Hollywood and the Bible: How can filmmakers get it right?


The recent announcement that Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky is moving forward with a $130 million adaptation of the story of Noah’s ark comes on the heels of last week’s news that Steven Spielberg is being sought to direct a new epic on the life of Moses for Warner Bros.


This is not a Bible film.

These are just two of a remarkably high number of Hollywood biblical projects in the works at the moment:

  • In addition to Warner Bros’ Moses project, there’s another Moses story in development at 20th Century Fox.
  • There are also two projects underway to make a movie about Judah Maccabee and the Maccabean War. One is being developed by Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.
  • The other Maccabees project, which might wind up as a TV production or a big-screen film, is being developed by Jewish producer Bruce Nash.
  • A project a step removed from the Bible itself is worth noting: Alex Proyas’ Paradise Lost movie.
  • Director Scott Derrickson, whose name was once attached to Paradise Lost, is working on a David and Goliath movie that focuses on the Philistine.
  • Camilla Belle, who has been rumored for the role of Eve in Paradise Lost, has been cast as the Virgin Mary in Mary the Mother of Christ, written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Barbara Nicolosi and starring Al Pacino and Peter O’Toole.

That’s an impressive convergence of biblical films in development at the same time.

How any of them will turn out, of course, is anyone’s guess. Aronofsky’s Noah project has been called a “fantasy epic,” but Aronofsky has also been working on a related graphic novel project that apparently puts a science-fiction spin on the Noah story. It’s not clear that Aronofsky intends the film to be a sci-fi retelling of the Noah story, but the prospect is a disconcerting one. 

Then there’s Variety’s reference to the Fox project retelling the Exodus story “in 300 style.” That might be no more than a reference to the use of green-screen technology, but still the precedent of recent pictures like 300, Clash of the Titans and the upcoming Immortals may be some indication of the creative environment in which these movies will be made. Is Hollywood up to the challenge of retelling these biblical stories?

How should Hollywood filmmakers approach these stories? Here are a few suggestions for open-minded filmmakers:

  1. Realism doesn’t mean everything should be gritty, dirty and joyless. Take Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, among many other offenders. Would anyone watching Scott’s misconceived anti-romance want to be one of Robin’s not-so-merry men in that film? Is there anything appealing about that world that draws the viewer in? Other than one boisterous folk song during a Channel crossing, I can’t remember much.
  2. At the risk of overgeneralizing, a filmmaker should be in love with his or her subject matter—and that should come across to the viewer. Suppose you could travel through time to the Maccabean period and ask a local to show you around, introduce you to his friends, and so forth. What would he want you to see? How would that world look through his eyes? A film set in that period should make us feel like that. The viewer should leave the film feeling a connection to the world it depicts. The idea of spending more time there—say, watching a documentary about the same subject matter—should be an inviting thought, not a tiresome one.

  3. Let the material challenge your preconceptions. Artists are always eager to put their own stamp on their material, and rightly so. There would be no point in doing an adaptation if one didn’t have something to contribute. But there’s also no point in doing an adaptation merely to remake the source material in one’s own image. (The moment in the muddled denouement of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Willy Wonka winds up on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to work out his daddy issues, like any number of daddy-haunted Burton characters, was surely one of the low points in Hollywood adaptations of the last decade or so.)
  4. Art thrives under constraint—and one constraint is the inherent nature of one’s material. A sculptor working in granite has to respect the fact that it’s granite and not marble. Adaptation is an exercise in collaboration, and while a live collaborator may push back in creative discussions, dead collaborators—the human authors of the biblical stories—can only push back if you let them. Let them.

  5. Acknowledge a level of responsibility both to the material and to your audience. You are the filmmaker and you can do whatever you want with your story. But these are stories that belong to the world. The stories of Noah and Moses are not only beloved but sacred to Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. I’m not saying “Watch out and don’t offend anybody.” I’m not saying “Focus group your movie to death.” I’m saying: “Think of your project as a gift for the world, and embrace the world in your fashioning of the gift.”
  6. Think of your work as an exercise in creativity and retelling, but also as an exercise in curating, preserving, illuminating. Be humble enough to serve the story. Don’t just make a movie for the audience of today. Make a movie that people will want to watch 50 years from now. This may be a privileged moment for biblical films that might not come again for some time. It’s ridiculous that no one has touched the story of the Exodus in a live-action big-screen version since DeMille, but there it is. What if your film were the last time this story were touched for decades? Do you want to make a classic, or do you want to make King Arthur?

  7. Question skepticism. We’ve become so skeptical of certitude that doubt—especially self-doubt—has become a cardinal virtue for today’s movie heroes. What I call the “Aragorn Complex”—the need for leaders to question their rightness to lead—can be seen in The Prince of Egypt’s Moses and The Chronicles of Narnia’s Peter Pevensie. Likewise, the heroes of movies like King Arthur and Kingdom of Heaven suffer from a sort of existential homelessness.
  8. Of course drama needs conflict, and a conflicted character is more interesting than an unconflicted one. But not all conflict has to take the form of doubt. A character who knows what he believes can be compelling and attractive. Look at Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons or Father Gabriel in The Mission.

  9. Question reductionism. It’s fashionable in war movies nowadays to give up on questions of right and wrong and portray soldiers fighting for the sake of their brothers, but the Maccabean rebels really were fighting for something more than that. And they weren’t just fighting for “freedom” as a universal value, either, à la Braveheart and even to an extent The Ten Commandments, with its echoes of the Declaration of Independence.
  10. The convention in The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt of having God speak to Moses in Moses’ own voice works reasonably well—if your Moses is Charlton Heston or Val Kilmer—but God should not be reduced to a subjective “religious experience.” It’s one thing to make a movie like Troy in which the gods are irrelevant, but these stories are different. This God is different. And for God’s sake, please let’s not have any “religion vs. spirituality” postmodern piety. The Maccabees were all about the Temple. The Passover, the sacrifices at Horeb, the Torah are the foundation of Jewish religion, not generic spirituality.

  11. Take Simone Weil’s indictment of fiction as a challenge. “Imaginary evil,” Weil charged, “is romantic and varied: real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring: real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. ‘Imaginative literature,’ therefore, is either boring, or immoral, or a mixture of both.”
  12. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, but too often it is. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, the Wicked Witch of the West and so on tend to be more captivating than their opposite numbers. Even pious Milton, whose stated motive was to “justify the ways of God to men,” has been felt by some to have inadvertently made Lucifer the de facto hero of his book—and that’s a very real possibility in any adaptation of his work.

    That’s not brave or transgressive. It’s easy. It’s easy to question God (or the gods). Legion did it. Clash of the Titans did it.

    You want a challenge? Make Moses more interesting and compelling than Pharaoh. Make Noah’s family life more appealing than the debauchery of his times. Make God’s way more compelling than the Devil’s. How many movies do that nowadays?

Faith & Film, Hollywood