When we began 2014--the "Year of the Bible" as it was called--many wondered whether religious audiences could carry films to financial success. With "Son of God" taking in nearly $60 million, "Noah" earning more than $100 million, and the insane success of "God's Not Dead", the answer is a resounding "yes." But Hollywood will conduct its final experiment on Friday when Ridley Scott's "Exodus" arrives in theaters.
In some ways, "Exodus" hopes to strike a balance between the two poles of recent Bible films. "Son of God" was a wooden and overly literal adaptation of the Jesus story that captured traditionalist Christians but didn't penetrate deeply into the general market. "Noah" captured non-religious audiences with an all-star cast, but the fanciful, less literal portrayal put off some religious watchers. With an estimated production budget of $140 million, "Exodus" can't afford to lose either. But in order to win over believers en masse, the film will have to overcome three hurdles.
DON'T MESS WITH THE TEXT
According to a 2014 poll of 1,200 adults nationwide, 79 percent of Christians say that accuracy is important to their ticket-buying decisions when it comes to movies dealing with questions of religion. In other words, these potential patrons want a biblical film that sticks to the text and gets at least most of the facts right. This can be a massive hurdle for filmmakers who want to make good art, not just regurgitate a well known tale.
I've argued elsewhere that "artistic liberties are inevitable whenever a story is transferred from one medium to another...[which] requires that audiences actually think about symbols and forms." But most Christians sadly don't think this deeply about films and art. They simply want their Bible movies to look and sound familiar and align with the images they already have in their heads--regardless of how mythologized those pictures may be.
Having screened "Exodus" last week, and not wanting to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I can report that there are some critical deviations from the text that viewers familiar with the Bible will notice. Whether or not these alterations will generate negative responses remains to be seen, but they are significant and numerous enough to be a possible hurdle for this film.
"I AM" A BOY?
Connected to the last point is the way the voice of God is imagined in this film: as a pre-teen boy. Played by 11-year-old British actor, Isaac Andrews, God turns out to be a temperamental and impatient, if not impetuous, child. While Scott seems to portray the character more as the voice of God or God's messenger, when Moses asks who he is, the boy answers with the classic God-name: "I Am." Religious audiences won't miss this moment.
Rabbi David Baron, a consultant on the film, said he believes that Scott's decision to portray God in this way--among other artistic deviations--might cause controversy, because it does not fit with the story as it appears in the text. "They went off the biblical text, but the text was very terse," he said.
Representatives for the marketing firm, Faith-Driven Consumer, were more pointed with their assessment. "The portrayal of God as a willful, angry and petulant child in EXODUS will be a deal breaker for most people of faith around the world," a statement from the company said. To be fair, the company may be feasting on sour grapes after they asked to become advisors on the film and were rejected. Regardless, their opinion of Scott's bold decision may prove true when religious audiences view the film for themselves.
BAD TIME FOR A RACE PROBLEM
Last week, I wrote about how Hollywood has largely barred minorities from Biblical films and why this is problematic. "Exodus" is no exception to this trend. It boasts a largely white cast--with Sigourney Weaver laughably playing an African queen --and relegates actors of color mostly to smaller roles such as "Ramses Servant," "Egyptian Thief," and "Egyptian Lower Class Civilian." And the inequity was not helped by Scott's tone deaf response to those who've raised concerns: "get a life."
The monochromatic cast has proved disconcerting to many, sparking widespread criticism and calls for a boycott on social media. But, specifically, many religious people like myself have expressed dismay. Ryan Herring of Sojourners, for example, vented his outrage for both "Noah" and "Exodus" when he realized there wasn't a single person of Middle Eastern descent in either film.
"Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present. Depictions of white only Biblical figures (including prophets, angels, Jesus, etc.) were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered," he said. "By allowing Hollywood to hijack Biblical stories and display them however they please, we as Christians have also allowed them to be cheapened. We often miss out on cultural aesthetics, language, motifs, and overall richness when stories are told through the lens of European ideals and thought patterns."
With the country in such a raw place on the matter of race, it's an obviously bad time for a film to have such a problem. The question is whether it is glaring and offensive enough to affect ticket sales.
My hunch is that many religious moviegoers will be bothered to some degree by one or more of the aforementioned issues, but they'll go see the film anyway. Religious people are as enamored by celebrity culture as any other group, and the big-name cast will draw many. It stays close enough to the Biblical narrative to feel like the Exodus story that most have imagined. And, it's been more than half a century since Moses and Pharaoh tussled on the big screen, so this may be their only opportunity to see this story on film.
While "Exodus" won't gain the critical acclaim of "Noah" or the religious support of "Son of God," it will probably earn more than those two films combined. That should be more than enough to convince Hollywood to part the seas for another slate of big budget, Bible-based films in the coming years.