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POV: Do We Really Need Another Bible Film?

Despite Noah’s box office clout, more imagination needed

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Every now and then, Hollywood gets an infusion of religion. This year promises to be one of those years. A few weeks ago, audiences sat through Fox’s release of Son of God, which lifts the story of Jesus from the History Channel’s successful miniseries The Bible and converts it into a major film. This past weekend, they turned to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, starring Russell Crowe. (The film was number one at the box office, grossing $44 million.) By the end of the year, we can expect Exodus, an updated version of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, directed by Ridley Scott and featuring Christian Bale as Moses. Lionsgate plans by year’s end to release Mary, Mother of Christ, which bills itself as “the true prequel” to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and which has secured megachurch pastor Joel Osteen as its executive producer. Not enough? Other films reported to be in development include Pontius Pilate (with Brad Pitt possibly playing the lead), yet another version of the Moses story tentatively titled Gods and Kings, a film about the story of Cain and Abel, and Resurrection, which features a Roman centurion who is ordered to find Jesus’ missing body as a response to a post-crucifixion uprising in Jerusalem.

But do we really need more Bible films? I confess to being of two minds about this. On one hand, I get it. These movies sell, and religious audiences (especially conservative Christians) have proven to filmmakers that they are a market to be taken seriously. Of course, it’s hard to pull off a Bible movie without offending religious viewers in some way, but the box office numbers are there. Yet even beyond these crass market-related realities, each generation is drawn to the reimagining and retelling of our most foundational and persistent stories, myths, and legends in ways that respond to our own particular hopes, fears, and dreams and from within our own culture’s unique aesthetic sensibilities. If artists are inspired to produce fresh retellings of Romeo and Juliet, Faust, or Dracula, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to see why the stories of Jesus, Moses, or other biblical characters regularly get new on-screen treatments—despite the fact that we know the plotlines and endings of these stories all too well (it would be the rare individual who could sit through a Jesus movie in suspense, wondering how it will turn out in the end). So, for example, though Aronofsky rightly claims his film about Noah is the “least biblical Biblical film ever made,” it is not impossible to imagine that a contemporary film about Noah might actually catch our imagination with a compelling new take on how faith is lived out in the midst of struggle and uncertainty or by exploring whether humans are fundamentally wicked or fundamentally good. These questions don’t go away, and it’s no surprise to see them show up in human storytelling across the millennia.

On the other hand, I’m not sold on the need for more Bible films. In the first place, the biblical narratives rarely provide us the kind of historical details, character development, or existential motivation from which to produce a compelling movie script. Writers of biblical screenplays are instead left in the unenviable position of having to write additional action and dialogue for elevated (even divine) characters. It’s easy to see why so much can go so wrong so easily once screenplays begin to incorporate extraneous plot elements to fill out an otherwise thin biblical story line. Is Moses allowed to crack a joke? Can Jesus stub his toe? Aronofsky wholly embraced this challenge by adding rock monsters, family dysfunction, and a Noah who is increasingly psychotic by midpoint in the film. It’s not clear that audiences knew what to do with all that though.

Artistic license is widely perceived as the great danger in making Bible films, and the blogs begin to buzz when a film departs from the biblical text. As BU student Yara Gonzalez-Justiniano (STH’14) pointed out to me, however, what is striking is how little imagination such films employ, and indeed, how little Bible films have actually changed over the years. Apparently, Jesus must ever be white and must speak with a British accent (unless you’re Willem Dafoe, and then Jesus can be from the Bronx). Jewish stereotypes persist in Jesus films; Jewish leaders must always wear a scowl. The aesthetic cues for signaling devotion or the presence of the divine have changed little—standard backlighting, angelic choruses, and a pained expression or two to depict intense piety (Victor Mature had this perfected in the 50s; holy people rarely laugh or smile).

One of the greatest challenges in reimagining a Bible story on film is moving beyond our inherited fund of clichés, images, and stereotypes so that audiences can once again connect with the wisdom, faith, and revolutionary qualities of the biblical characters rather than having those stories recede ever further into the distance as historical relics. Is it possible to make a great Bible film? I’m not sure. But the problem is not that we need less imagination. We need more.

Bryan Stone, School of Theology E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism and associate dean for academic affairs, can be reached at bpstone@bu.edu. He is the author of Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema (2000, Chalice Press).

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

9 Comments

9 Comments on POV: Do We Really Need Another Bible Film?

  • gk on 04.01.2014 at 7:49 am

    Interesting POV. Asked if we “need” another Bible film how about just wrestling that question. Seems the question was more a pretext for trying to be a film analyst and critic.

  • Mo on 04.01.2014 at 10:26 am

    Interesting on your take on Noah half way thru the film. More curious to me is why would an atheist make a Biblical movie like ‘Noah’, and note : God is not mentioned once in the movie. So much for Biblical themed movies coming out of Hollywood :(

  • Tenoch on 04.01.2014 at 11:33 am

    But we do need as many superhero films as possible, right?

  • Jim Eisenberg on 04.01.2014 at 12:32 pm

    Despite poor production and post-production values, Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW remains the best of all Biblical films. Reverent but imaginative, cast mainly with amateurs and made largely without special effects, it manages to make this most familiar story new and even suspenseful. Aside from some too modern hairstyles, it is a brilliant visual realization. Without reveling in Mel Gibson like violence, it certainly suggests the violence of the ancient world and the birth of new ideals.

    • Bryan Stone on 04.01.2014 at 5:46 pm

      Exactly right, Jim. And it’s amazing how Pasolini’s film holds up over time.

  • Mark Schol on 04.01.2014 at 5:25 pm

    B. Stone, I can’t wait for your review of “God’s not Dead”

  • Pat Mack on 04.01.2014 at 6:55 pm

    Still waiting for someone with enough balls to make “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff” by Michael Moore. Fingers crossed.

  • Jonathan Privett on 04.02.2014 at 1:51 am

    Bryan,
    I liked your POV. I enjoyed the way Yancey showed how our view of Jesus has morphed through the movie depictions of Jesus. Visual learners will always need Jesus reimagined and yet I have not seen a Jesus that reflects Isaiah’s vision of a Suffering Servant that was not very attractive or appealing. It seems cinema reflects our images of Christ and Bible characters. Noah the Movie seems to say more about God’s silence and family dysfunction that is never resolved. So I guess Noah reflects where we are in the journey which seems to include non-canonical stuff that makes the Bible more marketable. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • nathan on 04.03.2014 at 3:37 pm

    Isn’t it a bit dangerous to imaginatively alter a myth that millions of people take seriously enough that they are willing to kill other people?

    Will the actors and director take personal responsibility for the increase/decrease in hatred and conflict around the world?

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