Hollywood gets back to biblical

Several Bible-based projects, including 'Noah' starring Russell Crowe and two separate treatments of the story of Moses, are due in theaters over the next few years.

American Movie Classics /AP/File
‘The Ten Commandments’ (1959)

Superheroes and mystical creatures with their physics-defying powers have been drawing record numbers of moviegoers to multiplex theaters over the past decade. Now Hollywood is getting ready to roll out the next fleet of mega personalities: Bible characters.

Several Bible-based projects are in the works and will begin to appear in theaters over the next few years. “Noah,” due out in March 2014, stars Russell Crowe as the ark builder who saves civilization – and two of each animal. The story of Moses, that early leader and lawgiver, is getting two new treatments: Warner Bros. is working on “Gods and Kings” (Steven Spielberg may direct), and 20th Century Fox is developing “Exodus.” Will Smith has the green light for “The Redemption of Cain,” a sibling epic with a vampire twist (2015).

For New Testament narratives, Lionsgate is planning a project titled “Mary, Mother of Christ” (2013) with Ben Kingsley as King Herod, and Warner Bros. recently announced a production of “Pontius Pilate,” about the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.

Hollywood has a mixed history over the past decade with religious epics. While Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) was a blockbuster, a 2006 take on the tale of Christmas, “The Nativity Story,” starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, was dubbed a financial disappointment and received mixed reviews.
But if a Bible-based film is a box-office bust, it doesn’t sting as much as when a superhero flick fails to soar. Unlike with superhero movies or literary adaptations, filmmakers don’t have to pay for rights to portray Bible characters since they’re officially in the public domain.

With a recent Pew Research Center poll revealing that one-fifth of the US public is religiously unaffiliated – the highest percentage ever – what is Hollywood thinking? Paul Schneider, chairman of the film and television department at Boston University, says the Bible movie boom is more a result of the subject being seen as fresh fodder, rather than because of an attempt to appeal to religious moviegoers.

The Bible has “this great material with great characters,” he says. In other words, bigger-than-life story lines with a lot of natural disasters thrown in to keep people on the edge of their seats until the good guys win.

Filming scenes of huge waves threatening Noah’s ark or Moses parting the Red Sea is simply the next step in a trend started by movies such as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, says Mr. Schneider. Directors want to create spectacle, and audiences want to watch it, too.

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