Hollywood brings the Bible back to the big screen

Moviegoers are no strangers to seeing big-screen blockbusters taken from the pages of popular literary works. But rather than looking for the next “Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter,” Hollywood is turning its attention to an older and even more famous book for inspiration: the Bible.

A number of major studios have big-budget biblical epics in the works, which audiences can expect to see in theaters over the next two to three years. The floodgates will open with this month’s “Noah,” a $130-million retelling of the Old Testament story written and directed by Darren Aronofsky and boasting a star-studded cast led by Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins.

Moses will make his return to theaters soon after in “Exodus,” with “Dark Knight” star Christian Bale taking the lead role and director Ridley Scott behind the camera. Another film centering on the story of Moses, “Gods and Kings,” will have Oscar-winner Ang Lee as the director after Steven Spielberg bowed out of the role.

And that’s only the beginning. Other movies on the way include “Mary,” with Ben Kingsley as Herod; a film on the life of Pontius Pilate, with Brad Pitt rumored to star; a Will Smith project loosely based on the story of Cain and Abel; a new adaptation of the classic novel “Ben-Hur,” and a film version of the best-selling book “Heaven is For Real,” among others.

Renewed interest

Faith-based films are nothing new, but what led to Hollywood’s sudden surge of interest in the Scriptures?

Daughters of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, said the success of last year’s highly rated History channel miniseries “The Bible” brought renewed attention to the genre of religious movies. Portions of the miniseries covering the life of Jesus have even been compiled into a feature film, “Son of God,” which was scheduled to be released Feb. 28.

But Sister Rose believes the genesis of the biblical revival in Hollywood started even earlier.

“This increase in Bible films all started with ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” she said. That film, released in 2004, grossed more than $370 million in the United States alone, proving modern audiences will turn out for biblical films. “The TV series released last year reflected the fact that people will watch things about the Bible,” Sister Rose said. “But these films take years to come out, so this didn’t happen overnight.”

Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, a Catholic screenwriter who penned the original version of the screenplay for “Mary, Mother of Christ” (which has since been shortened to “Mary”), added that the Bible’s well-known stories and built-in audience are attractive to major studios, which are hesitant to take a chance on new, unproven ideas.

“Hollywood is in a crisis of storytelling,” said Nicolosi-Harrington. “They are straining to find material to base stories on, and the Bible offers epic stories that will allow them to use all of their wonderful spectacle-generating technology and have natural high stakes and name recognition. So it is kind of the best of all possible worlds for Hollywood studios.”

Box office appeal

Son of God
Diogo Morgado stars as Jesus in “Son of God,” one of many recent films based on the Bible to hit theaters. CNS photo

Biblical films have historically proven to have a wide appeal, with classics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” being major box office hits. Yet others — like 2006’s “The Nativity Story,” which attempted to capitalize on the buzz generated by “The Passion” — failed to draw big audiences.

While a certain niche audience will always be drawn to Christian movies, what makes this round of films uniquely appealing is the involvement of so many top-level names from Hollywood. Writer and producer Nancy Bevins, president of Catholics in Media Associates (CIMA), said having well-known directors like Ridley Scott and Ang Lee attached to the projects is likely to be a big draw — and an opportunity to spread the Bible’s stories to an entirely new audience. “As soon as you start to have these kinds of names, I think people are going to want to see these movies who are not necessarily Christian and who wouldn’t go to these movies otherwise,” said Bevins.

Ultimately, she said, the success of these films will depend on how well they are made, how they are marketed, and whether there is a significant buzz among audiences that spreads via word of mouth. “So it is a combination of things,” Bevins said. “And hopefully it is the Holy Spirit drawing people to these pictures, too.”

Whatever the draw, the studios are banking on these films being big money-makers. “It is all about box office,” Sister Rose said. “This is market driven. It has nothing to do with Hollywood wanting to be more Christian.”

Keeping the faith?

The lack of a faith-based motivation behind these upcoming projects concerns Nicolosi-Harrington, who noted that many of the people involved in making the films are not believers themselves.

“All of these big budget movies about the Bible, none of them are coming out of people in the Church,” she said. “People are attached to these projects in major creative roles who not only don’t believe this stuff, they disdain the Bible. This is very problematic.”

Nicolosi-Harrington contrasts this type of film with “The Passion,” which she said had theological depth and insight because it was an artistic expression of director Mel Gibson’s own faith. While she doesn’t expect that level of profundity from the forthcoming films, she still believes they may have some redeeming value.

“I think that insofar as these biblical epics preserve some of the basic parts of the biblical stories, then they will have spiritual power,” Nicolosi Harrington said. “They can be edifying, and maybe combined with the beautiful design and production value, they can be a thing of grace for people. The question is whether they will be preserving the biblical story.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.