The Promise—and Peril—of Big-Screen Bible Epics


 Jesus and Noah are coming soon to a theater near you.

But two stories regarding their respective film treatments could hardly be more different. And those contrasting stories potentially serve as a cautionary tale for filmmakers—especially those who don’t hail from the faith community—when it comes to bringing biblical characters and narratives to the big screen.

First up, the theatrical release date for Son of God was announced: Feb. 28, the weekend before Ash Wednesday. This two-hour, 15-minute film has been adapted from five episodes of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s much-watched History Channel miniseries, The Bible.

Regarding Son of God’s forthcoming theatrical bow, Burnett told USA Today, “We firmly believe this is God’s plan. There’s no other explanation for it. This is not even some limited independent release. This is a major motion picture release.” Wife Roma Downey adds, “It’s really thrilling. It’s been quite a journey of love. I don’t know if we could have dared to dream that we would have ended up with our story on the screen in this way. All roads have led to this.”

Though some viewers voiced concern regarding the dramatic license that The Bible occasionally took as it retold scriptural stories, many Christian reviewers, leaders and organizations—including Plugged In and Focus on the Family—praised Burnett and Downey’s commitment to the Bible’s core messages about God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on behalf of sinful humanity. And while prophesying box office success ahead of time is always ticklish business, it wouldn’t seem to take an Old Testament prophet to predict that Son of God will likely find a solid audience at multiplex next year.

In contrast, the prospects for another big-screen, big-budget biblical epic, Noah (due out March 28), seem much cloudier at this point. This week The Hollywood Reporter published a story indicating that the $125-million movie starring Russell Crowe was sailing into stiff headwinds at some early screenings. Three of them—one for a general audience in Los Angeles, one for a primarily Christian audience in Arizona, and one for a largely Jewish audience in New York—have all “generated troubling reactions” and “worrisome reactions,” so much so that Paramount is allegedly “at odds” with director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) over the high-dollar production’s final cut.

But Aronofsky, according to an unnamed source, is pushing back. “He’s very dismissive. He doesn’t care about [Paramount’s] opinions.”

Some Christians in the industry believe Paramount is right to be concerned. Director Brian Godawa (To End All Wars) reportedly obtained a Noah script in 2012 and posted a summary titled: “Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: Environmentalist Wacko.” In the article, Godowa skewered the script, alleging that the film will be “an uninteresting and unbiblical waste of $150 million that will ruin for decades the possibility of making a really great and entertaining movie of this Bible hero.”

Producer and author Mark Joseph shares those concerns, though he hasn’t seen the film or the script. He fears it could be “an example of a director not listening to those voices that would have been warning of the dangers of veering too far away from the biblical text. The director is there to serve the studio and the audience, not veer off into directions that go against the core audience’s beliefs—at least if the goal is to get them to come to the theater.”

For its part, Paramount is—not surprisingly—trying to downplay any suggestion that Christian or Jewish audiences might find the film problematic. The studio said that another screening in Texas was, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “well received,” and that early reports of conflict between the studio and the director have perhaps been exaggerated. Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said that even though Aronofsky “definitely wants some level of independence” regarding the film’s final cut, “he also wants a hit movie. … We’re getting to a very good place, and we’re getting there with Darren.”

Only time will tell, of course, which of these sneak-peak perspectives on Noah will prove to be the most accurate—whether Aronofsky’s high-dollar interpretation of this well-known biblical story is received as a creative and engaging one or whether audiences see it as blasphemous and disrespectful.

Still, the brewing controversy regarding Aronofsky’s vision for the film should serve as a warning to two other mega-directors who are currently at work on their own Bible-themed films: Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming movie about Moses, Gods and Kings, and Ridley’s Scott’s competing take (starring Christian Bale) on the same subject, Exodus.

To the extent that these directors follow Burnett and Downey’s pattern of respectful, reverent treatment of biblical source material, their films are liable to be well received by Christians. To the extent that they play fast and loose with major story details, theological underpinnings or core worldview questions, I suspect they’ll be greeted with fierce criticism from faith-affirming audiences.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Kal El More than 1 year ago

--@MikeTime: thumbs up for the "Man Of Steel" shout-out! :-D

I have had concerns about Aronofsky's "Noah" going this way for a while. We can only hope and pray it doesn't turn out like it is sounding.

That's really exciting to hear about those other 3 coming out. I am apprehensive about a movie by the people who did "The Bible" mini-series, but I think if their hearts are in the right place and the film is mainly accurate, that is what counts (like with "The Prince Of Egypt").

I am a little unsure about Spielberg and Scott doing movies about Moses; it could be very good or very bad. Time will tell.

For now I will just say "we'll see" and be encouraged that in these dark days we are seeing a sudden burst of Biblically based films. Drums up lots of opportunities to share the Gospel and just by nature of their subject matter will prompt the moviegoing masses to think a bit. :-)

Scott Jamison More than 1 year ago

So, I decided to read the story of Noah in the Bible, which is after all our primary source.  He's born in the fifth chapter of Genesis, but his story proper starts in Chapter 6.  The first part of the chapter deals with the Nephilim, of whom we know little.  The "sons of God" married the "daughters of humans" and birthed men of renown.  God doesn't seem to have been pleased with this, and set a new upper limit on human lifespan (one hundred twenty years) for children born after that point.  This seems by its placement to have happened  after Noah's birth, as he was six hundred years old when the Flood happened.

But the hearts of humanity had become turned to thoughts of evil.  (The only specific evil mentioned is violence.)  God's heart was troubled, and he regretted ever making humans.  So he decided to wipe out the humans, but Noah was okay, so God relented a little, with the results we know.

So you can see where even a relatively faithful adaptation might be problematic for Plugged In.  In a brief history, you can get away with just saying that all humans were irredeemably violent and evil except Noah and his family.  In a movie, you have to actually *show* this.

And then there's Ham "uncovering his father's nakedness" at the end.  Even more problematic if the Bible is being euphemistic at this point, as it often was about sex.

Maybe a anthropogenic climate change parable might be preferable.  

ONe thing that could be cool in a genius bonus sort of way--have a rainstorm in the early part of the film, and then show a shot of the sky where a rainbow would logically appear--but there is none, because God hasn't established it yet.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

--"Environmentalist Wacko"? Really? Oh, well. I guess I can see how, from a worldbuilding perspective, a population committing destruction-worthy offenses plus man preserving samples of flora and fauna from the world-wreaking disaster to come  might seem to add up to "oh, we can make it about the environment." But that's if you're constructing your own scenario, not if you're claiming to adapt a religious document. And if the director is being "dismissive," it sounds less like he's got a reason it sounded rational to him than that he wanted to run with something and didn't care.

I guess it's a bit early to know for sure how anything's getting played.

Mike Theemling More than 1 year ago

--The Passion of the Christ, for a time the largest grossing R-rated movie in America, was successful largely because it was both very well done from a cinematic standpoint and it overall was very accurate with very few liberties taken.

I don't know what's in "Noah", but I suspect that the interpretation was much more liberal.  Also, unlike The Passion there is very little material to work with in the story of Noah.  There is the ark building, the flood, and the aftermath with Noah's sons.  That's about it.

I predict this will be a financial disaster because you will be alienating the audience who would most likely be receptive to it: Christians and Jews.  And you will alienate many non-Christians because they are often turned off by explicit religious movies in general (Christian symbolism they tend to be more forgiving like "Man of Steel" which had numerous Jesus references, which I suspect was not an accident).

syd collings More than 1 year ago

--Darren Aronofsky is a great director and I'm looking forward to see his interpretation of 'Noah'.