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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The Bible on Film

Pending blockbuster poses possible risks, rewards

By John W. Kennedy
Feb. 17, 2013

Filmmakers whose works have run the gamut of prequels, sequels and superheroes may be returning to a source that has provided a wealth of material for movies since the late 19th century: the Bible.

“Hollywood is in a terrible crisis of storytelling,” says screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, 48. “They’ve forgotten how to craft a new tale.”

The popularity of Scripture-based movies has risen and fallen for generations, and the current climate is no exception. In the near-term, much will depend on the success or failure of Noah, a big-budget film due to be released in March 2014.

Whether Noah is faithful to Scripture remains to be seen. The $125 million movie will star Russell Crowe in the title role. Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins also are in the cast. Digital special effects to create the Flood on screen no doubt will play a major role.

“When Hollywood wants to go big, they often go biblical,” says filmmaker and professor Craig N. Detweiler, 48. “These timeless and powerful Bible stories have been reimagined with each shift in technology. Hollywood has always recognized the power of a good story as well as characters in crisis. The Bible is loaded with people facing moral quandaries.”

Typically, primary moviegoers are ages 16-24. But Noah, to be released by Paramount Pictures, will rely on families who may only see one or two movies a year.

“If Noah is successful, studios will try to capitalize on the broadly religious market,” says William D. Romanowski, 58, author of Reforming Hollywood.

The Noah story from Genesis chapters 6-9 is perfect for worldwide audiences because there is no risk of religiously alienating Christians, Jews or Muslims, Romanowski says. However, he notes the biblical narrative is fairly sparse, meaning a great deal of extrabiblical material likely will be included — and that could prove controversial.

Glory years

Bible-themed motion pictures made in the United States date to 1898. The silent era featured two huge moneymakers for Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments in 1923 and King of Kings in 1927.

The heyday of Bible-themed films occurred in the 1950s. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah finished first at the box office by a wide margin in 1950, and Quo Vadis did the same the following year, in front of second-place David and Bathsheba. Much of the popularity of Bible films in the 1950s stemmed from emerging technology designed to compete with the new medium of television.

The Robe, which drew more than twice as large an audience as any other movie in 1953, became the first film shown in wide-screen CinemaScope. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, the highest-grossing motion picture in 1956, incorporated innovative special effects such as the parting of the Red Sea. Ben-Hur, the top movie in 1959, both in audience numbers and Academy Awards, contained breathtaking chariot race scenes. These big-screen biblical epics were filmed in Technicolor, unlike virtually all black-and-white programs on the small screen at the time. While based on Scripture, movies of the period usually added extrabiblical melodramatic subplots.

Misunderstood message

These days, according to Romanowski, Hollywood movies featuring God tend to treat the Creator of the universe as an appendage who shows up at the right time to help the main character figure out what he already knew deep down. Romanowski notes a theme in 1998’s Prince of Egypt is that miracles happen when you believe in yourself.

“The dilemma comes in regarding how to incorporate traditional Christian belief in the sufficiency of God and the inadequacy of humans in an American culture that values the self-reliant individual above all else,” Romanowski says. “God typically appears in movies as a kind of magical aid to self-reliant heroes.”

He expects Noah to focus on individual self-realization, not faith in God.

“Hollywood has turned to the Bible and made a lot of money in different periods,” Nicolosi says. “The difference today is that the people making the movies for the most part don’t have any attachment in any sense to the Bible stories. Hollywood studios are completely secular. They’re guessing at what is reverent and what God could possibly be doing. They don’t see the material as God’s message to us.”

Nicolosi wonders if Noah will include any insights about God’s love amid the Flood. She suspects instead there will be an emphasis on divine retribution and God’s vengeance on all but one family on earth.

While movies written, directed and produced by small-scale filmmakers who are overtly Christian are more accurate, such works tend to suffer in a variety of areas. The budgets are too fixed to attract talented actors, writers or cinematographers. The plots are generally mediocre or simplistic, with a common theme that all of life’s problems immediately disappear at salvation. And because there are no funds for publicity, there aren’t widespread reviews in the media.

“Evangelicals make movies to evangelize, not to make good art,” Romanowski says.

“Far too many faith-fueled filmmakers try to make things simple when life is actually complex,” says Detweiler, who teaches film courses at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Still, Ted Baehr, 66, founder of Movieguide, a Christian review site, says films are needed for the church marketplace, and such ventures enable filmmakers to hone their craft.

A Christian background doesn’t necessarily mean material will be faithfully translated to the screen. Baehr notes that 1988’s Last Temptation of Christ, which featured a doubtful Jesus fantasizing about sexual encounters, had Calvin College-graduate Paul Schroder as screenwriter.

And a reverential, talented director likewise isn’t a sure-fire winning formula. In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), legendary filmmaker George Stevens attempted to cover too much ground in producing, directing and writing the 3-hour-45-minute movie. The film, panned by critics, cost $20 million to make but generated only $1.2 million in revenue, bringing an end to biblical extravaganzas for the era.

Director John Huston planned to cover all of Scripture in a series of films, but only finished The Bible: In the Beginning in 1966. Although it ranked second for the year in box-office receipts, the $18 million production — which highlighted the first 22 chapters of Genesis in three-plus hours — failed to recoup its costs.

In 2004, The Passion of the Christ became the highest-grossing Christian-themed film of all time, taking in more than $370 million. Tens of thousands of churches promoted the film via sermons and even purchased entire theaters for showings. But The Passion of the Christ, with extreme graphic violence and Aramaic translated with subtitles, could hardly be considered a characteristic Christian blockbuster.

Mary movie

Many people in Hollywood who make decisions about bringing Bible characters and stories to life don’t have a reverence for the literature, Nicolosi says.

“They can rearrange or delete scenes and not even realize that the result is going to be offensive — or blasphemous,” says Nicolosi, who is director of the Galileo Film Studio at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif. She hopes that won’t happen to a movie she scripted that is now in production, Mary Mother of Christ. Nicolosi co-wrote the script at the behest of Benedict Fitzgerald, screenwriter of The Passion of the Christ.

The Lionsgate production has a $30 million budget and stars Ben Kingsley, Peter O’Toole and Julia Ormond. Israeli teenager Odeya Rush is in the title role, as the movie examines Mary from her adolescence through four years after giving birth to Jesus. A November release is scheduled.

Nicolosi knows she doesn’t have the clout to insist that certain scenes remain, and she concedes that rewrites are out of her hands.

Although she is Catholic, Nicolosi expects Protestants to be interested in Mary Mother of Christ. She says nothing in the screenplay is in conflict with Scripture.

“There is not a whiff that Mary is divine,” Nicolosi says. “In the script we wrote, she is the woman we find in the Scriptures, intimately a part of Jesus’ life. We have a lot to learn from her witness, her example and her discipleship. I hope the film encourages believers to be faithful and those outside the church to identify with Mary’s humanity. Mary didn’t get a playbook; all she knows is God is good.”

TV miniseries

The Bible also is experiencing a revival on television.

Mark Burnett, executive producer of Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice, has teamed with his wife, Roma Downey, co-star of Touched By an Angel, to create a 10-hour miniseries on the Bible starting March 3 on the History Channel. The five-part production will range from Genesis to Revelation, and will include the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

“They are trying to offer a faithful but fresh approach to our ancient and sacred text, and retell it to a new generation,” says Detweiler, author of Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century. The series was filmed in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, more projects may be headed to the big screen. Baehr notes that a couple of movies about Moses are in the offing from Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. Whether they are ever made depends largely on the outcome of Noah. In any event, Baehr says audiences can be choosy about whether to pay to see movies because far better choices are available than when he started Movieguide in 1985.

“There is a much broader range of movies that are spiritual and that contain Christian content,” Baehr says. “We need more movies of faith and values that are vibrant, on fire and Spirit-filled.”

“If we show up for Bible-themed shows there will be more of them,” says Detweiler, who explains there are several Christians in high-profile positions as producers, directors and executives championing such projects. “Noah will drive people to the Scriptures to rediscover the story for themselves, irrespective of the tone or the take of the film.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel. He remembers his mother taking him to the movie theater to see Huston’s The Bible as an 8-year-old boy.

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