Fire and Brimstone! Showbiz Bets on the Bible

6:00 AM PST 10/18/2011 by Jay A. Fernandez, Lacey Rose
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Film and TV development swells with Old Testament stories and faith-based fare.

Are Moses, Noah and Judah Maccabee the next Bella, Batman and Harry Potter? With half a dozen film projects derived from Bible stories in development, it would seem that Hollywood has found religion.

Not since the Cecil B. DeMille films of the 1950s has there been so much Good Book on the books. Paramount and New Regency are building the big-budget Noah with director Darren Aronofsky, Relativity has Goliath, and Warner Bros. has its controversial Maccabee/Hanukkah movie with Mel Gibson producing (that is competing with another Maccabee project). Steven Spielberg is being courted to direct the Moses film Gods and Kings, and an adaptation of John Milton's Paradise Lost is aiming for a January shoot.

"What are those things that have huge pre-awareness that are huge spectacles that you can exploit our contemporary filmmaking abilities to do even bigger?" says Goliath producer Wyck Godfrey, who sees comic book, video game and fairy-tale cycles running their course. "We've spent our entire lives hearing sports analogies of David vs. Goliath. Well, before every David-and-Goliath story, there was David and Goliath. That's how I sold it."

Bible-inspired storytelling has great global brand recognition, and Old Testament tales appeal to a wider audience than New Testament stories that split faiths, especially if dressed up in modern technological spectacle. The previous heyday of religion-themed films -- Samson and Delilah (1949), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) -- came at a time of great advancement as widescreen cinema was revived. Recent boundary-pushing movies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar have invited the new crop of Bible-related projects to tell those grand stories with equally epic new tools: The flood in Noah, the angels' war in heaven in Paradise Lost and the parting of the Red Sea in Gods and Kings can exploit state-of-the-art visual effects and digital 3D.

But such spectacle still must please true believers who demand fealty to the biblical text. "You have a choice: Do we do an interesting take that involves unorthodox choices, or do we try and be different and interesting within the boundaries of orthodoxy?" says Paradise Lost and Gods and Kings screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine.

Recent faith-based film successes such as Fireproof and Courageous also have helped reignite interest on television, which largely has abandoned the bluntly spiritual fare CBS had success with more than a decade ago with Touched by an Angel and Promised Land. Although none has been granted a series order, ABC is reworking last year's passed-over pilot Hallelujah, from Desperate Housewives' Marc Cherry, and developing a drama from Lost's Carlton Cuse and pastor-author Rob Bell, and Lifetime is working up an hourlong series centered on a hospital chaplain.

"The eyeballs are there," insists Paradigm agent Michael Van Dyck, who is focusing on bringing faith brands to TV and film. "In this economy, people are starving to see real characters that have a relationship with God. And as soon as one of those shows hits, whichever executive is behind it will appear to be a genius."

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