The flood of adapted screenplays finding their way onto our screens shows no sign of slowing down any time soon; as the audience’s familiarity with the source material, coupled with the increased ease of scripting, casting and promotion, help big movie studios to make a fast buck at a low risk.
However, the most curious phenomenon set to return in the coming years takes an even greater leap back through the history of cinema, and that of civilisation itself. Several big name directors and actors are currently attempting to push through projects based on the most bankable source material of them all – The Bible.
Earlier this year, The History Channel’s 10-part miniseries The Bible attracted the largest American cable television audience so far this year. Huge ratings were unsurprising given that the 76 per cent of the American population identify as Christian, and the 31 per cent believe that The Bible is the actual and literal word of God.
Biblical stories have consistently re-emerged throughout the history of cinema. Flamboyant filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille’s epics such as Samson And Delilah and The Ten Commandments were wildly successful during The Golden Age, as they applied the director’s huge showmanship to the miracles, natural disasters and great battles of The Old Testament.
New Testament films have required more imagination to succeed at the box office, as the stories contain fewer big, cinematic set pieces. The Greatest Story Ever Told, a four-hour epic presenting the life of Jesus Christ, was critically panned and flopped. Yet, the more controversial New Testament films such as The Gospel According To St. Matthew and The Last Temptation Of Christ fared much better by presenting a more human and personal Jesus.
The Seventies saw a move in the opposite direction, as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and the hilariously satirical comedy Life Of Brian stylised the New Testament narrative and proved popular enough to stand the test of time, whilst ruffling the feathers of religious conservatives. More recently, Mel Gibson’s ultraviolent The Passion Of The Christ returned $600 million, making it the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever released in the US, and the highest-grossing independent film of all time. Looking ahead, there are several major Bible projects currently going through different stages of production.
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is set for release in March 2014, with the director referring to it as the story of “the first environmentalist”. The film will star Russell Crowe as master and commander of the Ark alongside Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone.
Ridley Scott is currently set to direct Exodus, a movie exploring Moses’ relationship with Rameses II, with Christian Bale playing Moses. In true Hollywood style, a similar movie is simultaneously in the works. Gods And Kings was originally set to be helmed by Steven Spielberg, who described the movie as a “Braveheart-ish version of the Moses story”, but shot with the gritty style of Saving Private Ryan. However, Spielberg’s name is not set in stone due to his commitment to upcoming project Robopocalypse, and Life Of Pi director Ang Lee is instead interested in taking over directorial duties.
Paul Verhoeven, the director of Starship Troopers and Total Recall, is adapting his book Jesus Of Nazareth for the big screen with help from Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary. Verhoeven’s take on the life of Jesus Christ discounts all the miracle stories of the New Testament, including the Immaculate Conception, and instead suggests that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Verhoeven wishes for the film to forgo mythical storytelling and instead focus on Jesus’ message as “a person who was completely innovative in the field of ethics”.
Will Smith is also looking at directing his first feature film. The After Earth actor is believed to be attached to the movie The Redemption Of Cain, a re-imagining of the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, but with “a vampiric twist”, due for release in summer 2015. Then there is Goliath, an entire film based around the eponymous giant’s battle against the foretold king of the Israelites. Early reports suggest that Twilight star Taylor Lautner is being lined up to play King David, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being courted to appear as Goliath, whilst Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has been announced to direct.
There are also a couple of biopics in the pipeline for The New Testament’s supporting characters. Brad Pitt is in talks to star in a film based on the early life of Pontius Pilate. Whilst Sir Ben Kingsley will be appearing as King Herod in the Virgin Mary biopic, Mary Mother Of Christ – the official prequel to Mel Gibson’s The Passion.
Gibson himself is not attached to the prequel, as he has been trying to get a project off the ground based on Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee. Luckily, the chances of the actor/director managing to oversee a movie based on the foundation of Hannukkah remain slim, given the accusations of blatant antisemitism levelled at The Passion. Strangely, the pulp book series Left Behind is also set for a big screen remake, starring Nicholas Cage. Although not based directly on The Bible, the story explores what happens to the world after the sudden arrival of The Rapture removes every member of the Christian faith from the planet Earth.
The sudden interest in movies aimed at Judeo-Christian audiences is perhaps unsurprising given the English-speaking world’s familiarity with many of The Bible’s stories, and the book’s popularity amongst many people of different genders and generations.
Any source material with such a large, diverse and dedicated fan base (and one that doesn’t require royalties being paid to the writers) is begging to be explored. Moreover, films that attempt to retell religious stories tend to ride in on tides of publicity. Traditionally, they are met with outrage amongst the more conservative and fundamentalist members of religious communities who protest against blasphemy. Such debate helps to propel such films onto the front pages and make them essential viewing for anyone who wants to get involved in the debate, or heard about the movie during their Sunday sermon.
The success or failure of the coming wave of Bible films remains to be seen, yet a look back through history would suggest that spectacle, originality and controversy are the keys to a successful Christian movie – whilst too rigid an adherence to ‘the good book’ is likely to prove unremarkable.