Why Hollywood is embracing God again

Noah, the story of the ark, is the first of a ‘raft’ of religious movies due on our screens as Hollywood eyes the 50m US weekly churchgoers, says Declan Burke.

Why Hollywood is embracing God again

NOAH sails into a cinema near you this April, with Russell Crowe as the main character, helming the ark, but the story of the patriarch and the flood is just the first of a wave of Biblical epics heading for your local multiplex in the next year or so.

Christian Bale will star as Moses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus. Ben Kingsley, Julia Ormond and Odeya Rush will star in Mary, Mother of Christ, while Roma Downey and Diogo Morgado star in Son of God.

Movies in the pipeline include a biopic of Pontius Pilate, starring Brad Pitt, and Will Smith directing the story of Cain and Abel.

In a contemporary faith-based narrative, Greg Kinnear stars in Heaven Is For Real, playing the father of a boy who claims to have gone to heaven after a near-death experience.

Mammon and God have had a fruitful relationship in the past in Hollywood. The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) are all staples of wet bank holiday TV afternoons, and all inspired by the Bible. Not all of them are classics, and not all of them were hugely successful (The Greatest Story Ever Told was one of the sorriest stories ever to appear on a Hollywood profit-and-loss sheet).

When the Biblical epics delivered, though, they did so in style.

The Robe grossed $36m at the US box office in 1953. The Ten Commandments delivered $65m in 1956. Ben Hur grossed $74m in 1959.

Meanwhile, the three biggest box-office movies of 2013, adjusted for 1959 ticket prices, were The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ($25m), Iron Man 3 ($24m) and Despicable Me 2 ($23m).

You don’t have to be an economist to do that kind of math.

It’s not just about the bottom dollar, however. For the last decade or so, Hollywood has been making a range of faith-based epics.

They’ve plundered the vaults of Greek mythology, utilising the gods, immortals and heroes, for Troy (2004), 300 (2006), Clash of the Titans (2010) and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2010). Comic-book superheroes, the contemporary manifestations of the Greek heroes and demi-gods, have been ubiquitous over the last decade: Batman, Superman, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America are only some of the caped wonders to go into battle against evil on our behalf. Elsewhere, sundry hobbits, teen wizards and winsome vampires have topped the box office in epic tales of good triumphing over the darkest of forces.

If audiences crave a secular vision of good versus evil, then why not the old-fashioned, religious version?

The credit for the coming wave of religious epics is being laid at the door of Mark Burnett. A British-born TV producer, with programmes such as The Voice, The Apprentice and Survivor already on his CV, Burnett is a devout Christian.

He is also married to Downey, the Derry-born actress who starred in the phenomenally successful TV series, Touched by an Angel, between 1994 and 2003.

Between them, Burnett and Downey conceived the idea of The Bible, a 10-hour TV series that debuted on the History Channel last March.

Burnett, who wrote the script, believed the demographic for such a show was thriving: it’s estimated that in excess of 50m Americans attend church every week.

Burnett’s faith in the project was more than vindicated. The premiere episode was watched by 14m viewers, while the finale topped the ratings in its final week, beating out The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Overall, the series aired to 100m US viewers during its run. Son of God, a movie adapted from the TV series, will be released this year by 20th Century Fox, and stars Downey as Mary, the mother of God.

Hollywood doesn’t send its religiously themed movies out on a wing and a prayer, either. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was badly damaged by a publicity campaign waged by religious leaders who believed the film promoted blasphemy in its depiction of Jesus Christ.

Movie executives understand that the Christian demographic needs to be respected and courted, because positive word-of-mouth within such a tightly knit community could propel a movie to the top of the box office.

Celebrity evangelical pastors have been invited to movie sets. Endorsements are not expected, but they are highly prized.

Ultimately, if the new wave of religious movies is to succeed at the box office, they will need to break out of their core demographic and appeal to a secular, as well as a faith-based, audience, and there’s no good reason why they shouldn’t.

The story of Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — these are all stories that are hard-wired into Western culture, much more so than tales of ancient Troy, or even those of Superman and his fellow caped crusaders.

Religion and Hollywood might seem unlikely bedfellows, but ransacking the Bible for inspiration is much less of a Damascene revelation than it might appear.

God, after all, isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways.

The Bible and the Silver Screen

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson directed this harrowing account of the final 12twelve hours of Christ’s life, with Jim Caviezel (above) in the eponymous role, piling on the agony in excruciatingly vivid detail. Allegations of anti-Semitism quickly followed. Mel still isn’t the best of it, by all accounts.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese’s film was dogged by controversy on the basis that it suggested Jesus survived his crucifixion to live his life as a normal married man. Non-religious purists objected to the fact that Judas, played by Harvey Keitel, appeared to have a very strong Brooklyn accent roughly 1,700 years before Brooklyn was even invented.

The Life of Brian (1979)

The Monty Python team made a movie in which Brian Cohen was more of a naughty boy than a Messiah. The Romans, who took a dim view of naughtiness in all its manifestations, crucified him all the same.

Ben Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston plays the betrayed Jewish prince who takes his revenge on the Roman Empire in the fir1st century AD, winning a chariot race or two along the way. He also gets to meet Jesus, an encounter not recorded in any of the four gospels.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Or, The Most Eclectic Cast Ever Assembled. Max von Sydow plays Jesus, supported by Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowall, Pat Boone, Sidney Poitier, Donald Pleaseance, Claude Rains, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Van Heflin and — oh yes! — John Wayne as a Roman centurion.

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