Good Lord! Hollywood Suddenly Hot for the Bible (Analysis)

Bible Foam Hand - H 2011
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bible Foam Hand - H 2011

A half-dozen high-profile film projects from the likes of Darren Aronofsky and Mel Gibson along with renewed interest from TV executives could lead to a flood of Old Testament stories.

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With half a dozen film projects derived from classic Bible stories in development, it would seem that Hollywood has (amen!) found God. Not since the 1950s, when Paramount and Cecil B. de Mille trotted out a handful of Old Testament tales, has there been so much Good Book on the books. Paramount and New Regency are building the big-budget Noah with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky; Relativity has Goliath in the works with director Scott Derrickson; Warner Bros. has its controversial Judah Maccabee/Hannukkah movie with Mel Gibson producing (that film is competing with another Maccabee project); Steven Spielberg is considering directing Gods and Kings, a Moses story; and an adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost starring Bradley Cooper as Lucifer is aiming for a January shoot. It’s a veritable flood.

“’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 saw comic-book, video-game and fairy-tale cycles running their course. "We’ve spent our entire lives hearing sports analogies of David versus Goliath. Well, before every David and Goliath story there was David and Goliath. That’s how I sold it.”

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In Hollywood parlance, Bible-inspired storytelling has great global brand recognition, as super-successful films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) have shown. Commandments grossed $65 million domestic in 1956, which equates to more than $1 billion in today’s dollars, while Passion grossed $476 million, adjusted for inflation. According to Godfrey, Old Testament stories involve less controversial archetypes that appeal to a wider audience than New Testament stories that split faiths, especially if they can be dressed up in modern technological spectacle.

That previous heyday of religious-themed films -- Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) -- also came at a time of great technoligical advancement, as widescreen cinema was revived in 1953. Recent boundary-pushing epics such as The Lord of the Rings and Avatar have invited the new crop of Bible-related projects to tell those grand stories with equally epic new tools -- the arc and the flood in Noah, the war of the angels in heaven in Paradise Lost, the parting of the Red Sea in Gods and Kings can take full advantage of state-of-the-art visual effects.

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But that spectacle still must please the 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. “My modus operandi was: stick within the bounds of orthodox theology.”

The evident devotion of the filmmakers can make or break a film, as well. Whatever its artistic merits, Gibson’s Passion was infused with righteous belief, whereas The Nativity Story, which was greenlighted in that film’s aftermath, stalled at a $37.6 million domestic gross in 2006, perhaps because it felt opportunistic in Passion’s wake. “It worked, it just didn’t work in that everyone-has-to-go-see-this-movie,” says Godfrey, who also produced Nativity. He points out that the new films in development have the benefit of more obvious genre elements, whether adventure (Noah) or action/violence (Maccabee, Moses, Goliath).

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Recent small-scale feature successes such as the faith-based Fireproof and Courageous have also helped reignite interest in with skittish TV executives, who have largely abandoned the type of bluntly spiritual fare that CBS had success with more than a decade ago with such shows as Touched By an Angel and The Promised Land. Though none has been granted a series order, ABC is currently reworking last year’s passed over pilot Hallelujah from Desperate Housewives’ Marc Cherry and developing a spiritual drama from Lost’s Carlton Cuse and pastor-author Rob Bell, while Lifetime is working up an hour-long series from Angel producer Martha Williamson centered on a hospital chaplain.

“The eyeballs are there,” insists Paradigm agent Michael Van Dyck, who is building a business focused on bringing faith brands, including established authors, therapists and musical acts, to TV and film. “In this economy, people are starving to see real characters that have a relationship with God on the air. And as soon as one of those shows hits, whichever executive is behind it will appear to be a genius.”

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Any of these films or series has a huge potential upside if it manages the delicate balance of honoring the devout while still providing modern-day storytelling spectacle. “If you get it wrong, you end up with protesters outside the movie theater, a la Last Temptation of Christ,” says Hazeldine. “If you get it right, they go back and back and back and they're bussing from out of state.”

God willing.