Some worry Bi­ble epics will get lost in Hol­ly­wood trans­la­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Ju­lia Duin

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.”

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