Why Does Hollywood Keep Telling Bible Stories?

By the end of 2014, Hollywood  released two Biblical epics. They were pretty bad films.  I’ve thought a lot about this topic. Here’s “three acts” I posted on it over several days.

Act I — Why Does Hollywood Keep Telling Bible Stories?

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Beyond the legendary Hollywood sign, its stars, and all the supposed money, the real currency of the movie industry is story. Cinematic history has repeatedly shown no matter the investment in celebrity, marketing, or special effects…if you don’t have a good story, you don’t have a good movie. The soul of a lame, lost story simply can’t be saved by any million dollar deals or miracles of moviemaking. A good, rich narrative is the real wellspring to the art of visual storytelling…everything else tends to flourish from it.

Small wonder then, studios scouring the earth for stories have found the Bible to be a solid resource of original material. Its treasured content has survived since the proverbial beginning of story, and for good reason. Great stories have great themes that address the big questions regarding origins, destiny and purpose. Whether you agree with the Bible or not, it has boldly answered the big questions challenging human hearts for centuries.

Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?

It’s also ironic that the Bible, the original source of so many sanitized, maudlin, religious narratives, does not spare R-rated details or romanticize its heroes. In fact, its first book, Genesis, pretty much plows through all manner of sex, violence and bizarre behavior. You name it…murder, sodomy, incest, rape…even gangster-like treachery enabled by a circumcision ritual… are all detailed here. Its matter-of-fact translation style makes it easy to sometimes breeze through some pretty hair-raising stuff.

But even sex and violence can only make a story gratuitously interesting for so long. The key ingredient of a great story is it has to tell the truth;  the truth about the fragile, fallible experiences of human beings, who, according to the Bible, have been made in the image of God. And herein lies the power of the Bible’s storytelling. The Bible consistently narrates with tragic honesty the consequences of poor choices, both from a here-and-now context, as well as from an eternal perspective. But this dark side of the storytelling force runs in a straight-edged parallel with its other dominant theme; the unrelenting offer of redemption.

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David and Goliath

The dual themes of consequence and redemption help unfold a rich tapestry of fascinating stories with interesting characters on missions for God…or against God. A man named Noah builds a monster of a boat to save a breathing remnant from an impending disaster…his offspring weave a connection to Abraham… Joseph… Moses…Rahab… Samson…David…Jezebel…Daniel…Jonah…etc. Common people bravely rise to become heroes, kings make spectacularly bad choices, heirs have daddy issues, powerful men fall for the wrong women… an orphan beauty in the king’s harem becomes a queen and stops a holocaust. There are love poems and prophecies, prostitutes and killers, warrior giants and a talking jackass. (“And God has continued speaking through jackasses ever since,” according to one sermon I heard as a boy.) It’s hard to believe anyone can make this book boring…but hey, it happens. And we haven’t even gotten out of the Old Testament, yet.

So, no one should be surprised when big studios like 2oth Century Fox and Paramount get together with talented directors like Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott  to tell a big Bible story through a motion picture. If you’ve got $125 million to spend, why not bring the most spectacular disaster and the biggest escape story in the history of the world to the big screen? But these stories are connected to something much bigger than the first global apocalypse.

The story of the Genesis Flood reveals a particularly insightful storyline thread that runs throughout the entire Bible. I once heard a pastor emphasize that, like real estate, only three things matter when you study the Bible. The first is context. The second is context. And the third is context. The fifth chapter of Genesis links the 10 generations of Noah’s lineage all the way back to Adam, whom the Bible indicates was the first man God created. Noah’s grandfather was none other than Methuselah, purportedly the oldest man who ever lived and whose name has been used in stories and songs ever since.

The thread continues. Noah is mentioned in both the Old and New Testament. Noah is linked in the lineage to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Interestingly, Luke also indicates that just as it was in the days of Noah, so too shall it be in the coming of the Son of Man, i.e. a prophecy describing the last days of planet earth. (Cue creepy musical saw here.) The ark that Noah built is symbolic of God’s plan to save mankind. The rainbow God displayed to Noah after his wrathful destruction of the entire world was a natural symbol of God’s covenant, his promise, to never do it again. The flood itself served a twofold purpose; 1) It supernaturally demonstrated God could indeed bring his judgment upon the earth 2) The Apostle Peter wrote that it also symbolized the saving grace of baptism for Noah’s family. It simultaneously symbolizes destruction and cleansing…consequence and redemption.

Yes, it’s a pretty good story. Like many Bible stories, the big themes are tightly woven into the big stories. The problem is these original stories do not always include all the necessary dramatic details to articulate the themes and flesh out the narrative in a solid three-act structure for a blockbuster. And that’s what I will explore in Act II.


Act II – Why Do People Get Annoyed When Hollywood Tells Bible Stories?

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We know the details of Noah’s story and Israelites deliverance from Egypt today because they were part of the stories handed down through oral tradition, then recorded into scrolls, painstakingly crafted into handwritten manuscripts, then distributed broadly (thanks to Herr Gutenberg’s moveable type), compiled into the King James Version (and other versions), and eventually translated into numerous languages and even more versions But translating some of the Bible’s foundational information gracefully into a film narrative can be tricky.

Take this phrase for instance :

But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Genesis 6:8

First of all, there is a lot behind this simple sentence that can actually be open to various interpretations. Was he a special holy man in daily communion with God? Was Noah a pure human being undefiled by the demonic infiltration of the mysterious Nephilim beings into the human race? Was he simply a nice, law-abiding vegetarian? Any attempts to portray this key piece of character information will have to be interpreted…created…inserted. They may come across maudlin, stilted, self-righteous…or just plain wrong. But something has to be written to communicate this aspect of the main character.

It’s financially and technically impossible for a movie to integrate all the critical details from a book into the film’s storyline. (See Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia for example.) So “editorial choices” have to be made. Sometimes it actually all comes together beautifully in a condensed film form, and sometimes studios screw it up, depending on who you ask. Rabid book fans are often not very understanding of this predicament. Bible readers (as well a lot of literary fans) tend to get disappointedly upset when Hollywood translates their favorite story into a movie if they leave out favorite details or add artificial interpretations.

I remember having a love/hate relationship with Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, The Ten Commandments, even as a boy. Here’s my partial list …

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Cecil B. DeMille…my early movie hero.

1) My King James Version had no “adopted-sibling-love-triangle-rivalry” between Moses, an Egyptian prince and a seductress named Nefretiri.

2) There was no blanket that revealed Moses’ identity.

3) Where were the frogs??? I wanted to see ALL the plagues.

4) Joshua did NOT show up to convince Moses to come back to lead the exodus. God himself SENT the guy back!

5) It took God all night to blow the Red Sea waters apart…but I let that one slide because, gosh, that looked so cool when the Red Sea parted instantaneously.

Yes, when I was a child, I spoke like a child… and did not understand cinematic limitations, character arc, defined antagonists, production budgets, …or anything else DeMille was dealing with. The fact is, just about every Bible epic ever produced for the silver screen or television has had issues of biblical accuracy. It’s the very nature of transposing any literature to cinema, whether it’s sacred or secular. Now taking all this into consideration, in case it has not been noted, there is not a lot of dialogue in the Bible’s Genesis Flood story. Yes, this means there will be “interpretations” and “added dramatic elements” to connect the dots and tell a cohesive, engaging story. All historical movies do this…and frequently get some details and interpretations wrong, goofy or very different from a standard-issue churchy interpretation.

Recently the star of the new Exodus film, actor Christian Bale, created a  stir because of his “interpretation” of Moses (after reading the Bible, the Torah and the Quran) included words like “schizophrenic” and “barbaric.” People got upset. Surprised?

There are some other considerations. Film is a visual art, which means the story will be naturally more open to interpretations. There’s a reason the ancient writers of the scriptures used words instead of pictures. “In the beginning was the Word…” The Greek word for “word” is logos, it means, among other things, “ordering principle.” Words bring ideas into a focus in a more defined manner than pictures. Imagery tends to bring emotions into focus more than defined ideas.

The other reality to keep in mind is the motion picture industry, like all businesses, is dedicated to making a profit. Hollywood is not making these stories into a product solely for theologically-correct church audiences. The studio wants as many eyeballs on the screens as they can get opening weekend. They are not picky about denominations or creed, or the lack thereof. They are going to take liberties. Faith audiences should keep in mind, film is a complicated art form, it’s not like the Dead Sea Scrolls. That said, this might be a good spot to insert the words of the late Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, “I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.” So, are you wondering if you should go see these movies? I’ll talk about in the next segment.

Act III – Why Would I Go See the “King Hollywood Version” of a Bible Story?

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At the time of this writing, I had not previewed Paramount’s movie, Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky but I went to see it. No one paid me to write about it…yet. I would have been surprised if some things in the film did not bother me…maybe someday I’ll even write a list and post it on Facebook. But I think it was a smart move that a studio decision was made to issue a disclaimer denoting that Noah was inspired by the Biblical story, but does not necessarily represent a line-by-line, accurate Biblical account of the narrative. Words to remember.

Noah is a big story…but it’s just one of many great, big stories in the Bible. That’s probably one of the reasons the Bible is the international, best-selling book of all-time. Studios like bestsellers. And tickets purchased to movies based on books, usually translate into more interest in those books. (Again, see The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, for example.) So, this might not be the first time a movie encouraged someone to actually go home and read a game-changer of a book. But I’m not going to lose any sleep worrying that the fate of the Holy Scriptures rests on the accuracy of any film. The Bible’s centrality to culture will continue regardless of imperfect interpretations, box office results or even its Amazon ranking.

I can read the Genesis chapters on my iPhone. Many people believe the authenticity of the digital versions of these words today resonates from ancient voices and crafted, vellum manuscripts because it’s a story that’s been supernaturally written on so many of history’s pages and hearts.

Numerous religious and governmental powers have tried for hundreds of years, with great zeal I might add, to eradicate this book with all its stories…but without success. The Bible has stood at the grave of every entity that ever tried to destroy it, be it an empire or just another little tyrant. They all failed to realize the Bible’s story is much, much bigger than they ever were, or ever could ever hope to be. (Or maybe that was exactly the problem they had with the book.)

So if audiences only see the “King Hollywood Version” of the Noah story, Exodus, or any Bible story for that matter, and don’t bother to read the book, they certainly might miss some important aspects of the original story. They may even be mislead by some of the film’s dramatic license. But the original story will still be there to read, study and enjoy. Millions of copies have been printed and sold…not to mention Internet downloads. http://www.biblegateway.com.

But yes, I go see these movies, and here’s my list of reasons why:

1) Paramount and Fox have spent millions to make epic Bible stories…I like epics.

2) Good stories generally create conversations…I like conversations about good stories.

3) If I see the film, I can have a more-informed discussion with others who see it and might have questions regarding the original story. I don’t like it when people of faith bash things they have not seen or heard.

4) I have wanted to see movies about these stories for over a half a century…I think they are somewhat fascinating. Even when the man-made version is incredibly flawed.

5) I know where to find the original version of the story.

And you know what? After I watch these movies, I usually read them again in Genesis and Exodus, like I have for over 50 years. I’m glad somebody in Hollywood found ’em… and I hope they keep reading because there are a lot more great stories from where these came from.