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
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
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
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  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
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
"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
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
"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
Finding themes in Exodus
A Christian charity is developing resources in order to
stimulate discussion about the film, finds Olly
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.