The story of the Great Flood will soon hit theaters in the form of Noah, a big-budget epic film starring Russell Crowe and a whole bunch of rain. It will (hopefully) be a fresh take on the classic story, yet it certainly won't be the first time a story from the Bible has appeared on film.
Biblical tales have been played out on the silver screen since the age of silent movies, the early ones often paving the way for improved, updated takes decades later. Charlton Heston famously parted the Red Sea in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, but excess-loving director Cecil B. DeMille had already depicted this momentous feat in his 1922 silent version. George Lucas, take note: People don't get mad at you for remaking your own classic movie if the remake is actually better.
When the U.S. economy started recovering after World War II, money flooded back into the Hollywood system and a slew of Biblical epics followed, starting with Samson and Delilah in 1949 (also directed by DeMille). The film's sexual and violent themes (which DeMille managed to sneak past the keepers of the strict Production Code, under the guise of Biblical accuracy) became a staple of the religious film boom of the 1950s.
Soon, they were popping up everywhere. David and Bathsheba in 1951. Solomon and Sheba in 1959.
They even made multiple films about Barabbas. Who cares about Barabbas?
The Biblical epic peaked at the end of the 1950s with the release of two landmark, bombastic films. DeMille's updated Ten Commandments was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, and for good reason -- the amount of body wax all the shirtless male characters needed must have been through the roof.
The Ten Commandments captured all the wonderment of the Exodus story: The creative plagues, the miracles, the ancient costumes, the overwrought dialogue. Like Titanic, It was a test in excess that ultimately worked. Except for that burning bush. That part's ridiculous.
The other notable Biblical epic of that time period was Ben-Hur (1959), which set the record for most Oscars won (11, including Best Picture) and reminded everyone who had forgotten that yes, Charlton Heston could play a shirtless lead in a Biblical film. Likely more famous for its chariot race sequence, Ben-Hur's plot occurred side-by-side with the story of Jesus Christ, whose face you never see.
The popularity of religious films waned in the 1960s, the most notable example being the misguided, 260-minute Christ biography The Greatest Story Ever Told. With an estimated budget of $21 million, it was one of the most expensive films of its day, and it failed to make back its budget. At the time, people must've thought from the title that they were walking into season 5 of Breaking Bad, only to walk away sorely disappointed.
Was "the greatest story ever told" getting stale? Probably not. There's a reason the Bible has stuck around for so many years, and it's not just because it's a treasure trove of funny names.
But after years of straight retellings of these well-established stories, alternate takes on these tales were inevitable. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, along with director Norman Jewison, went the trippy hippy route with the 1973 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Many religious groups thought it was blasphemous that Jesus had flaws, one of them being Ted Neeley's grating singing voice. But the film (and the musical on which it was based) was a hit, as was the similarly groovy Godspell that same year. And does Monty Python's Life of Brian count as a Biblical film?
Some adaptations weren't as benign. Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ may have provoked more anger than had any other religious film to date, due to its depiction of Christ (Willem Dafoe) fantasizing about giving into his temptations. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ received its own tidal wave of criticism for its brutal torture scenes and possible themes of anti-Semitism.
But Biblical adaptations will never go away, no matter how much controversy they cause. Son of God has already grossed $42 million at the box office (pretty good for a TV movie), and with Noah and Exodus both expecting to bring in big numbers this year, it looks like God is not dead yet.
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- Son of God
Cobbled together from History's miniseries The Bible, Son of God is a lavishly literal retelling of the Jesus Christ story. It's not bad, but it could use a few more Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. Out now.
- God's Not Dead
This alternative examination of religion happens in the setting of a college philosophy class, where a headstrong freshman (Shane Harper) must attempt to convince his stringently intellectual teacher (Kevin Sorbo) that "God's not dead." Out March 21
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) directs this mega-epic, which stars Russell Crowe as the titular ship-builder. The film costars Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Logan Lerman, as well as Jennifer Connelly as Noah's sad-looking wife. Out March 28.
Christian Bale plays Moses in Ridley Scott's new version of the Exodus tale, in which Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby) plays Rhamses and Aaron Paul plays Joshua, who hopefully will punctuate every other prayer with the word "b****." Out Dec. 12.