The Bible has been a great source of material for moviemakers ever since the beginning of the industry.
Cecil B. DeMille’s first blockbuster Bible epic was in 1923, when he made the first version of The Ten Commandments. Many other movies with biblical themes, or based on characters from the Bible, have been produced since then— some of them more than once.
DeMille himself re-made The Ten Commandments in 1956, featuring Charlton Heston in what has become the iconic depiction of Moses. The story was covered again in 2007 as an animated feature, and in the previous year, a musical stage version was filmed and issued on DVD.
Repeating a Bible story is not unique to Moses. For example, the story of Samson and Delilah was first screened in 1922. But the most famous version in 1949 – again, made by DeMille – cast Victor Mature in the leading role. The story was screened as a made-for-TV movie in 1984, with yet another TV adaptation in 1996.
But somehow, the broad appeal of such movies had waned over the past few decades – possibly reflecting a trend in developed Western societies to move away from religion itself.
However, Rabbi Mahir Reiss, a well-known Bible scholar and philanthropist, says that you don’t need to be religious to draw lessons about life from the Bible, the Torah, or any other religious text. He adds that the American Bible Society found that “Six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) who have no faith or who identify as atheists own a Bible.”
Reiss also points out that while the Bible is a religious text, many of the stories in it are just examples of individuals making tough moral decisions.
Perhaps one of the best Biblical examples of Rabbi Reiss’s contention is the story of Noah being given the divine mission to save the future of mankind by building an Ark ahead of the flood. This is probably the second favorite story for children, after the traditional story of birth of Jesus.
Now, the latest version of the story of Noah has arrived from Paramount. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Noah has been released in some 3,500 theaters nationwide.
But this Noah is no children’s tale with cute animals. Russell Crowe in the title role brings a darker interpretation to the character, and the movie itself is more like a modern action/disaster film. The special effects reflect the film’s $125 million budget, with a huge flood and some gory deaths.
It seems that Hollywood is climbing back on the Biblical bandwagon, with the Twentieth Century Fox epic Exodus, directed by Ridley Scott, scheduled for Christmas release; Christian Bale is cast as Moses.
Noah appears to be heading in the right financial direction, with a U.S. box office take on the first weekend of over $40 million, and $22 million already overseas. If Exodus does as well, you can expect to see many more Bible movies in the coming years.
“There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than an upward trend,” says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations.
One thing is sure: Biblical movies can be relied upon to generate plenty of controversy. Religious groups have already complained that Noah does not adhere to the Biblical tale in its portrayal of Noah.
But Rabbi Mahir Reiss thinks that many great Bible stories may benefit greatly from a cinematic representation. He believes and hopes that many life lessons can be imparted in these film representations of classic Biblical lore.
Ari Handel, who co-wrote the screenplay for Noah, happens to be Jewish, but he says that he wasn’t really coming to the script from a religious background. However, while he was studying the source material and writing with Aronofsky, they understood themselves to be participating in the Jewish tradition of Midrash.
Handel explained it to NPR as “[A] dialogue amongst people. You see questions posed by the story, what’s unanswered, what seems to be confusing about it. It means that the story is alive.”
The story of Noah is very much alive in people’s minds today, even after thousands of years, thanks to the strength of cinema and its ability to convey a story in a unique way.
Rabbi Reiss would like to see even more Biblical stories made into movies in the future. He says, “I’m glad to see representations of classic Bible and Jewish icons in popular media. The Bible has many things to teach us, and it’s great to be able get these messages out in a way that resonates with today’s culture.”
The hope of Rabbi Mahir Reiss has a spiritual basis. Hollywood, on the other hand, is always looking to the bottom line.
Perhaps there is some divine hand involved in this current revival of interest in the Bible, as the world is facing so many problems today.
As the oft-repeated adage states: ” The Lord moves in mysterious ways.”