God’s Word: Hollywood Style

Last week the Wall Street Journal featured  an article, Hollywood’s New Bible Stories, about big name filmmakers’ increasing interest in Scripture as source material for a new wave of genre films.  Here is the central point:

There are compelling economic reasons for Hollywood to embrace the Good Book. The studios are increasingly reliant on source material with a built-in audience, something the Bible—the best-selling book in history—certainly has. And like the comic-book superheroes that movie companies have relied on for the past decade, biblical stories are easily recognizable to both domestic and the all-important foreign audiences. What’s more, they’re free: Studios don’t need to pay expensive licensing fees to adapt stories and characters already in the public domain.  With floods, plagues, burning bushes and parting seas, Bible movies make great vehicles for big-budget special effects, a key selling point for a wide swath of audience members.

My initial reaction is positive.  I have long believed that many Bible stories, particularly from the Old Testament, are far more exciting, compelling and epic than most of Hollywood’s present offerings.  A film of the life of King David, with its large scale action pieces and intense character drama, would easily top films like Braveheart and Gladiator.  And who doesn’t want to see Charlton Heston’s famous parting of the Red Sea rendered with modern special effects?

Also, Russell Crowe.  Epic CGI.  Nuff’ said.

Another encouraging point is that movie studios seem to be more concerned with the danger of offending religious audiences.  The infamous Last Temptation of Christ was a financial flop, while Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ grossed an incredible $600 million.  Pushing the envelop by “reinventing” Bible stories has proven to be directly at odds with drawing a wide audience, and courts financial disaster (especially for a big budget production).  There is also this fascinating bit of information,

Paramount has designed the production schedule of “Noah” to accommodate extra time for script consultation with biblical scholars and, in the postproduction phase, for test screenings for religious groups. As a result the film isn’t scheduled for release until March 2014.

Of course it’s possible that “biblical scholars” means liberals, even atheists.  But the fact that the words “biblical scholars” would even appear in a description of the production process of a big budget, Hollywood film is nearly unbelievable.  At the very least it shows that they are taking textual and perhaps theological accuracy into consideration.  And the test screenings for religious audiences are almost guaranteed to minimize offensive content.

There is a downside, however, and it’s not that the filmmakers might fail, but rather that they might succeed.  The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ animated The Prince of Egypt are both excellent films that evangelicals have not found seriously objectionable, when taken as entertainment.  But they do depart from the Exodus story in several significant ways.  I remember when I first discovered, as a young boy, that in the Biblical story of Moses the protagonist does not live his entire life in ignorance of his heritage, only to have a dramatic reveal that leads to a faith crisis.  My first thought was that the Hollywood version was far more dramatic and engaging.  This may seem small, but it could be indicative of a larger problem.

In our culture, classic characters must be reinvented to become “grittier”, “darker” and more “real.”  Superman, arguably the greatest and most iconic of superheroes, has recently found it difficult to connect with audiences (unless he is reinvented as the “angst-ridden teenager”, a la television’s Smallville).  Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns (essentially a remake of the classic 1979 film) was a critical and commercial failure.  Many expressed concerns that Superman is just too morally upstanding, too much of a square, to connect with modern audiences.  It is perhaps no coincidence that Marvel has dominated the Hollywood scene for the past 12 years, as its entire cast of superhuman characters are flawed and very “human”, at least on the inside.

Perhaps a better parallel to our present topic would be Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  In the films, Aragorn is reinvented as an angst-ridden, emotionally undecided character, in denial of his worthiness to claim his birthright, whereas in the books there is no question that he will reach Gondor and take the throne.  In the books, Aragorn carries the broken sword of the king with him from the start, but in the films he does not receive the sword until the eve of the final battle.  Theoretically this makes him more interesting and relatable as a character, but it also makes him less of a Christ figure.  Which begs an interesting question, is Christ uninteresting and unrelatable?

If Hollywood succeeds in making interesting, exciting films about Biblical stories, will they end up playing into our culture’s current trend toward darkness and cynicism, and thereby undermine important thematic and theological elements of the stories?

One possible reply is that the Old Testament is already filled with dark, gritty stories of flawed and sinful people.  You could theoretically film a gore-soaked, R-rated version of the book of Judges without changing a single thing, keeping general audiences entertained and evangelical audiences happy at the same time.  The same could be said for King David.  How much more dramatic and relatable can you get than a perfect warrior and king, a man after God’s own heart, more righteous than any Superman or Aragorn, who falls into temptation and commits unimaginable sins?

We will have to wait until 2014 when Noah is finally unveiled to make any definite judgments about this new trend.  In the end, though, I think we must simply remember that Hollywood is not trying to edify or instruct us.  They’re trying to entertain us (hopefully without offending us).  We can appreciate the drama and the excitement of seeing beloved Bible stories on the big screen, with awe-inspiring special effects, without expecting the power of the Holy Spirit to descend on us in the theater (the way, I would argue, some prominent Christians seemed to treat The Passion).  Russell Crowe is no pastor.  And despite what some film geeks will tell you, Daren Aronofsky is no prophet.


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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.