HOLLYWOOD SEES THE LIGHT – Retooling Religious Epics

by Dick Rolfe

It should come as no surprise that Hollywood has seen the light and rediscovered the Bible; not that they’ve become religious in the spiritual sense. The light they see is the unprecedented success of well-made, theologically sound movies like The Bible miniseries, produced by husband and wife team, Mark Burnett (The Voice, The Apprentice, Survivor, Shark Tank) and Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel).

The five week, ten-hour History Channel series ending on Easter Sunday was a blockbuster by any television audience standards. The DVD sales by Fox Home Entertainment have been record-breaking. The miniseries was such a success that 20th Century Fox is going to theatrically release a truncated movie-length version focusing on Jesus, called Son Of God.

Hollywood’s core business model is based on leveraging any existing brand or property into a movie. This increases the chance of success due to the familiarity of the subject with an existing audience. That model is the reason we see so many adaptations, serials, sequels, prequels, and re-dos.

Due to the success of The Bible miniseries, three major studios are working overtime trying to transform familiar Bible stories into “tent pole” films (today’s term for epic or pricey).

Paramount leads the pack with an updated version of Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins due to be released in March 28, 2014 at an estimated production budget of $130 million.

The script has not been officially released, but several interviews with Noah writer/producer/director Darren Aronofsky and producer Scott Franklin shed some light on their version of the story. Aronofsky explained in an interview with The London Guardian that he saw Noah as “a dark, complicated character” who experiences “real survivor’s guilt” after surviving the flood.

Franklin told Entertainment Weekly, “Noah is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps, so we definitely had to take some creative expression in it. But I think we stayed very true to the story and didn’t really deviate from the Bible, despite the six-armed angels.” There are rumors that in this version, Noah approaches a race of giant six-armed angels known as “Watchers” to rally them to his cause. (If these angels are the “sons of God who came into the daughters of men” referenced in Genesis 6:4, then Noah would never have approached them for help because they were declared enemies of God.)

One more detail that may have been the result of “creative expression” is the addition of actress Emma Watson (Hermione in Harry Potter) as Ila, “a young woman who forms a close relationship with Noah’s son, Shem” and becomes the adopted daughter of Noah. No such character is mentioned in scriptures.

We cannot verify some of these stories since they were reported prior to the completion of the final version of the screenplay. Dove will prescreen the film and publish our review in time for our readers to be well informed before seeing the film.

20th Century Fox is currently shooting their Bible epic, Exodus. This is not to be confused with the 1960 Otto Preminger film about the founding of the Jewish state, starring Paul Newman. This Exodus is the biblical account of the Hebrews’ transition from captivity in Egypt to their arrival in the “Promised Land”. The story was popularized in 1956 by Cecil B. de Mille’s classic, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston.

Exodus is due for US release December 12, 2014. Ridley Scott is directing this updated tale of Moses portrayed by Christian Bale. Aaron Paul, the real life son of a Baptist minister is cast as Joshua. Joel Edgerton (Great Gatsby, Wish You Were Here) has signed on as Ramses.

The movie appears to be a faithful telling of the Bible account. The official storyline released by Fox calls it: A retelling of the story of Moses, from his near death as an infant to his adoption into the Egyptian royal family, his defiance of the Pharaoh and deliverance of the Hebrews from enslavement.

MGM hopped on the biblical bandwagon and hired Timur Bekmambetov, known for directing such action thrillers as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer and Wanted to re-boot Ben Hur. This gives MGM their biblical epic by readapting the original 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben Hur: A tale of the Christ.

It’s unclear why MGM would want to tinker with the historic success of the 1959 William Wyler version of the religious conversion of Judah Ben-Hur. It is one of the most popular films in history, and the number two-ranked “Epic Film of All Time” according to the American Film Institute. Everyone agrees that the unforgettable characters were flawlessly portrayed by Charlton Heston and Steven Boyd.

Cast and release date for this new version of Ben Hur have not been announced. According to insiders, the script will more heavily explore the original story’s themes of revenge and redemption. Fox will most likely distribute the film for MGM.

The Bible is full of meaningful stories of sin and redemption, lust and chastity, hatred and reconciliation. There are many characters whose life stores are worth telling to the millennial generation, and film is the most powerful communications vehicle at hand. I worry about some filmmakers whose egos or ignorance of the subject matter will get in the way of the essence of the stories. In order to do any religious story justice the creative team must have an organic sense of the message and the Messenger. As someone said recently, a good Bible storyteller must have a deep spiritual foundation in his or her DNA.

As we do with all theatrical motion picture releases, Dove will publish the reviews of each of these films on www.dove.org the same day they are released in theaters…sooner if the studios will permit it. Stay tuned!