Move over, “The Poseidon Adventure.” Fat chance, “Earthquake.” Don’t even try, “Armageddon.”
When it comes to disaster movies, the story of Noah and the flood is literally a tale of biblical proportions. Two weeks ago, the iconic story from the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis received its latest big-screen retelling in “Noah,” a retro disaster film directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe as the titular Bible hero.
But “Noah” — which racked up the kind of opening-weekend grosses that Hollywood prays for — isn’t the only religious-themed film moviegoers can check out this year. “Son of God,” about the life of Jesus, already has hit theaters (and did well, too), while the rest of 2014 will see a roster of faith-based films that includes this weekend’s “Heaven Is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear, and “Exodus,” director Ridley Scott’s take on the Old Testament story with Christian Bale as Moses, which is scheduled for a December release.
John Maloney hasn’t seen “Noah” yet, but he did catch “Son of God,” from actress Roma Downey (formerly of the TV series “Touched by an Angel”) and her husband, reality show producer Mark Burnett (“Survivor”).
Maloney, who runs the food pantry at Christ Church Episcopal in Las Vegas, doesn’t make a point of seeing religious-themed movies. But, he says, “I heard good stories about this one and we went to see it.”
His verdict: “It was just wonderful. It was a little unnerving at times when they nailed (Jesus) to the cross. It was very realistic, the way it was done. But (the film) just brought me to tears.”
Reactions like Maloney’s are choir music to Hollywood’s ears. So why is God such a big presence on the big screen lately?
Barry Taylor, affiliate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an artist in residence at Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts, notes that biblical stories “are embedded in some way in Western culture, and even though we might move away from engagement from religion in more formal ways — fewer people going to church and stuff like that — you don’t just wipe out centuries of this kind of cultural influence and symbolism overnight. So I think they’re stories people return to because they function like mythical tales in society.”
Cinema also is “a very reflective medium” and “tends to reflect what’s going on in society,” Taylor says. “And in spite of the protestations of some elements of the religious community about the lack of interest in the sacred or the divine … there’s actually a real interest in things that are religious, spiritual or sacred, depending on which term you want to use.”
The broad, cinematic scope of classic Bible tales — stories about the 10 Commandments and Moses and Noah and Jesus — also “fit into that mythical area that Hollywood likes to mine for big productions,” Taylor says.
Try, for instance, thinking of “Noah” not as a biblical epic but, rather, as a modern-day, CGI-heavy tale akin to the disaster movies audiences grew to love in the ’70s or the postapocalyptic tales audiences love right now.
“They’re not telling stories of James the Apostle right now, are they?” Taylor says with a laugh. “I don’t know there’s much to mine there. But America is a culture that is based on apocalyptic ideas. We seem to be fascinated with the destruction of the old and new beginnings.”
A religion-themed film also can tap, directly, overtly and effectively, into audience members’ search for meaning in life, and, Taylor says, “I think people are looking for meaning all the time.
“I think there is an awareness (in Hollywood) that there is an audience for religious-themed films. Of course, it’s a difficult relationship. I think people in Hollywood are realizing it’s a little bit of a minefield when you attempt to make movies that appeal to faith-based people, because you are treading in dangerous territory.
“You’re treading on people’s ideology,” Taylor says, and adapting stories “that people hold very dear and that are very, very important to them.”
For instance, Aronofsky’s “Noah” has been criticized for departing from the biblical text and injecting a pro-green message into the story of the flood. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Congregation Ner Tamid notes that the Bible stories we know are “very familiar stories that have imprinted our values and our beliefs, but also stories that we’ve heard through thousands of sermons about them.”
But they also tend to be short stories that may even lack dialogue — the story of Noah and the flood takes up only four chapters of the Book of Genesis’ 50 chapters — so it’s not surprising that a filmmaker will flesh out Bible stories by creating dialogue, adding events and even creating additional characters and subplots.
“So, to that extent, it’s controversial,” Akselrad says, and “that’s the fine line that a director will have to walk.”
Of course, if we are seeing a trend here, it’s hardly a new one. Stories about religious and biblical figures have provided fodder for filmmakers since the medium’s silent days and even, the Rev. J. Barry Vaughn notes, long before that in other media.
“People have translated stories of the Bible into all kinds of artistic media from Day One, starting with the visual arts — icons and so on,” says Vaughn, rector of Christ Church Episcopal in Las Vegas. “Then, in the Middle Ages, there are the miracle plays and the Passion plays you get from Oberammergau in Germany and so on.”
And, Vaughn says, “every single one of those translations has taken liberties with the story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some literary scholars have pointed out that the Bible’s accounts are extremely spare in their details, and they sort of invite interpretation.”
But given a good cast and a good script and good production values, a religion-themed film even may encourage a viewer “to read the Bible or gather in a discussion group with a leader or a clergyperson and have them read the real thing,” Akselrad says.
The Rev. Robert Stoeckig, pastor of St. Andrew Catholic Community in Boulder City, hasn’t seen “Noah” yet, but has noticed that older viewers seem to like the film more than younger viewers. And, he says, “most of the adults I have known who have seen ‘Noah’ went back into Genesis to see what was there and what was not.”
A viewer’s satisfaction or disappointment with a religion-themed movie probably hinges on “how you approach it,” Stoeckig says. “If you go in thinking it’s going to be a documented version of the Bible story, you’re probably always going to be disappointed because how do you do that? But if you think, ‘OK, I know what the story is; how are they going to get the same points across using modern film technology?’ I think you’re probably OK.
“I would never go to see, like, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and think it was going to be a faithful retelling of the story. It’s like the difference between ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘West Side Story’: The same basic plot, but retold in such a way that takes it in another direction or dimension.”
For Akselrad, the best religion-themed movies “take the acting and the material seriously and stay true to the spiritual meaning and truth of the text.”
For example, “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 epic, suffers from overacting and some silly special effects, but “it still does work,” he says. “Charlton Heston is a believable Moses and Yul Brynner formed a believable counterpart to him, and the roles were greatly enhanced from what you had in the Bible, yet it remained true to the theme of the Bible and just embellished it. But it was a great movie and still is today.”
Stoeckig considers “Jesus of Nazareth,” a 1977 TV miniseries directed by Franco Zeffirelli, a good depiction of Jesus’ life.
“It was sort of a reverential retelling of the story,” he says. “Now, there are things that they probably overemphasized, but I think they tried to make an artistic portrayal of the Gospel. I think Mel Gibson, in his own way, tried to do that with ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ but that generated a lot of controversy because of the graphic nature of the scourging.”
Taylor says his criteria for a good religion-based film include “Does it tell a good story? Does it make me think? Does it inspire reflection? Does it take me into the world, or just throw a summation at me that I should believe?”
Taylor “loathed with a passion” Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” which he found to be “a guilt-laden, violent movie. I prefer ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ in that it was a much more interesting and compelling film about the life of Jesus, in spite of the fact that I’m maybe not on the same page as the author of the book about whether Jesus got married and had kids. That doesn’t detract from seeing the more complex ways the film handled the complexity of who Jesus might have been in the world and the challenges of his own self and understanding his own self-awareness.”
Whatever the film, the fact that Hollywood still looks to the Bible for raw material is, Vaughn said, testament to the power of the stories.
“These (stories) are foundational, at least for Western civilization,” he says, and stories “that truly never grow old and never lose their power to fascinate and instruct.”
Christian Elliott of Santa Clara, Calif., has viewed religion-themed films from a unique perspective: sitting on an organ bench, not far from the screen.
Elliott for several years has accompanied silent movies by playing live music as the movies play. Recently, he came to Las Vegas to play during a showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent version of “The King of Kings” at Christ Church Episcopal. Elliott says he has noticed a cyclical quality to the box office popularity of religion-themed films.
“We went though this maybe 10 years ago with the Mel Gibson thing,” he says. “So it seems like kind of a (trend) that keeps coming back.”
And, Elliott figures, “there must be something to these stories if they keep people coming back. I think people are still endlessly fascinated with these Bible stories, so everything old is new again.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.