It is a rare occasion that a film is better than the book it is based on. The book is almost always superior. However, a book that precedes a film by the same name is typically far better than a book that is based on the film. Only rarely does a textual adaptation of a film equal it. And so it was with little eagerness or expectation that I began to read The Nativity Story, the official novelization of the forthcoming film by the same name.
The film of The Nativity Story is set to hit theaters on Friday, December 1. It is billed as a faithful retelling of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Of course, as with any film based on the Bible, there must be a good deal of artistic license and exploration. I hope to discuss this further after I have seen the film.
The book novelization of the film was handled by Angela Hunt, author of over one hundred books, most of which are historical or contemporary novels targeted at women. How well this book represents the film I will not be able to say until I have seen it. If it is a true adaptation I believe I will enjoy the film a great deal. I began reading this book with great skepticism but found myself enjoying it all the way until I had turned the final page. It will not win any Pulitzer Prizes, but is still well-written and enjoyable, even though it feels that perhaps it was rushed just a little bit. Hunt clearly dedicated a good deal of time to understanding Jesus’ cultural context and these details add a fascinating dimension to a story we all know so well.
Just how closely the book adheres to the biblical story is a discussion that can wait until I review the movie. Suffice it to say, for now, that many scenes and characters in the book are fictitious, invented to fill in details or to create a suitable setting for the story. Details of the personalities of the real characters are also created or adapted as necessary. The story also bows to old church traditions at times, such as in the names of the wise men Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These names are traditional but can be traced only to the seventh century and are unlikely to be genuine. And yet all of the biblical details are present, I believe, with the rather disappointing exception of “the angel [and] a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”
When considering the story of the nativity and Jesus’ early life, the majority of attention tends to be focused on Jesus and Mary with Joseph serving as only a bit player. I found it interesting that in this book Hunt devotes equal time to exploring both of Jesus’ earthly parents. While the Bible says little about Joseph, Hunt fleshes out his character into what he probably was - a principled man who dearly loved the Lord. And yet this points to a concern about this type of book. The Bible says almost nothing about Joseph and it may not be expedient for us to remember him in a way that differs from Scripture. The same may be true of Mary, Elizabeth or any of the other characters. But the beauty of a book like this is that it can easily transport us to the time and culture of the characters, allowing us to understand more about the world they lived in than we are told in the Bible.
Regardless of these misgivings, I did enjoy this book a great deal and am awaiting the movie with eager anticipation. I am more than willing to admit that my love of the subject matter may bias me, but I would have little hesitation in recommending this book and even in passing it to unsaved friends or family. It is, after all, little more than the story of Jesus’ birth with attention given to the historical setting and cultural context. The story takes no major missteps, but accurately and faithfully represents the biblical account. I hope the movie does the same.