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So Let It Be Written. So Let It Be Made: Why We Need More Biblical Films

It turns out faith-based audiences enjoy going to the movies, too.

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Every decade or so, Hollywood has an epiphany. It turns out faith-based audiences enjoy going to the movies, too. And they enjoy films with A-list actors and big-budget productions, as well. So it’s no surprise that “Noah,” even with the artistic license and rock monsters, had such an impressive week. This is good news. Because whether you’re a believer or not, a flawed biblical epic is going to be more entertaining than a remake of a Paul Verhoeven  movie or some third-rate sci-fi flick.

And if there’s one thing we know about Hollywood it’s this: if a genre turns a profit that genre will saturate the market for years. Ridley Scott is already directing a version of Exodus with Christian Bale as Moses. Producers will undoubtedly gin-up some Noah-like controversy around the film’s biblical authenticity as we near release.  Maybe the plagues will turn out to be environmental disasters triggered by all that Egyptian sprawl; but whatever the case, the Exodus movie will likely ride that buzz to big returns. Plus, Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul will be playing Joshua (“tear down those walls, b***hes!”) That’s probably a good start. But Hollywood can do better. I’ve heard people argue that even a flawed Bible-based film offers secular moviegoers a dose of religious literacy which may spark curiosity about the source material. That’s a horrible reason to produce a movie. The right reason? The Bible is filled with intriguing stories about complex and flawed human beings who ponder immense moral questions and engage in colossal clashes with evil.

Granted, in this, my own tastes skew Old Testament – more sex, blood and intrigue, etc. Well, Old Testament in spirit. Take the Maccabees: It’s not canon for everyone, I realize, but this movie almost happened. Mel Gibson should never have been thrown off the project. Actually, he should be forced to direct the movie as reparation to Jews – nay, all moviegoers — worldwide. As someone put it to me recently: has your favorite director produced even one moneymaking epic in a dead language? Because Mel’s done it twice. And because the Macaabees didn’t merely sit around waiting for the oil to run out — they waged a ruthless guerrilla war, massacred interlopers, burned down pagan temples and trekked the countryside forcibly circumcising boys — few directors can be trusted to bring us all the bellicose details quite like the Mel Gibson of Apocalypto, Braveheart and The Passion.

How about King David? Fighter. Poet. Lover.  User of technologically advanced weaponry to slay existential threats. The man harnessed his smarts and charisma to create a kingdom for the Jews and then promptly abused that power in every way imaginable. You have your bloodshed, infidelity, intra-familial civil war, lust and male bonding – not in that order. Want a prequel or a sequel, then there’s Saul and Solomon. Though it’s been tried numerous times (most recently, Richard Gere took a flawed stab at it in the mid-80s and before that there was David and Bathsheba with Gregory Peck) it’s a story that deserves an epic upgrade.

You can on and on, of course. Biblical movies need not sermonize, just be honest to the foundational story. As powerful as the message is for people of faith, it’s really great storytelling. Why isn’t there a big modern production of Paul the Apostle’s tale? Has any mere mortal changed the world in a more dramatic way?  Or Saint Peter –who could easily supply a trilogy of films? Or Judas or Job (the Coen Brothers used the contours of the tale in A Serious Man, but without the redemption). Jonah? Daniel?  Ruth? There’s the international intrigue in the Book of Esther. Samson vs. Delilah or Gideon – the “Destroyer” in Hebrew. What about the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah? The locusts of the Abyss? The Lake of Fire? You want provocative, how about The Fall: Man’s Rebellion Against God. Serpents.  Disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Nakedness. Shameful nakedness. Immortality lost.

Of course, there have been countless biblical movies, most either subpar (The Bible miniseries being one) or now ancient. Some, like The Robe or Ben Hur, are only distantly about the Bible (though movies that explore secondary characters have a ton of possibilities, as well). The financial track record for many of these movies, even ones tangentially connected to the text, are pretty good. The Ten Commandments is generally regarded as one of the best, if not the best, biblical movie. Adjusted for inflation, it earned $2 billion. We’re about to see a reboot of that story. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of the The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.