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The Wall Street Journal reports that the cinematic return of the biblical epic is at hand . Russell Crowe will star in Noah , with a 148-foot ark, copious animals, and a $125 million budget. Steven Spielberg is in talks to direct Gods and Kings about Moses, Warner Bros. secured a script about Pontius Pilate, and 20th Century Fox is having Ridley Scott direct Exodus . Sony is developing The Redemption of Cain , while Lionsgate will distribute Mary, Mother of Christ , promoted as a prequel to the highly-successful The Passion of the Christ . Why?

There are compelling economic reasons for Hollywood to embrace the Good Book. The studios are increasingly reliant on source material with a built-in audience, something the Bible—the best-selling book in history—certainly has. And like the comic-book superheroes that movie companies have relied on for the past decade, biblical stories are easily recognizable to both domestic and the all-important foreign audiences. What’s more, they’re free: Studios don’t need to pay expensive licensing fees to adapt stories and characters already in the public domain.

With floods, plagues, burning bushes and parting seas, Bible movies make great vehicles for big-budget special effects, a key selling point for a wide swath of audience members. Paramount is hoping “Noah” will connect with religious Americans who “may not necessarily go to more than one or two movies a year,” said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore.

Hollywood has been stagnant for some time. Many have observed that the more interesting creative stuff has been happening on cable and subscription television, pointing to series like the Sopranos , Dexter , 24 , Breaking Bad , and Mad Men . Why the box office blues? The usual reasons are probably the correct reasons: Tickets and concessions are too expensive, especially in this economy; studios are risk-averse, given the immense amount of money it takes to produce a film; people would rather stay home in the comfort of their own entertainment dens; and many young men in particular get their thrills gaming now that games are as intense (and more interactive) than most action films.

TV also has the advantage of being able to do more in terms of story for less money. A successful series might run anywhere between 50 and 150 episodes for that many hours of TV. It also has the advantage of regularity: each and every week there’s an installment. This regularity is also why (many claim) NASCAR and the NFL are so popular. And episodes are sometimes available online legally at a network’s website, at Amazon streaming, or on iTunes mere hours after they air.

So will Biblical epics save Hollywood, or (rumors of its demise being greatly exaggerated) at least give it a shot in the arm? I’m dubious, for a couple reasons.

First, as The Passion of the Christ showed, practicing Christians of whatever stripe will pour into theaters to see a film that endeavors to present the story seriously and respectfully, whatever shortcomings scholars, theologians, and critics perceive. Conversely, there’s Evan Almighty , the Steve Carrell flop about Noah’s Ark. Those associated with the film came across in interviews as unserious, more New Age than Christian (or observantly Jewish), while the film itself took high tragic drama and turned it into farce, and poorly. Rotten Tomatoes thus records a score of 23% for it . And so whether or not Russell Crowe’s Noah film enthralls audiences and turns into box office boffo will depend on how well the film presents the drama of the biblical narrative. And it’s a brutal narrative; God Almighty drowns everyone and everything save Noah and his family and enough animals to start over. The temptation to present the story in more palatable ways will be substantial, and even if it were done in subtle ways, through oblique commentary here and there, the practicing Christians who would otherwise support the film can sense politically correct moves a mile away. (It’s not a biblical epic as such, but remember Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven ? Don’t worry; no one else does either.) As the article notes:

The potential downside is significant, said Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that has helped several Hollywood studios target religious audiences. “You do it wrong, and not only are you not going to get your wider audience, but you’re not going to get your core,” he said.

Second, I’m not so sure we’re in a cultural moment where, as the article states , “biblical stories are easily recognizable to both domestic and the all-important foreign audiences.” I suppose most people know the basics of the story of Noah, but as a teacher of Bible who pays attention to wider cultural trends, I’m dubious that the broader population today knows and is interested in the great biblical stories anywhere near the same degree as the generation that first saw The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur or Quo Vadis .

But maybe I’m wrong; maybe Hollywood will score big with these films, while they provide Christians with an opportunity for witness and evangelism. Indeed, in the midst of the hand-wringing over The Passion of the Christ several years ago, in ” Holy Hypocrisies, ” a piece written before Mel Gibson’s more recent meltdowns, Richard Corliss at Time defended the film and suggested Hollywood follow Gibson’s lead and turn to the Bible for cinematic inspiration:

Decades ago, Hollywood regularly produced religious films: The Song of Bernadette , The Bells of St. Mary’s , The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima . The bosses who financed these pictures may not have liked them or shared the beliefs expressed in them, but they had their reasons for greenlighting them. One is that they often made money. Another is that the mood of the country was more pious. Today, a fervent Christian conviction—so often aligned with belligerent conservatism—is, to many in the media, a threat or a joke. They don’t understand religious devotion, at least in the less attractive sense of the term. They are much more comfortable producing anti-religious entertainment (all the comedies that make mock of God, Jesus and the clergy) than some sweet sappy Nun’s Story .

The attitude goes beyond religion. For better or worse, the current tone is skeptical, derisive and gross. Years ago, American Pie replaced American piety. A lot of movie people don’t respect Gibson’s obsession with his Passion project; they are offended by it; fear it. And I’ll bet, since the movie could earn huge profits for Gibson and his distribution partners, they resent it.

It happens that I like R-rated movies, South Park , certain naughty songs and dirty jokes — and, with some strong reservations, The Passion of the Christ . And I don’t feel threatened that a lot of people who don’t ordinarily go to movies have flocked to Gibson’s film. Neither should the studios. Religious films could be a tattered genre Hollywood could revive, making a few bucks and a lot of converts to the old magic of movies. At least, it would indicate that liberal Hollywood isn’t afraid of serving up the occasional helping of traditional values alongside its usual smorgasbord of guns, fists, tits and smirk.

( Cross-posted at )

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