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Biblical epics make a comeback

19 December 2014

With the Boxing Day release of Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, Olly Grant asks why the Bible has become big box-office

20th century fox

Bible stories: Moses (Christian Bale) takes on the Hittites in Exodus: Gods and Kings

Bible stories: Moses (Christian Bale) takes on the Hittites in Exodus: Gods and Kings

ROMA DOWNEY - actress, producer, and godmother of the modern-day biblical movie - has a telling anecdote about the genesis of The Bible, the recent TV hit that she co-created with her husband, Mark Burnett. Shortly before flying to Morocco to begin filming, she received some pithy advice from her teenage children. "Make sure the special effects don't look lame," they said.

It was a throwaway line, but pertinent, because, until recently, you could have searched high and low for a Bible-related film with Hollywood production values, and found nothing more than twee Hallmark movies and re-runs of The Ten Commandments (1956). And that, quite simply, was because Hollywood wouldn't touch Bible stories with a bargepole.

Flip forward to 2014, however, and the picture looks different. In the early part of the year, Noah was released, a film that twinned Russell Crowe with Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan and Pi, in a lavish reconstruction of the story of the Flood.

On Boxing Day, we can see how Ridley Scott, the director of Gladiator, tackles Moses, in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a $200-million production that recreates everything from the plagues to the parting of the Red Sea in eye-popping 3D.

Downey and Burnett had their own offering in Son of God (2014), a film about the life of Christ which was backed by 20th Century Fox, after Fox was impressed by The Bible's unexpectedly high TV ratings, put at more than 100 million viewers.

And the projects are proliferating. Rumoured films in development include a Brad Pitt take on Pontius Pilate; a Warner Brothers film about King David; a rival David film by Fox (again, apparently, with Ridley Scott); and Paul Verhoeven's long-planned Jesus of Nazareth, which seems likely to cause controversy.

The trend is clear: the Bible is big box-office again. The biggest studios in the world are throwing blockbuster budgets at it. The question is: why now?

ONE simple answer is demographic pressure. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that Hollywood is having any kind of religious revival," says Phil Cooke, an LA-based Christian producer who has been working in the film industry for more than 30 years.

"They recognise that the Christian audience is a ticket-buying audience. And it's a very large audience. Research indicates that there are 91 million Evangelical Christians in America, which makes Christians the biggest special-interest group there is."

If this seems like a truism, it was not obvious to studio bosses ten years ago. In fact, it took a film from the independent sector to change their thinking. "Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ [2004] was the film that got their attention: it totally shocked Hollywood," Cooke says. The Passion went on to gross more than $600 million worldwide. But, as Cooke adds, there was a snag.

"The problem was the studios didn't have anything in the pipeline to follow it up. It takes five to seven years for a major-event movie like Exodus to happen. So, while there were a few Christian films in between, like The Chronicles of Narnia [2005, 2008, and 2010], it took a number of years for the [large-scale] movies to get into the pipeline, and start getting made. I think we're seeing the fruit of that now."

Not that The Passion's success was totally clear cut. The controversy that boiled around the film also made studios nervous. X-rated violence, alleged anti-Semitism: if every biblical epic stirred up such a hornets' nest, they wondered, was it really worth the risk in backing them?

Even in 2012, when Downey and Burnett were drumming up support for their TV series, industry insiders frequently told them they were "crazy" to court mainstream funding for Bible stories. Downey argued that the Christian audience base was sound: it just had not been afforded the same production values that modern viewers expected - hence her children's grumbles.

"We wanted to make the series cool," she told me when we spoke last year, pointing out that they had used an Oscar-winning visual-effects firm - the Lola, based in London, who worked on Scott's Gladiator - for their big set pieces. "What better way to bring miracles to the screen than with epic CGI?"

LOOKED at this way, the present coupling of Hollywood and the Bible makes much more sense. The Bible has epic storylines, but requires state-of-the-art technology to visualise them; Hollywood has the technology, but needs a pipeline of epic stories to draw in audiences.

In an age of declining cinema sales, spectacular effects - coupled with universally recognised characters - have become the chief way of doing just that. Of the top ten highest-grossing films of 2014, five involve comic-book superheroes such as Spiderman, and Captain America; four are based on well-known fantasy figures (Godzilla, Planet of the Apes); and one, Rio 2, is an animated musical. All involve extensive visual effects. Epic spectacle, in fact, is not so much obsessing the film industry as bankrolling it.

"When you look at the box office top 200, only a few are making more than $100 million - but those are the ones that are paying for all the others," William Romanowski, an American academic and the author of Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in popular culture, says.

"So how do you make a film that can cross national and cultural borders [and make hundreds of millions of dollars]? It's a difficult task. Cartoon superheroes? That makes it a little bit easier. But there is this idea now that the superhero genre may have run its course.

"There have been some suggestions that Bible films could have the same kind of global appeal, and the ones you're seeing now -especially Noah and this Exodus film - are just made for high-level special effects. They essentially made Noah into a superhero, and put him into a Genesis context."

If this sounds far-fetched, keep in mind that Aronofsky made exactly the same point himself when promoting his film. "I think Noah is the first superhero," he told reporters earlier this year. "Well, the second superhero: Adam and Eve are the first ones. [Noah] is not a 'super-hero film'. There are no 'superpowers'. But it's very much a similar thing."

SO, HOLLYWOOD is rediscovering Bible heroes. But is it rediscovering Bible heroes as understood by most Christians? Not necessarily. Appealing to the widest possible audience means moving away from the special-interest groups, not towards them, Romanowski says. "The studios would rather make a film with broad appeal that will bring the religious folks in than make one specific to them that might alienate other people."

One obvious way in which they do this is by making the stories more generic. So, while The Bible marketed itself directly to Evangelicals as a faithful rendering of "the Word of God", with an overtly theistic narrative, Noah took the core elements of the Genesis story and subjected them to the conventions of the traditional Hollywood blockbuster.

Essentially, that meant a little more hero, and a little less God. The classic American film hero "is a rugged individual who overcomes obstacles in order to achieve success, with God playing the role of 'outside helper' or 'magical assistant'", Romanowski says. "God helps those who help themselves - that's the basic theme - but the hero is the central figure." The tagline for the Gods and Kings trailer, incidentally, is: "When men ruled as gods, one was chosen to save the world."

Perhaps some of this explains the somewhat off-message comments made by Christian Bale - formerly Batman, now Moses - at a press conference for Exodus: Gods and Kings in October. The Moses of the Bible, he felt, was "likely schizophrenic", and "one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life. . . He was a very troubled, tumultuous man, and mercurial. But the biggest surprise was the nature of God. He was equally very mercurial."

NOT surprisingly, some Christians took this as a warning that Exodus might not be the text-respecting event movie that they were hoping for. Previewers have suggested they need not fret. "The devout have less to worry about than many expected," The Guardian reported recently, noting that Scott seemed to have reneged on early quotes about using natural forces to splice the Red Sea.

But cinemagoers will be able to judge for themselves when the film is released on Boxing Day. Either way, Cooke thinks that Christians would be better off watching films such as Exodus and joining the conversation rather than criticising from afar, if only because they seem to be driving people back to the Bible proper.

Recently, he asked a client - YouVersion, one of the world's biggest providers of free Bible apps - to track how many people were reading the Flood story during the opening weekend of Noah. "They found that it went up by 300 per cent over that three-day weekend," he says. "More than 500,000 people accessed the Noah story in the Bible. That's a wonderful thing. Even with [the film's] inaccuracies, it inspired people to go back and read the real story."

For Jonny Baker, a leader in pioneer mission at CMS, this is merely an extension of how the Church should be engaging with film anyway. "Once you start looking outside the walls of the Church, you notice that God seems to be present, and in the conversation, all over the place, and especially in the arts," he says.

"Film is a great carrier of stories, and there has been an explosion of interest in theology and film. So I'm not surprised [by the increase in biblical epics], although, if pressed, I think it's slightly predictable that Christians get excited about a theme on a Bible story, but miss the wider spiritual conversations going on in the culture all the time.

"When the BBC ran their two programmes in city centres on the Easter and Christmas stories, using popular music songs [The Manchester Passion (News, 21 April 2006) and Liverpool Nativity (Media, 29 December 2007)], it occurred to me then that the Church now is marginal enough not to be a threat. It was almost like a reclaiming of Bible stories for the people. I wonder if that's partly why we are getting this resurgence of Bible stories in film; but I honestly don't know."

HOW long the resurgence will continue is hard to say. Cooke says that there seems to be plenty of impetus at script level. "There are a lot of scripts about David around. In fact, one of my friends wrote one, called Goliath, which is from Goliath's point of view; that's making the rounds in the studios now. Stuart Hazeldine, a Brit, has written a terrific script on Paradise Lost. So the stories are floating around out there."

Will they ever get made? Much depends on the success of films such as Exodus, which studio executives will be watching closely in coming weeks. If it does well, the trend will accelerate. If not, they may leave the field to more literal filmmakers such as Downey and Burnett. But Christians - specifically American Christians - are not idle bystanders in the process.

"Hollywood is driven by fads and trends, no question," Cooke says. "But the thing that most impacts it is box office. If Christians simply support movies that they're comfortable with, that would have an enormous impact. Like I say, there are almost 100 million Evangelical Christians here. So let's support the great films. Hollywood will get the message. They seem to be getting it now."

Film reviews


Finding themes in Exodus

A Christian charity is developing resources in order to stimulate discussion about the film, finds Olly Grant

WHATEVER theologians end up making of Ridley Scott's Hollywoodised Exodus, one thing is for sure: they won't be disappointed by the breadth of his palette. Egyptian cityscapes, 3D plagues, and a Red Sea partition that would have brought tears to Charlton Heston's eyes - Exodus: Gods and Kings has undeniable filmic heft. "Budgetarily", Scott, the director of Gladiator and Blade Runner, says, it is "probably the biggest" film he has ever made.

The question is, will it be any more than the sum of its cinematography? One organisation with a keen interest in the answer is Damaris, a faith-orientated educational charity that creates free resources to accompany mainstream film releases. For Gods and Kings, it has provided materials ranging from a guide to running discussion groups to downloadable clips that can be used in church talks, and even the "augmented-reality" photos that can turn into film clips when you hover over them with your smartphone.

Nick Pollard, who co-founded the charity with his wife, Carol, says that Damaris was originally set up to use film as a kind of "missional" bridge between Church and society.

"So many people aren't going to church, but are going to cinemas," he says. "Yet film often stimulates people to think about the big questions of life. So we started Damaris partly as a way of enabling the Church to help them do that."

For Gods and Kings, his team has "pre-identified three big themes" in the film - "family, freedom, and faith" - as suggested starting-points for further discussion.

Film studios have been known to seek pre-release approval from faith groups in order to consolidate Christian audiences: Paramount, for instance, screened some unfinished segments of Noah to churchgoers to gauge early opinion (rather problematically, since some of them did not like it). But, because Damaris now produces resources under contract to many of those big studios, do they ever worry that they might be throwing promotional weight behind questionable films?

"No, we have complete control [because] our people write the material," Mr Pollard says. He admits, however, that, in the case of Gods and Kings, they had not seen the script before signing up to the project. A Damaris-backed film might be biblical, or (more often) entirely secular, he says, but the bottom line is that it must be "art, not propaganda", with themes that have the potential to raise deeper questions and provoke discussion.

"Some films that we wouldn't touch would be very dark films that have no redemptive quality about them," he says. "Others would be films that are just mindless action. That's not for us. Our catchphrase is 'Engaging with film, enriching lives'; so, if the film can enrich people's lives by stimulating them to think about the big questions of life, we'll do it."

Mr Pollard says that he gets frustrated when Christians complain about Hollywood's taking liberties with Bible texts. "They're not meant to be a documentary representation of the story," he says. "They conceptualise and contextualise the stories."

Churchgoers intrigued by Gods and Kings' approach will have to wait to see whether they agree with him. Either way, he says, it's good to have the debate. "What better way of stimulating people to read the Bible than with a wonderful Ridley Scott epic about the Exodus?"

For more on Damaris resources in connection with the film, visit www.damaris.org/exodus and www.toolsfortalks.com.

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