’ Are Said the Most Times.) With the pace of a music video, the characterizations of a comic book and the political-correctness quotient of a Berkeley vegetarian commune — laughably, the destruction of Sodom is depicted without the faintest hint of the sexual peccadillo that takes its name from the city — this production makes Cecil B. DeMille look like a sober theologian. The Bible marks the first attempt at drama by reality-show maven Mark Burnett, whose soul I would consider in serious jeopardy if it hadn’t already been forfeited during the second season of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"
Los Angeles Times TV critic Robert Lloyd is just plain tired of producers rehashing the same old story.
"The series is ultimately a work of the imagination; indeed, it could have used a little more." Lloyd continued: "The Bible according to Burnett and Downey is a handsome and generally expensive-looking production, but it is also flat and often tedious, even when it tends to the hysterical, and as hard as the Hans Zimmer soundtrack strains to keep you on the edge of your sofa. The dialogue is pedestrian and functional — sometimes it has the flavor of having been made up on the spot — and often overacted, as if in compensation. It is 'psychological' only in obvious ways, with the poetry of the King James version all but ignored."
The New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger seemed most disappointed in Survivor producer Mark Burnett's missed opportunity in tackling "the ultimate make-me-believe-it-challenge."
"The result is a mini-series full of emoting that does not register emotionally, a tableau of great biblical moments that doesn’t convey why they’re great. Those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the Bible would do better to find a good production of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. And those thinking that the ancient miracles might be better served by the special effects available in 2013 than they have been in previous versions should prepare for disappointment. The Red Sea parts no more convincingly here than it did for Charlton Heston in 1956."
Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was at least thankful that The Bible -- or "The Bible's Greatest Hits (Sanitized for Your Protection)" -- was "up front about its intentions. Sunday's premiere begins with this get-out-of-jail-free disclaimer: 'This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.'"
"Nothing here is as ridiculous as NBC's 1999 Noah's Ark miniseries, the nadir of biblical interpretation that featured Noah warding off pirates. But The Bible probably should not be taken too seriously or venerated. It often plays more like an action film than a serious interpretation of a holy book."
Not surprisingly, The Christian Post found the History miniseries spot on in its review from guest contributor Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO/Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance. For his part, he claims to have been skeptical at first, noting that most interpretations of The Bible are "pretty high on my 'cringe factor' scale."
"Just recently I did a marathon session and watched the entire series in one single day. For someone that has read and taught the Bible for most of his life, I had a remarkable spiritual and emotional experience. The theme of God's love and hope for all humanity is the thread that holds the entire series together. I received a fresh new perspective on many of the famous Bible stories: Looking through the eyes of Sarah as she thinks that her husband, Abraham, has sacrificed their son Isaac; listening to Noah telling the story of Creation to his children on the ark; agonizing with Mary (played by Roma Downey) as she sees her son, Jesus, beaten and crucified. These and so many other stories allow you to connect with the characters on a deep emotional level."
The Bible premieres tonight, Sunday, March 3, at 8 p.m. on the History channel.