Hollywood is full of bright people with a nose for the next classic, but they do not always find it
The Biblical epic is back – perhaps. The latest attempt to revive what was once the favoured Hollywood genre is Sir Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which has opened in the United States, and which will open here after Christmas. So far the film has had reasonable reviews. Ridley Scott was the genius behind, let us remember, Gladiator, a truly wonderful picture that showed that the sword and sandals epic still had life in it. He was also behind the far less successful Kingdom of Heaven, a turkey of a movie about the Crusades. Will Exodus repeat the success of Gladiator or will it be another Kingdom of Heaven? Time, and box office returns, will tell.
Films about the Bible have historically been popular. This must have something to do with the fact that the film industry and evangelicalism share a common homeland, America. American Protestants may well have wanted to see something uplifting on a Sunday afternoon, and Hollywood was only too happy to oblige. But Exodus is aimed at a worldwide audience – it has to be, if it is ever to earn back the huge outlay it took to make – and thus it has to appeal to a far wider community that the American Bible Belt. A successful Biblical epic has to transcend the usual cultural barriers. For example, it has to do well in India, where Christianity is a minority religion.
Actually, this is something that every film strives to do: come up with as story that will make sense to all people everywhere. And that is quite hard to do. Hollywood is full of bright people with a nose for the next classic, but they do not always find it. There are some stories that do have immense appeal, but they also churn out an impressive amount of duds. For every Shawshank Redemption, there are dozens of films that no one remembers with much pleasure.
This is where the Bible comes in. As a text, it represents the greatest publishing success story in human history. The Bible has been read by millions, because it crosses cultural barriers without seeming to have need of cultural translation. It touches on existential themes that are common to the whole of humanity, and thus resonate with all people everywhere. Its success is not bounded by space or time. There are hardly any places where the Bible has not gone down well, and there has not been a century in which it has not been popular. It has the distinction of being the most reproduced book, and probably the most banned book at the same time. So, to plunder the Bible for something filmable looks like a good idea. It will leave everyone happy: the film-makers will have a hit, and the religious will have free publicity.
Only, it doesn’t quite work like that. Film dates so rapidly – the Bible never does. Remember Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth? It put Jesus in a particular time and place: it aimed of course to put him into first century Palestine, but it strikes me now that it put him into 1970’s Italy. A film has the habit of confining its subject to the limitations imposed by the screen. The film that runs through your head as you read the Bible stories – which provide one with scant detail as to scenery and background, leaving you free to fill these in for yourself – allows you to see Jesus as your contemporary.
Gladiator had a fair dose of historical accuracy, and it also ‘updated’ the reign of Marcus Aurelius by adapting it to modern tastes. The Biblical epic Exodus also draws out themes that will appeal to a modern audience, or so one judges by reading the critics. And it also is set in Ancient Egypt, treating us to the visual splendours of what we assume Ancient Egypt to have looked like. To succeed, like Gladiator, it has to do ancient and modern at the same time, which can sometimes jar. But the Biblical story, which is a classic that will never be exhausted of meaning, doesn’t need the Hollywood treatment to make it accessible to us. It always is. God has not changed; neither have we, much: when we read about Moses and the Children of Israel, and the Ten Commandments, we recognise present realities. We read their story and our own story at the same time. Nevertheless, though the film won’t add much to our understanding of the Bible, I would like to see it. For if it tells us not much about the source Book, it might well tell us a great deal about modern humanity, that eternal Book’s intended audience.