Every year around Easter my family and I watch The Miracle Maker. We also rotate through other Jesus films: Some years we have watched Jesus of Nazareth (not all of it, or not all at once, but at least the Passion Week material), or Cecil B. DeMille’s silent masterpiece The King of Kings (DeMille’s most genuinely religious film, far eclipsing The Ten Commandments), or the second half of The Gospel of John. Other years I have watched The Passion of The Christ or The Gospel According to St. Matthew, though not with the younger kids.
But The Miracle Maker is a fixture, an annual staple, and my love and admiration for this little film has held up to considerable scrutiny. I love it as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it does—avoiding gratuitous speculation, idiosyncratic “explanations,” and an editorial spin in depicting and illuminating in a simple, modest way the story of the ministry, passion, and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s so straightforward, it’s practically revolutionary. I have often said that The Miracle Maker is simple enough for children but sophisticated enough for Scripture scholars; what most impresses me about the screenplay is the wealth of scriptural, theological, historical, and cultural content packed into a narrative that seldom departs far from the familiar stories of Jesus’ life.
What is most distinctive about the film, though, is not the message, but the medium. A joint project of two animation houses in Wales and Russia—Cartwn Cymru in Cardiff and Christmas Films in Moscow—The Miracle Maker is a groundbreaking work of astoundingly lifelike stop-motion animation, supplemented with traditional hand-drawn animation for flashbacks and other special sequences as well as digital effects here and there (water, fire).
If the term “stop-motion animation” makes you think of the droll characters from Chicken Run or The Nightmare Before Christmas, think again. These realistic figures—and their authentic-looking Middle-Eastern miniature sets—were created by meticulous Russian puppeteers with an eye to naturalism and historical accuracy. The result, while not as smooth or polished as the high-tech effects of the Toy Story films, is a world of breathtaking persuasiveness; at times, especially in mid-range shots, you could almost forget that you aren’t watching live action.
Aiding the effect are the considerable vocal talents of a stellar cast, including Ralph Fiennes as Jesus, Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, and Richard E. Grant as John the Baptist. Following the convention of Dorothy Sayer’s The Man Born to Be King, the cast employ upper-class British accents for the educated Jewish and Roman leaders, but broad Scots or other accents for the fishermen and other common folk.
A performance highlight is Jesus’ preaching: Fiennes sounds like a man improvising a public speech as he delivers long-familiar words about the house on the rock or the Parable of the Mustard Seed. His Jesus is attractive, composed, commanding, and compassionate; he can rise to righteous anger (as at the cleansing of the temple), but has an acute sense of humor (seen particularly in satirical parables such as the log in the eye).
The most noteworthy thing about this production, though, is not the performances or even the animation, but the reverent, mature approach to the story. In using their remarkable technique to bring the Gospel story to life, the filmmakers have succeeded admirably in fulfilling the ideal of St. John Chrysostom: “Not to say anything new, but to say it in a new way.”
That’s not to say the screenplay by Murray Watts (who also wrote a 1998 animated TV version of Beowulf) takes no license at all. Events have been rearranged, conversations invented or expanded. Much of the story is seen from the point of view of the daughter of Jairus (the synagogue leader), the girl Jesus raised from the dead (here named Tamar), as well as that of Jairus himself and his wife.
Tamar, along with one or both of her parents, shows up at various points in the story: at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as he leaves his carpentry work; at the Sermon on the Mount; at the healing of the paralyzed man; and (after Tamar has been raised) on Good Friday, as Jesus carries his cross down the Via Dolorosa.
But this is all comparatively minor stuff. Even good adaptations usually take generous dramatic license with their source material, re-working it to make their stories more interesting, accessible, or exciting, to fill in narrative gaps, or to help audience members draw whatever the filmmakers happen to feel is the proper conclusion.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; depending on the filmmakers, the result either can be very good (say, The Prince of Egypt) or very bad (say, the 1985 Richard Gere film King David). But always it’s as much about the filmmakers and their vision as about the original text or the author’s vision. The story of The Miracle Maker, to a great degree, isn’t about the filmmakers. For the most part they’ve simply tried to get out of the way and let the Evangelists speak.
Given a running time of 90 minutes, the Evangelists couldn’t be allowed to say everything. Thus, the storytellers’ most important decision was choosing what to keep and what to omit. In general they made good decisions. The nativity of Christ is here, in flashback, along with the shepherds and the gifts of the Magi, but not the annunciation to Mary, the visitation to Elizabeth, or the flight into Egypt.
There’s the divine acclamation from heaven following Jesus’ baptism by John (though John doesn’t actually touch Jesus, who simply plunges himself beneath the surface), and the temptation in the wilderness; but the Transfiguration has been omitted. There’s the miraculous catch of fish, but not the feeding of the 5,000; the promise to build on Peter the rock is here, though not Peter’s confession of faith or receiving the keys of the kingdom.
A few unfortunate calls were made in editing the passion narratives. I can understand leaving out the scourging at the pillar (which might have been too intense for many children anyway), but I would have liked to see Simon of Cyrene helping Christ with his cross. Of the seven words of Christ from the cross, the story retains only “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” and “It is finished”; gone are “Father, forgive them”; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”; and “Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother.”
Mary, the mother of Jesus, doesn’t seem to be present at the cross, though we see her briefly on her way to the tomb (she is sadly deprived of the Cana story also, with her great line, “Do whatever he tells you”). And, while leaving out the soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothes is defensible, omitting the guards at the tomb really is not. On the other hand, the death of Christ is accompanied by a dramatic rending of the temple veil, a significant detail that could easily have been left out.
While it’s possible to quarrel with what the film doesn’t do, what it does do is virtually beyond reproach. Notwithstanding its simplicity—or rather because of it—The Miracle Maker is quite simply one of the most genuinely profound and noteworthy depictions of the Gospel story of all time, in any medium. It’s a small miracle in itself.