An acclaimed director, an Oscar-winning cast, an overflowing budget and endless supply of computer-generated imagery intended to bring life to one of the world’s most beloved and revered stories: This certainly seems like the formula for box-office success.
But while “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Noah” featured these ingredients, both films have been financial disappointments. The director of “Gladiator” cast Batman as Moses. The director of “Black Swan” cast Gladiator as Noah. In each case, audiences yawned. That shouldn’t have happened.
So why did “Exodus” only recoup $24.5 of its $140 million budget on opening weekend? Why did “Noah” have to rely on the overseas market to eke out a profit? The answer, of course, is not a lack of demand. Ask any youth group leader if he’d rather take his teens to a faithful adaptation of Jonah than mine for messianic themes in “Man of Steel,” and he’ll choose the former.
The problem is that adaptations like “Exodus” and “Noah” are plagued with a few critical errors that prevent them from being faithful to the source material, something that will always keep religious audiences away. So if you’re a Hollywood producer with the power to greenlight a film based on a section of the Almighty’s word, how can you right the ark and reclaim the almighty dollar? Here are three steps to help the biblical blockbuster get its groove back.
Step 1: Find a Story that Doesn’t Bore You
When making “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky clearly thought to himself, “This Noah in the Bible is boring, with all this patiently waiting on the ark and trusting in the mercy and justice of God. So I’m going to make Noah more interesting by giving him martial arts skills and making him go nuts and try to kill his family on the boat.”
Similarly, Ridley Scott thought to himself, “I’m not interested in this biblical Moses who obeys God’s will and who wants to set his people free so they can receive the inheritance promised to their father Abraham. So I’m going to make Moses into a twenty-first-century Unitarian who dislikes this Old Testament God and who asks Pharaoh to give the Hebrews a living wage and a path to citizenship.”
But while Kung-Fu-Jack-Torrance Noah may have been more interesting to Aronofsky than the Biblical version, that’s not the case for people who hold the Bible sacred. Likewise, those who find the actual story of the Exodus interesting won’t be more captivated with Scott’s Social Justice Moses than the real one. And if religious audiences get the sense that the characters they’ve loved since Sunday School have been replaced with some figment of a bored director’s imagination, they’ll probably just stay home, in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien fans would have boycotted theaters if Peter Jackson had said, “The virtuous hobbit Bilbo Baggins bores me, so I turned him into a womanizing leprechaun named Edgar.”
So if you’ve decided to make a biblical epic, what do you do if the story on page 17 of the Bible bores you? Turn to page 18. Or 19. Or 457. Keep reading until you find a scriptural story that doesn’t put you at risk of yawning to death, then adapt that story as faithfully as possible. You’ll be amazed at how many more people will hand you money to watch your film when the finished product screams “I like the Bible” instead of, “Hey guys, I fixed your snoozefest sacred fairy tale.”
Step 2: Pretend that God Is Harvey Milk
Another chief problem afflicting both “Noah” and “Exodus” is the lingering feeling that God Himself might be each film’s antagonist, a problem that Rebecca Cusey details in her recent review of Scott’s film. Both films tend to view the Creator more as Lord Vader than Lord God, which is an odor that will drive religious audiences away at the first whiff. So in the event that you also find the God of the Bible a deplorable, genocide-ordering deity, here’s a suggestion for your theocentric cinematic endeavor: just pretend that God is Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, and the subject of Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film “Milk.”
Widely praised upon its release, Van Sant’s film is a virtual hagiography of a man whose life was not without some moral questions. But Milk’s cinematic depiction clearly shows that, for Hollywood, those who accomplish the progressive good are entirely above reproach. To anyone who says, “Wait, didn’t even Randy Shilts’ glowing book, ‘The Mayor of Castro Street,’ indicate that Harvey Milk had a proclivity for substance-abusing boys below the age of consent?” Hollywood replies, “Who are you to answer back to Milk? Where were you when his foundations of LGBT justice were laid?”
So if you want to adapt the life of Elijah for the big screen, but you’re really bothered by God commanding death for the prophets of Baal, just pretend that the creator of the heavens and the earth is a midlevel city official who engaged in sexual relationships with underage teens, but that’s okay because he also opposed the same anti-gay ballot initiative that Ronald Reagan denounced. Do that and you’ll have no problem depicting Jezebel as the film’s antagonist instead of Jehovah, which is essential if you want audiences to support your work.
Step 3: Pretend Mel Gibson Is Roman Polanski
Even if you can’t get over your distaste for the divine, the best way to fix this problem is to hire a director who has no problem believing in the goodness of God. But you’ll also need to nab somebody who can be trusted to helm a big-budget project, and whoever directed that “God Is Not Dead” movie certainly isn’t up to the task. So whom should you call? One name comes to mind.
I know, I know. Nobody in Hollywood wants to touch him. I know he got behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated and said some reprehensible things about Jewish people. But remember what Mel Gibson accomplished in 2004. He took a cast of mostly no-name actors, had them speak exclusively in Hebrew and Aramaic, and made the highest grossing R-rated film in U.S. history.
More importantly, he made an absurdly Catholic film, and all the Pope-hating Protestants in the country poured into their church buses and made pilgrimages to the local multiplex to see it. Seriously, “The Passion of the Christ” is the cinematic equivalent of a two-hour, spurting crucifix, and the same people who won’t even walk into sanctuaries with the corpse of Jesus carved onto a cross rewarded him with $370 million domestic.
So if you want to achieve “Passion”-level results at the box office, you need to get over your aversion to Gibson and hire a man who has both the trust of Christian audiences and the cinematic talent necessary for such a feat. But how do you forgive his unforgivable transgressions? Easy, just pretend he’s Roman Polanski, the critically acclaimed director who hasn’t stepped foot on U.S. soil since fleeing sentencing for six sexual assault related charges in 1977.
Polanksi hasn’t had a hard time getting work after his indiscretions. He’s directed eleven feature films since then, and notable actors such as Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, and Kate Winslet have had no moral objection to working with him. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences even gave him a Best Director Oscar, along with a standing ovation. in 2003. So if giving work to Mel Gibson makes you feel a little ill because of the unforgiveable speech that spewed forth from his drunken lips, just pretend that he did something far more pardonable, like Roman Polanski did.
If your conscience can’t handle employing a man who said some anti-Semitic words a decade ago, just pretend that he drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old girl instead, and that should put you at ease when you sign the contract.
For any studio executive who is looking to rebuild the Biblical epic, just follow these three easy steps, and your thirst for Christian money will be filled. Find a story you like, pretend that God is not the worst guy in the world, throw a bone to Mel Gibson, and all those elusive Duck Dynasty dollars will finally be yours. Follow this formula and you might even make so much money that you can cast someone slightly darker than a Welshman to play Moses next time.