Thanks in part to the success of the History Channel’s new mini-series, “The Bible,” biblical stories could be making a long-overdue comeback in Hollywood.
A-list directors like Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) and Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”) are just some of the names currently developing major films based on characters from the Old and New Testaments.
As Sophie Schillaci of The Hollywood Reporter recently told Inside Edition, “The Bible is a natural fit for the screen. It has a built-in audience, built in (dramatic) storyline and characters” — in other words, everything Hollywood looks for in its adaptations.
Following the heyday of the so-called “biblical epic” in the 1950s and ‘60s, though, a period that produced major commercial and critical hits like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” Hollywood seemed, almost inexplicably, to turn its back on religious stories. That is, possibly until now.
Over the last few weeks, back-to-back announcements have revealed movement on not one, but two historical epics based on the story of Moses — one directed by Scott another by Lee — as well as a computer-animated “Noah’s Ark” co-directed by John Stevenson (“Kung Fu Panda”).
These will join already-in-development projects like Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget adaptation of “Noah” with Russell Crowe as the Old Testament prophet (whom Aronofsky describes as a "dark, complicated character," according to The Guardian, suffering from intense survivor’s guilt) and a Brad Pitt-produced biopic of Pontius Pilate.
At least some of the momentum behind these projects is likely due to the recent runaway success of History Channel’s “The Bible.”
The sweeping 10-hour mini-series that began in the Garden of Eden and is set to culminate with an Easter Sunday finale involving the Crucifixion hit the ratings jackpot in a way that even Hollywood can’t help but notice.
Despite some harsh reviews, around 14 million people tuned in to watch the first episode alone.
“We often forget that Christians are still the largest special interest group in America,” Phil Cooke, a Christian media advocate and Hollywood producer, is quoted as saying in a recent article by Gloria Goodale for the Christian Science Monitor.
The success of “The Bible,” Goodale’s article notes, reveals an “appetite for Christian storytelling” among audiences that Hollywood has consistently overlooked.
With a release date set for March 28, 2014, the first of the upcoming crop of biblical epics that will hit theaters will be Aronofosky’s revisionist take on Noah’s Ark.
However, just because biblical stories seem to be experiencing a resurgence doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the in-development films will necessarily cater to religious audiences, per se.
Speaking with IFC in 2011 about his vision for Noah, whom he calls “the first environmentalist,” Aronofsky said, “I don't think it's a very religious story. I think it's a great fable that's part of so many different religions and spiritual practice(s).”
He went on to add, “I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse, which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet.”
Likewise, one of the two Moses films, “Gods and Kings,” is being compared in tone to historical action movies like “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan,” suggesting it might try to downplay the Christian elements inherent in the story and, in the process, risk missing a younger audience.
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Only time will tell if this particular trend actually manages to take off. If Aronofsky’s “Noah” turns out to be a costly dud, as some, like Forbes staff writer Alex Knapp, have already predicted, Hollywood’s renewed interest in the biblical epic could die as quickly as it began.
Or, could the Hollywood Reporter be on to something when it asks, “Are Moses, Noah and Judah Maccabee the next Bella, Batman and Harry Potter?”
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.