Two films with Biblical storylines are going to be released in the next few weeks. One of them, Son of God, is already selling out midnight screenings for its late February premiere date to church groups. The other, Noah, was re-cut half a dozen times by producers — apparently unsuccessfully — to try and win over Christian movie-going audiences, according to director Darren Aronofsky. This year is actually a crowded one for Bible-based story lines. Some are Christian films, some are not. And apparently, that's sometimes tough for the studios backing them to untangle how to sell them.
The first two so-called Bible films of the year have very different backgrounds and intents. Son of God is produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who also made The History Channel's Bible miniseries. The pair are capitalizing on the commercial success of that miniseries by releasing the mix of re-purposed and new footage from The Bible as a film. And they're also Christians, making a Christian movie. On the other hand, Noah is not an explicitly Christian film, although it has its basis in a well-known biblical story, to which it remains rather faithful. Aronofsky, it should be noted, did not make Noah to glorify God, or to promote religious belief. He was understandably opposed to his studio's efforts to repackage the film in the editing booth for a conservative Christian audience.
But Son of God is above all evangelical. Burnett and Downey want it to reaffirm faith for Christians, and trigger faith in the non-believers who see it. They want it to spread like the Word, as if St. Paul himself was carrying it to Rome. As is pretty common whenever a Christian-friendly film comes out, its promoters discuss the work as a "rare" opportunity for an "under-served" audience (i.e. American Evangelical Christians) to experience a faith-based blockbuster. Churches get calls to action, to send a message to Hollywood with ticket sales: buy out the theater, and the secular powers that be will learn that Christian films are good business. Burnett and Downey are even mythologizing their work's power on the marketing trail, sharing a story of an unnamed "non-Christian" reporter who saw the movie and became more "open to investigating Jesus." It may or may not be true, but man, is it a great story. Burnett's film might, just might, convert the "enemy" — the secular media.
The pew-to-stadium seat strategy is a good one to encourage more overtly Christian content, but its not always successful. 2011's Warrior, a non-Biblical but very much faith-based film about mixed marital arts, didn't do well commercially despite widespread critical acclaim and well-received advance screenings with church leaders. But Son of God seems to have most of the God-based industrial complex behind it: as the Hollywood Reporter noted, the pair previewed the film at the National Prayer Breakfast and have the backing of influential celebrity pastors like Rick Warren. In a statement to THR, Warren said:
We’re excited Jesus is back on the big screen, and we’re going to fill the theaters. I want every other faith leader in America to do the same. Whether you can buy out a whole theater, or just one screen, now is the time to show up. This is a rare opportunity to bring the story of Christ into our mainstream culture. We want to see Jesus in movie theaters where sight and sound can open up our senses and let grace come in.
In other words, the backers of Son of God are hoping for its own Passion of the Christ moment. The 2004 Mel Gibson film was a huge commercial success, grossing over $600 million, despite mixed reviews from critics and very understandable concerns over the portrayal of Jewish people in the film. Son of God has even made an attempt to remove its own potential controversy from its big screen version. The producers cut out scenes with the Devil when re-formatting their miniseries for the big screen. That's because, in part, the actor who played the devil bore (for some) a striking resemblance to the current president.
The narrative some Christians would like to see here is this: Son of God becomes the next Passion of the Christ, and the non-Godly Noah flops. According to the Hollywood Reporter , some Christian audiences at test screenings were upset by how dark the Darren Aronofsky-directed, Russell Crowe starring Biblical disaster film was, and also by its apparent unfaithfulness to the biblical story. But Noah has celebrity Christian backers of its own, including the pastors at the Hillsong megachurch. Plus, for many Christians, the story of Noah will be exactly the sort of messy Biblical tale from which it's okay to take as inspiration.
The most controversial scene among Christians speaking out against the film seems to be the one in which Noah gets drunk and sad. But Genesis (the book, not the band) fans will know that this is also a scene in the Bible. Soon after finding land in his ark, Noah gets absolutely blitzed. So having a drunk, imperfect Noah on the big screen should be uncontroversial — it's part of the story. To not depict it would miss an important, very Old Testament message about the brutality of human imperfection.
Now that Aronofsky has won his battle with the studios to show his own cut of the film, and not the one studios think will appeal to Christians, it looks like the director's Bible film "for everyone" will remain just that. And besides, the wider marketing effort for the big-budget epic is hardly focused on its Biblical integrity. Its a classic tale of star power and special effects: