Some worry Bible epics will get lost in Hollywood translation
The greatest story ever told is increasingly becoming the stuff of movie scripts. But are such movies, including a recent release on the life of Queen Esther and a film on the Nativity opening Dec. 1, up to snuff?
“The Nativity Story,” a character study of what the birth of Jesus was like for Mary and her fiance, Joseph, has already struck gold with Roman Catholics. On Nov. 26, it will be the first feature film ever to premiere at the Vatican. Although the pope’s attendance has not been confirmed, 7,000 guests have been invited.
John Rich, screenwriter of “The Nativity Story,” predicts similar films will follow. The life of the Apostle Paul, John the Baptist, the 40 days between Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension — those are some of the ideas on the table.
“The faith-based community is a powerful demographic, but they are a discerning demographic, too,” he said. “You’ve got to get the story right. This door is open just a little bit right now. If we don’t get it right and deliver really good quality films, then who knows what will happen.”
The films that have done well have been produced and written by religious insiders themselves. Matthew Crouch, 44, producer of “One Night With the King,” the story of Queen Esther, is the son of Pentecostal broadcaster Paul Crouch.
Although his film only cost $18.5 million and opened on a modest number of screens (909) on Oct. 13, it’s managed to gross more than $12 million. Mr. Crouch said six studios have since contacted his Gener8Xion Entertainment Inc. for advice.
“Major studios are scrambling to get someone on staff who can understand the faith-based world and lead the charge to get them into this emerging transmarket,” he says.
“Hollywood is understanding that if they do a film that doesn’t violate the Christian faith, they’ll interest the 80 million people in our faith demographic. ‘The Passion of the Christ’ showed Hollywood the size of that market.”
Filmed in the sumptuous palaces of Jodhpur, India, his film has gotten mixed reviews. While Variety magazine pronounced it “a surprisingly satisfying attempt to revive the old Hollywood tradition of lavishly appointed biblical epics aimed at mainstream audiences,” freelance critic the Rev. Richard Kew, an Episcopal priest, called it “a poor remake of an aging religious blockbuster.” Mr. Kew said the movie “softened the edges and missed the subtleties.”
Still, “the Christian evangelical market is coming out for feature films,” said Martin Doblmeier, an independent filmmaker based in Alexandria. “It’s a huge marketplace and identifies itself with the use of film in sharing the message because film is the language of today. You don’t see that in the mainline churches.”
When he tried to interest a distributor in his 2003 film, “Bonhoeffer,” about the World War II Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “He looked at it and said, ‘If you had come to me 10 years ago, I don’t know if I would have taken a chance on this.’ ”
But the distributor snapped up the film, which grossed $500,000.
“The films I’m trying to do are films that test what you believe,” Mr. Doblmeier says. “We’re called to live out faith in the real world, which is cruel and confusing. Bonhoeffer had huge moral issues he was facing.”
Mr. Rich, the Portland, Ore., screenwriter who came up with the idea for “The Nativity Story,” wanted to fill in the blanks where Scripture is silent. When Mary breaks the news to her parents that she is pregnant, the script includes a shouting match.
“The thing that jumped out at me was the fact the Nativity story was told in a very linear way. I wanted a more character-based approach,” he says.
Plus, the 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ with its explorations into the inner conflicts faced by Pontius Pilate, Peter and Judas, gave subsequent filmmakers permission to be creative with biblical narrative. As films generally take two years from inception to release, ‘Nativity’ is the first of a generation of films whose screen- writers have been inspired by ‘The Passion.’
Mr. Rich poured over the Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke for ideas on dialogue.
“There was not a lot of source material,” he says. “Mel Gibson had a ton of it compared to us.”
Regarding Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, “You get out a map and find out that’s a 100-mile journey. What kind of conversations did Mary and Joseph have? I had to write an amazing amount of speculative scenes. So you have to trust the inspiration. I feel like I was divinely led along the way.”
He wrote the script in five weeks and gave it to producers Wyck Godfrey, a nondenominational charismatic Christian, and Marty Bowen, who is Roman Catholic. The two men contacted an executive at New Line Cinema — makers of “The Lord of the Rings” triology — who attends the same church as Mr. Godfrey.
New Line snapped up the film, which stars a 16-year-old (Keisha Castle-Hughes) Mary who gets dirt under her fingernails and has real labor pains. In case viewers don’t get the holiday connection, the theme music segues into Christmas carols near the end.
Such a lack of subtlety causes Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter and founder of the training program Act One, to term “Nativity” and “One Night” as “pablum,” along with “Therese,” a 2004 movie about St. Therese of Lisieux.
“Creating poetic images — that is visual paradoxes that have a theological dimension — requires a poetic, artistic and theological sophistication that is missing in the artists undertaking ‘Nativity’ and ‘One Night’ and ‘Therese’,” she says.
“In ‘Nativity,’ you have talented filmmakers who have no theolog- ical sophistication. In ‘One Night’ and ‘Therese,’ you have at least believers behind the project, but people who are only moderately skilled as filmmakers.”
She adds, “The reason these movies aren’t ‘The Passion,’ in my very unpolitically correct opinion, is that ‘Passion’ came from a talented filmmaker with a Catholic imagination. Call it a sacramental sense, but Catholics do symbolism and imagery much better than evangelicals.”
Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac star in “The Nativity Story.”