News & Notes

Hollywood Finds God (Again)

From Brad Pitt to Steven Spielberg, some of the industry's biggest names are giving the Bible the big-screen treatment.

Forget Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Hollywood has found its next book to turn into a blockbuster, and it isn't some young-adult adventure. It's a tome that's been sitting on people's shelves (or at least in their hotel-room drawers) for centuries. Yep, the Bible.

Nine years after the phenomenal success of The Passion of the Christ, which earned $611.9 million worldwide, studios are once again tapping into the most popular (and simultaneously controversial) book of all time, and a veritable flood of biblical epics are on their way to theaters. Paramount has already enlisted Darren Aronofsky to helm the $125 million adaptation Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the titular ark builder, due March 28, 2014. Fox is reportedly developing a Moses film, with Ridley Scott in talks to direct. Warner Bros. is working on a Moses film of its own, with Steven Spielberg circling to direct, and it's planning a Pontius Pilate film, too, with Brad Pitt expected to star. Sony is producing The Redemption of Cain, a fresh take on the brotherly betrayal tale of Cain and Abel, which would become Will Smith's directorial debut. And Lionsgate is developing Mary, Mother of Christ, which has been described as ''a prequel to The Passion of the Christ.'' (Though, really, all of these films fall into that category.)

Of course, this new crop of Bible-based entertainment harks back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when films like David and Bathsheba, Esther and the King, and, most notably, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments ruled the box office. But the genre has largely languished since then — a demise brought about, in part, by 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, one of the most notorious bombs in film history. What's with the sudden revival? Given the movie industry's recent struggles, studios have grown ever more reliant on familiar characters with built-in name recognition. So it's no wonder filmmakers are suddenly keen to cash in on the public-domain characters within the Bible. The challenge is to create films that appeal to the masses without offending religious audiences. As Martin Scorsese famously learned with 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, drawing the ire of churchgoers can equal a box office apocalypse.

Scott Franklin and Mary Parent, producers of Noah, which wrapped shooting in late 2012, consulted religious scholars for biblical background before starting production, and even solicited thoughts on the script. ''Noah is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps,'' Franklin tells EW, ''so we definitely had to take some creative expression in it. But I think we stayed very true to the story and didn't really deviate from the Bible.'' Even so, it's difficult to imagine that conservative Jewish and Christian groups won't take issue with the director of the kinky Black Swan interpreting one of Scripture's most revered characters — especially since reports suggest the film reimagines Noah as a wandering warrior who encounters six-armed fallen angels.

Mark Burnett, an executive producer of History's five-part miniseries The Bible — which kicks off its run March 3 and is a more traditional, straightforward adaptation of the sacred text — believes Hollywood is in for a rude awakening. ''I think certain people next year are going to not even believe the backlash,'' he says. ''It's the Bible! It's not something to mess around with.... There's 160 million Americans going to church on a monthly basis. Oh, yeah, they're going to care.''

5 Best Bible Movies of All Time
The Good Book has inspired some mighty good films. Our movie critic Lisa Schwarzbaum picks her (very, very different) favorites.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille's final extravaganza is the alpha and omega of lavish biblical epics, as Charlton Heston lets his people go.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
At once an outrageous religious farce and a spry commentary on cant, hypocrisy, bigotry, and turning the other cheeky.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Forever controversial, Martin Scorsese's meditation on Jesus and his message rewards the serious viewer.
The Decalogue (1988)
Ten Commandments, ten magnificent linked short films set in a Warsaw apartment complex, made for TV by the late master Krzysztof Kieslowski.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
By way of the Book of Exodus, this beautifully animated musical is forthrightly earnest about its source material, and lively, too.
Originally posted Jan 18, 2013 Published in issue #1243-1244 Jan 25, 2013 Order article reprints