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'Journey to Bethlehem' Puts the Nativity Story (More or Less) to Music

, | November 7, 2023 | By

If you want a faithful retelling of the Biblical Nativity story, Journey to Bethlehem is not for you. But, director Adam Anders says that it may be for those believers willing to suspend disbelief, or even for unbelievers.

What Is Journey to Bethlehem?

Hitting theaters on Nov. 10, Journey to Bethlehem is the second swing at the Nativity from Affirm Films, the faith-based arm of Sony Pictures. The first was the animated feature The Star in 2017 (I wrote about it here). Directed by Catholic (and friend of FTP) Tim Reckart, it told the story from the point of view of the animals, particularly Mary’s donkey.

Journey to Bethlehem is a live-action, full-on musical, with songs and dance numbers. The donkey is still there, but this time, we’re focusing on the flirty love story of Mary and Joseph.

I did a video interview with director Adam Anders — also a co-writer (with Peter Barsocchini), and co-composer (with wife Nikki Anders and Peer Astrom) — and he said he wanted to bring a Bible storybook from his childhood to life.

There's so many Christmas movies and musicals for kids that are beautiful, vibrant, amazing movies, really colorful and fun and funny, but they're not about what actually Christmas is about.

And so that was my goal is how do I make this movie for the entire family, colorful, vibrant, my storybook Bible come to life. I like to say when I was a kid, I would flip the pages. I'd keep reading like, this is so cool. Look at these beautiful pictures and the animals and the color and the vibrance, and too many biblical movies usually are more somber.

That Flirty Love Story

Without giving everything away, the relationship between Mary and Joseph plays out more like a standard movie romance. Girl unhappy at being betrothed meets a cute guy in the market -- he's unhappy at being betrothed -- and there's a flirtation between the two (who don't realize they're betrothed to each other).

Fun in a movie, but tricky in this situation -- especially since Anders is a non-Catholic Christian, and they almost uniformly hold that Mary and Joseph had more children. So, while Catholics believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, for Anders, the idea of romance between Mary and Joseph is not necessarily a problem.

Anders said:

It was so clear to me when I got this vision for this movie, that we have the original Romeo and Juliet here. If you want to make a family movie, there's certain ingredients.

You need a love story. Well, what greater love story? And the fact that Joseph stayed with her, that he took her stain upon him, and he stayed with her through this whole thing ... that's an incredible story that nobody really talks about. What a beautiful love story.

The Thing With Herod's Son

The antagonists in Journey to Bethlehem are King Herod (an eyeliner-wearing Antonio Banderas, chewing scenery for all he’s worth) and his conflicted eldest son, Herod Antipater (For King & Country band member Joel Smallbone) — who is NOT Herod Antipas, that guy who cut off John the Baptist’s head. That’s one of Herod’s younger sons.

Frankly, I didn’t quite get the distinction between Herod Antipater vs. Herod Antipas while watching.

Says Anders:

I went with Herod's firstborn son, Antipater, not Antipas. ...

What I was trying to find was a character that could be all of us looking for meaning, and the Gospel story played out through one character.

Historically, Antipater was his firstborn son, and Herod killed him the same year Jesus was born, for trying to overthrow his father. He thought he was unfit to rule. And if you know history, Herod goes insane. And he orders the Massacre of the Innocents and does crazy stuff.

... Antipas is not redeemable. I don't want to give away too much, but it was important for me to have this character that has this arc that's kind of all of us

Then There Are a Couple of Apparent Mary Omissions

Along with the Herod thing, I also missed a couple of major moments in Mary’s story — most notably her fiat.  So, I asked about that.

As for the fiat, Anders said:

Well, I did try. Look, all movies go through many iterations, and you have to tell the best version of the story in this framework and the time that you have.

As far as Mary responding to Gabriel, I just dragged it out. Her song is that moment, and I needed that to be a song. So that song is this powerful moment where she's standing.

I don't want to give it away, too, but when she's there, she's saying, OK, I'm up for this. I'm going to do it. And instead of just in one moment, boom, in a musical and in a moment, that's too big a moment to not have a song to it. So I drag it out a little bit, and I just imagined, well, what if she just took a beat to process all this?

How Much Biblical Fidelity Do You Want in a Musical?

On the other hand, as Anders says, it’s a musical. People have been arguing since 1970 about the depiction of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, but it still remains a compelling version of one of the Gospels (and the songs were great).

The music in Journey to Bethlehem is catchy and pretty good, and the depiction of the Wise Men is genuinely funny. The theological issues will go over kids’ heads. But, if the screening audience I was with is any measure, youngsters will likely be engaged.

So, Catholics — especially parents — are going to have to decide whether they’re willing to sacrifice Biblical authenticity for Christmas-themed entertainment that doesn’t, for once, focus on Santa Claus, elves and presents (or merely use the holiday as backdrop for a rom-com).

Here’s my full interview with Anders, in which we discuss even more:


Image:  © 2023 AFFIRM Films A Sony Company

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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