What Happens When Hollywood Respects the Bible?
With an estimated $140 million to spend, Director Ridley Scott gave us massive swarms of locusts, a terrifying wall of water and an all-star cast, led by Oscar-winner Christian Bale.
None of that helped draw in an Exodus-like throng of moviegoers, though. Scott’s “Exodus” collected a less-than-commanding $24.1 million in its debut weekend.
As you might imagine, faith-based moviegoers are critical to a biblical movie’s success. But oddly, it seemed neither Scott nor Bale were keen on wooing them. Bale called Moses “schizophrenic” and “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life” at a press conference. Scott was haunted by comments he made to GQ in 2012, when he alleged that religion was “the biggest source of evil” in the world.
But perhaps the biggest strike against “Exodus” was the literary license the movie took with the source material: Moses became a guerilla leader in Scott’s capable hands, and his casting of an 11-year-old boy as God didn’t help matters.
When explaining Exodus‘ relatively poor performance, Faith Driven Consumer founder Chris Stone pointed the finger of blame squarely at the movie’s biblical liberties.
“Consumers in general have a clear preference for movies that accurately portray their source material,” Stone wrote in a press release. “Movies portraying biblical stories are no exception, and in fact Faith Driven Consumers are more aware of inaccuracies because they conflict with deeply held religious beliefs.”
But staying true to the Bible doesn’t guarantee a hit. Here’s a quick look at how Hollywood has treated the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New—and how audiences have treated these moviemakers in return.
“The Bible: In the Beginning” (1966): This film tackles the first 22 chapters of Genesis, ranging from creation’s first seven days to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. It featured some of the biggest stars of the day, including Richard Harris (Cain), John Huston (Noah, who also directed), George C. Scott (Abraham) and Peter O’Toole (Three Angels).
And the Bible Says … Pretty accurate, really. But when you only have 174 minutes to blast through some of the Bible’s best-known stories, you don’t have time to dilly-dally.
The result: Audiences liked it enough to spend 34.9 million on it—or about $255.8 million in today’s cash.
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“Noah” (2014): When God gets set to destroy all of humanity via a major flood, He tells Noah (Russell Crowe) to build an ark, stick his family and a whole bunch of animals in the thing and wait for rain. But when Noah sees that man’s sinfulness lives even in his own kin, the guy starts going a little crazy.
And the Bible says … Um, what’s up with all these rock monsters? And I don’t recall Noah trying to kill his grandkids in Genesis.
The result: Noah earned a little over $100 million stateside—a pretty so-so take for this big-budget tale as told by Darren Aronofsky. But it made up for it overseas, banking a worldwide gross of $362.6 million.
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“The Ten Commandments” (1956): When we think of Moses, most of us can’t help but picture Charlton Heston in full Charlton Heston mode, spreading out his hands to part the Red Sea. It cost more than $13 million to make—a record for the day—and was, in some ways, the original special effects spectacle, done as only Cecil B. DeMille could do it.
And the Bible says … OK, DeMille’s 220-minute epic added a lot of stuff that you’ll not find in the book of Exodus. But even so, the thing is so slavishly reverential that most folks don’t even notice.
The result: “The Ten Commandments” was the biggest blockbuster of 1956 and, according to Box Office Mojo, earned $65.5 million over its run. Not impressed? According to Guinness World Records, if you adjust those figures for inflation, it made more than $2 billion. The Hebrews could’ve built a titanic golden calf with that sort of cash.
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“Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” (2002): The first feature film to come from the once wildly popular VeggieTales animated franchise, “Jonah” focuses on a reluctant, prophesying bit of asparagus who has been ordered by God to go to Nineveh and warn its citizens to repent of their wicked ways.
And the Bible says … as far as I know, the Bible never even mentions asparagus—much less entrusts important prophecies to it. But while the story took some, um, liberties, the message was right on point—at least for Veggie-fans of a certain age.
The result: “Jonah” earned $25.6 million—not a horrible result, but not enough to save parent company Big Idea Entertainment from bankruptcy. (It’s now owned by DreamWorks.)
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“The Nativity Story” (2006): While movie makers tend to take some fanciful liberties with Old Testament stories, movies based around the story of Jesus tend to stick much closer to the original script. “The Nativity Story” (starring an actual pregnant teen named Keisha Castle-Hughes) brought a new sense of realism to a tale often drowned out in Christmas spectacle.
And the Bible says … The movie adds to the biblical narrative, but it changes very little. It’s not markedly different from what you’d see at a church Nativity play (minus the bathrobes).
The result: The fact the story is so familiar may have hurt it. Critics were fairly lukewarm, and it earned just $37.6 million stateside—barely enough to cover its $35 million budget.
Paul Asay has written for The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Beliefnet.com, and The (Colorado Springs) Gazette. He writes about culture for PluggedIn and also blogs for Patheos.com