The Chosen: Writers approach task with ‘fear and trembling, but also anticipation’

In this still from Season 3, Jesus of Nazareth (Jonathan Roumie) lays hands on Veronica (Zhaleh Vossough), healing her from a bleeding disorder that would have marked her as unclean in first-century Judea. Photo: Courtesy of The Chosen
In this still from Season 3, Jesus of Nazareth (Jonathan Roumie) lays hands on Veronica (Zhaleh Vossough), healing her from a bleeding disorder that would have marked her as unclean in first-century Judea. Photo: Courtesy of The Chosen
Published May 31, 2024

Fleshing out the gospel accounts of Jesus’ disciples, the TV series The Chosen adapts the bedrock of Christianity as a high-production-value drama. To do so, it dives deep into the text, directly lifting key moments from Scripture, but also attempting to flesh out the characters, setting and political realities of the first century A.D. That work, the show’s creators say, involves a careful process of bringing sainted and beloved characters like Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter to life in ways audiences can relate to while ensuring their portrayals remain true to the historical accounts of their lives. 

As fans await an official announcement on when the episodes of Season 4—which premiered in movie theatres across North America this winter—will be available to watch at home, The Chosen’s writers, Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson, sat down with the Anglican Journal’s Sean Frankling to discuss the creative process that goes into adapting Scripture for entertainment and faithfulness.

This interview has been lightly edited. 

How do you approach an adaptation with this much historical gravity behind it, as a creative writer? 

Tyler: Well, with fear and trembling, but also with anticipation that there’s a reason these words have been popular for thousands of years and have shaped people’s lives and have shaped geopolitical history for years. You can guarantee going in that this is really strong material we’re working with, so it’s going to hold up. But then it’s strong material on the page, which is one medium, and we are adapting it for television, which is a very different medium with different needs. And so there is this adjustment that has to be made. It’s like, all right, it makes sense to read it, but would it make sense to hear it and see it and experience it in this larger context? What do you think, Ryan? 

Ryan: I agree. The reason we’re being tasked with adapting it is because it is so significant. It is a story that has not only stood the test of time, but it’s been told and retold in oral histories and written very plainly in all its perfection on paper for the world to see. So we certainly don’t approach it lightly. That said, we think in fact its strength is the thing that gives us freedom. 

Tell me more about that strength. 

Ryan: Well, it is written, these are the words of God laid out perfectly as only his proxies could. And we believe that it is the greatest story ever told. And so our job is to point people to it, to never try to replace it. And when we have the honour to portray something exactly as it’s written, we do so with extreme fealty. Our work editorializing the characters who might’ve been present or otherwise affected by the events that the Bible documents is always intended to be in service of the stories contained in the document. 

How do you go about something like this differently than if you were adapting a novel or a comic book? 

Ryan: I think that the approach for every adaptation is probably singular. I worked with a screenwriter [Akiva Goldsman] who adapted everything from Batman to John Grisham books to Sylvia Nasser’s biography of John Nash for A Beautiful Mind. His approach was unique as a writer. He read the book once and adapted everything he remembered. If he didn’t remember it, then he felt it wouldn’t flow into cinema.  

Now, his process was very different from Batman to The Da Vinci Code because in The Da Vinci Code he had a worldwide audience that knew every word and every episode of that story. And so he couldn’t rely totally on memory, and he had Dan Brown breathing down his throat.  

The same writer uses the same process with different approaches based on the popularity and the narrative prowess of the work itself. And so I think with us, I refer back to Answer 1, which is to say: with extreme reverence, because the three of us all feel moved and our lives have been greatly affected by the Bible, to say nothing about the millions—billions—of people around the world who’ve had a similar experience. 

Tyler: Yeah, I think anyone who’s familiar with, say, Marvel or Star Wars knows that there’s a thing about toxic fandom—about the way fans can take ownership, or supposed ownership, of intellectual property and be like, “Oh, you ruined my childhood,” or “You ruined my impression of these characters.” So the thing about the Bible is in terms of its “fandom,” it makes those groups look like Quakers. People feel so strongly about the Bible. People have organised their entire lives around it. There are massive schisms in the church writ large over interpretation. 

And so we are in the business of getting down to the original text and trying to burn off the waxy centuries of interpretation and just get down to “here is what the characters said according to the Bible, and what would that mean in its time and in its context.” 

Our work is different from that of pastors. Pastors will take a passage like the story of Mary and Martha—one of them serving Jesus, the other one sitting and listening—and try to extrapolate a meaning that contemporary audiences can relate to. We don’t have that job. Our writing is actually about the people saying these things at the time they were said, to the people they were being said to. We don’t have to make it apply as a sermon illustration to a little league or to something that happened in your marriage.  

A friend of mine who is in Year 7 of theological study was telling me he noticed that your portrayal focuses heavily on the personal significance of walking on water and other miracles to characters like Simon—moments in which there would be a lot to unpack in terms of what they mean to a first-century Jewish person familiar with the Old Testament. How do you draw a balance between the significance of those moments to the characters and their theological importance? 

Tyler: The greatest gift to us as writers on this project is the fact that these first-century Jewish people would be so richly steeped in Old Testament theology, Old Testament texts. Often what populates the imagination of contemporary Christians is maybe more political or tribal. And knowing that these people’s entire sense of faith was bound up in stories that they’d heard, traditions that had been handed down to them, is nice because we don’t have to educate our characters about what’s in the Old Testament. We have to educate modern audiences.  

They tend to be the ones who wouldn’t really remember the story of Moses putting the serpent on the pole. We have to remind them maybe by a flashback. But Jesus can say to Nicodemus, “just as Moses raised up the serpent,” and immediately Nicodemus understands, because he has that whole thing memorised. We couldn’t bank on modern audiences having that story memorised. So we had to open that episode with a flashback, to sort of download the Jewish mind into their experience so that they would be like, “Oh yeah, I just saw that in the cold open,” the same way any Jewish boy walking around in the first century, if someone mentioned a serpent on a pole, would be like, “Oh, I just saw that in the cold open of my life.” 

Ryan: I think that beautifully said, and I think, Sean, your friend has a point about the limits of our job and the work that a television show can do while trying to capture the breadth of these men’s lives as they lived through this. Like Tyler said, they wouldn’t have needed the explanation. So there is no organic reason for us to give one on screen. What we can do is to show how this huge moment might’ve impacted the central characters it involves and what it could have meant to them on a personal and, more importantly, an emotional level in that moment.  

What we hope is that this moment becomes so personal and so emotional that viewers want to dig into what it meant and they might in fact be more open to the theological context of these moments and how they echo what the Old Testament told us would happen. So I think that the hope of using anything biblical is to point people back to the Bible. 

The Chosen is full of characters for whom there’s little defining information in the gospels. Maybe Simon is the best example of someone you have fleshed out in that way, where the first time we meet him he’s fighting for money to pay off his debts. How do you know what is a reasonable extrapolation of someone’s character and how do you know what would be going too far?  

Ryan: Yeah, that’s a great question, Sean. Tyler, you’ll have a much better answer than this. But I’ll just start by saying that we usually pick a place in the story that we want to write to and we figure out how to get a character there and also fulfil the base level requirement for good TV. And that is, how do I get you to Minute 5?  

How do I get you to care about this character or to relate to this character or to sympathise with this character? We try all three things to draw an audience into feeling that they have some way to see the character that we’re trying to portray. So we looked at things like Simon’s behaviour down the road after he’s been following Jesus for literally years at this point—still contradicting him, still speaking out of turn, still getting it wrong, still acting out, cutting ears off. And we backtrack. Really, to that moment, what we were trying to build to was a much simpler narrative point: Why the heck was he fishing all night? And so we started to build backwards [to his debts].  

Now, I have the good fortune of being a screenwriter who loves God, but I work with two guys who are steeped in the Bible in different ways, and Tyler is a scholar himself. But we still don’t rely on each other. We go to a group of biblical consultants who come from an array of ecumenical backgrounds. We consult with people from different countries because we’re not so full of ourselves as to believe that ours is the only perspective on this material.  

And sometimes we disagree. But if we’re pushing it and we’re favouring the intimate over a spectacle, if we’re always trending towards getting a more personal look at biblical material, then our goal is more than anything to see these people as the human beings that they were when Jesus found them. And so I will never say we got it right, not in those terms, not about these things. We hope that Simon proves, as he did in life on our show, to be so much more than the man Jesus found. And we hope not to offend or distract, but we want to challenge. We do want to challenge people. 

Tyler: Yeah. That’s actually perfect. Particularly because we have so many different scholars looking into our work. Now the thing is, we don’t start with those scholars. We start with the Bible, then our drafts get shipped off to literally Israel, Africa, South America, India. We have people all over the world reading these scripts to bring a global perspective, especially the perspective of the Global South.  

When has an extrapolation gone too far? I would say there’s maybe three questions that we would ask. You mentioned Simon. What are our context clues based on what’s in the Bible? What we have are descriptions of action within the Bible; we have Peter’s own epistles—his own writing and theology; and we have church tradition. So it’s those three questions. What actions are listed? What did they say in their own words? What does church tradition tell us? 

Another question to determine when has it gone too far is how plausible something would be within the religious and political culture. For instance,  we’ll write these Roman characters who are not mentioned in the Bible, necessarily, by name, but are maybe composites of what we understand to be the ruling power of the time, which was the Roman Empire. There’s so much information on the Roman Empire that we can use. People say, “Oh, I can’t find Atticus in my Bible.” And no, you can’t, but you can find him everywhere in the New Testament as it relates to the presence of Rome in these people’s lives.  

So sometimes it’s taking research and information about the Roman Empire and sort of downloading it into a character and asking, “Well, what is plausible in this time period?” Same with someone say like Tamar, who is a Gentile follower of Jesus. There’s no one named Tamar listed in the gospel. But yeah, it’s a question of “What would the role of a woman be in this religious context, in this cultural context?” So that helps us not overstep certain bounds. 





  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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