Why does Hollywood like Bible stories? History shows some of it’s most memorable titles have taken their stories from the Good Book – but why do producers think they make good stories? In 2014 actors, directors and distributors will go to work on a slate of productions crammed with Christian titles. But will they be able to translate Biblical gems to box office riches?
Son of God
The first film to take its storyline from the Bible this year will also be the most literal. Son Of God is the creation of Mark Burnett of Survivor and hjg fame. However he and his wife Roma Downey are also the Christians behind the celebrated television series The Bible. In fact the film actually uses a large amount of material shot for that show. It follows familiar territory taken straight from the Gospels, beginning with Jesus humble birth and climaxing not with his death – a familiar Hollywood mistake – but his resurrection. It aims to be affirming rather than startling with Diogo Morgado presenting a quietly confident messiah who knows his mission.
By contrast, this Darren Aronofsky production aims to ‘shake up’ people’s perceptions of what a Bible story is all about, if the director is to be believed. Russell Crowe stars as the patriarch charged with building God’s ark – though ‘defending’ seems to be the most appropriate word. In the silence between God telling Noah to build and releasing the fountains of the deep Aronofsky builds a world of conflict and conscience that is more concerned about man’s responsibility than Creator’s expectations. Aronofsky has already boasted to The Guardian that the film is “… the least biblical biblical film ever made,” and that the plot contains, “… a huge [environmental] statement about the coming flood from global warming.” Think 2012 meets Gladiator.
Heaven is for real
And later this month – for the US at least – the pendulum will swing back the other way with the intensely spiritual Heaven Is For Real. Based on the best-selling book by the same name, it tells the story of Colton Burpo, a young child who died in hospital and returned with amazing stories to tell about the afterlife, backed by facts he couldn’t possibly know. Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine, As Good As It Gets) stars as Colton’s father, the true focus of the film and the everyman who struggles to believe the Bible might actually be true.
In July Calvary will provide another personal lens through which to view the Scriptures. Brendon Gleeson plays an Irish catholic priest who is targeted by a murderer. The reason? Because he’s not involved in its many scandals and he does take Jesus’ teachings seriously. Yet the priest’s response is to endeavour to love his enemy and pray for the one who persecutes him. As he puts it, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
This will be the big budget successor to Noah that exchanges a single worldwide flood for the ten plagues of Egypt. Special effects aficionado Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Gladiator, Alien) has cast former batman Christian Bale as Moses in a face off with Joel Edgerton as the Pharaoh Ramses. Scott is a vocal agnostic so it’s fair to assume the film will treating the Bible as little more than myth. Originally its release was timed for Christmas to take advantage of its assumed Christian interest but it’s now slipped back to early 2015. No surprise, Exodus is now expected to aim for the same broader audience as Noah.
The Redemption of Cain + Pontius Pilate
Throughout 2014 Wil Smith will be developing The Redemption Of Cain, the Biblical struggle between the world’s first brothers. Only this time around the Genesis account is merged with a vampire storyline. Meantime Brad Pitt has been connected to a spirited biography of Pontius Pilate that leads up to that Roman governor’s most fateful judgment in Jerusalem. Millions might be wasted on these and other storylines, but Hollywood will spend them in 2014 and beyond because it knows there are more millions to be made.
The Bible’s attraction for present producers isn’t just its epic storylines but the presumption they come with in-built audiences. After all, the faith-based market delivered The Passion Of The Christ $604 million worldwide. Likewise The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe earned $739 million. Figures like these are why Paramount went to such extreme measures to try and please religious viewers, testing five versions of Noah before its release, including one that began with a montage of religious imagery and concluded with a Christian rock song.
But you don’t have to have big marketing budgets or critical acclaim to make a memorable Christian film; you just have to take Christ seriously. While Paramount was testing cuts that failed to deliver interest, Burnett and Downey went on a road trip, approaching pastors personally to convey their passion for the Gospel story. As a result the low budget Son Of God managed to earn $26 million in its opening weekend, $4 million from pre-sale tickets. Spectacular special effects are a bonus but Christian audiences don’t want directors like Aronofsky to shake up their expectations. They want the Saviour they already know, and the film to draw them and their friends closer – affirmation, not alteration. If Hollywood doesn’t know the hero of the Bible, they’re unlikely to convince that many to buy tickets to their biblical sideshows.