The New Bible Picture: How Contemporary Filmmakers Are Putting A Dark Twist On A Classic Genre

Cecil B. DeMille, the king of the classic Bible picture, once famously said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” One wonders if DeMille was trying to be boastful when he proclaimed this, because if he was, he certainly didn’t do a very good job. The Bible is filled to the brim with countless parables that serve to illuminate both the good and bad sides of human nature, and it ought to go without saying that any filmmaker who possesses a modicum of storytelling talent should be able to adapt any number of the myriad of stories found in it. However, while DeMille’s declaration certainly shows that any filmmaker with the gumption to adapt a Biblical tale for the screen can easily do so, it by no means offers any sort of advice on how the story should be interpreted and, moreover, what the overall tone of the film should be.

A poster for DeMille's 1956 Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.
A poster for DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.

From the 1920’s to the 1950’s, DeMille made a number of Bible pictures that ranged from the story of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (1927’s The King of Kings) to the tale of Samson’s triumph over the Philistines (1949’s Samson and Delilah). He was also responsible for the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments and the 1956 re-make that starred Charlton Heston as Moses. Each story was more extravagant than the last and each are now regarded as amazing feats of technical filmmaking. DeMille’s success, however, should not imply that he had a monopoly on the Bible film; other filmmakers like Henry Koster and William Wyler made films that dealt with divine stories that were just as impressive as any of DeMille’s efforts.

But by the mid-1960’s, the ancient epics began to lose their public and critical appeal. Films like Cleopatra, The Bible: In the Beginning, and The Fall of the Roman Empire were given universal thumbs down for their reliance on luxurious sets (which many regarded as the worst example of Hollywood self-indulgence) and dismissal of true human substance.

There may also be another, more subtle reason, for the decline of the Bible picture during the 1960’s and it is not an issue of set design and production value, but rather an issue of narrative and character. All of the classic Bible films were told in a fairly straight forward way; the good guys were good all the way and had the Big Fella in the sky looking out for them, and the bad guys were lowdown scoundrels who deserved everything they got, which was usually God’s wrath. It is a fun, simple kind of story that can touch the heart of any romantic, but even then, it can get a bit boring to see the same thing over and over again. Sure, the characters and the story may be a tad different, but the overall theme is still the same: The Godly man will be saved while the heathen is struck down by the Almighty. Films can usually get away with telling relatively similar stories, but the 60’s epics were suffering from flat out homogenization. As there was really nothing new to expect from these films, the public decided to stop going, and it wasn’t long before studios realized that there was no profit in even trying to make such movies anymore. And so it was that the Bible film would lay dormant for about 40 years.

But then around the turn of the century, it appeared that Biblical films were about to enter mainstream theaters again. The 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt was received with positive reviews (it currently holds a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes) regarding its resplendent animation as well as its dramatic emphasis on the Exodus story. DeMille’s telling of Moses’s story was fun to look at, but it didn’t carry much emotional weight. Moses did exactly as God instructed him and Ramses was defeated at the end of the day. But the animated version of Moses’s tale was much darker and intense; when you watch the picture, you see Moses’ heartbreak at having to be the one to free the Hebrews at the cost of losing his friendship with his brother Ramses (there is a powerful line in the song The Plagues in which Moses declares, “Even now, I wish that God had chose another”).

This clash between divine instruction and personal desires is one that (relative to the history of the Biblical epic) has barely been tapped into and is still rarely explored by filmmakers. Following The Prince of Egypt, the two most notable films in the Biblical genre were Catherine Hardwick’s The Nativity Story and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. While both films were respected for being technically proficient and well crafted, they were still regarded as modern rehashes of old (some may say outdated) stories that didn’t really offer anything new. Gibsons’ picture was controversial and caused a lot of talk, but that was mainly because of the explicit violence, not the overall interpretation of the story. Again, it seemed as though this genre of film would be lost to the annals of cinematic history.

A poster for Darren Aronofsky's 2014 Bilbical Drama Noah.
A poster for Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 Biblical drama Noah.

But in 2014, we were given a radical new vision of what the Bible film can be like in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Now, it ought to be stressed that this picture has gained fairly lackluster reviews. Some people dislike it because it deviates from the original story too much, others because the deviations themselves are too outlandish to comprehend (while he didn’t flat out dislike the movie, film critic Mark Kermode said that it is more of a sci-fi picture than a Biblical epic). But one of the biggest criticisms against the film is directed at the eponymous character, played by Russell Crowe. As Andrew O’Hehir of Salon magazine describes him, Noah is, “…a satanic antihero” and a “…vegan cult leader.”

Others share his interpretation of the character and demonize him for being a savage person who puts the orders of God before his family. But this is exactly why the film is so thought provoking; Noah does do all of these horrid things, and he is not at all the most compassionate or sympathetic character in the movie. But within the film’s universe, we see that each of the commands that Noah is given takes something out of him and makes him more abrasive and cruel. There is a sense that he doesn’t like what he is being commanded to do but has to force himself to do it because God is ordering him to (bear in mind, this is a film where God exists and does, to some degree, tell Noah what to do).

The confusion, the heartache, the fury, the confidence, and the doubt that plagues Noah’s mind is all present in the film and leads to a character that cannot easily be classified as a hero or a villain. This is something that has never occurred in the history of the Biblical picture. Moses is a hero, Christ is a hero, and Samson is a hero. But this cinematic interpretation of Noah shows him as a lost, distraught man who was chosen by God to perform something that he truly regrets doing (Aronofsky himself described Noah as someone suffering from extreme survivor’s guilt). The film as a whole is exceptionally dark and does not at all offer any of the sentimental comforts of earlier Bible films. This is a picture where God’s wrath is unleashed upon people with families and loved ones, not faceless villains who must be eradicated.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the central antagonist of the picture, Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone), who provides excellent gravitas as a character who, to some degree, wants to be connected with God but has been condemned to a life without the possibility of feeling His presence (he is one of the descendants of Cain, who was banished to the East after he murdered Abel). Thus, the character that would be portrayed as a cold-blooded monster in a more romantic age is now seen as a man who is rebelling against the God who made him who he was. It’s this moral maelstrom that Aronofsky throws us into and he never once offers any easy answers; the wisdom that we get from the film and the final judgments that we make of each character is up to us to decide, and it is a tough decision to make no matter what.

While Noah is a difficult film to watch, it does offer a taste of possible things to come. Ridley Scott’s retelling of the Moses story, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is currently slated to be released on December 12th later this year. While there isn’t much information out about the film’s tone or the direction that the filmmakers are taking it, there is plenty of room for speculation as to how Scott will present this story. The previous incarnations of the book of Exodus have all shown the spectacle of the ten plagues and the intense dramatic relationship between Moses and Ramses, but Scott could potentially make the film darker by continuing what Aronofsky started by showing Moses (played by Christian Bale) as a deeply conflicted man who has to not only lead his people out of Egypt, but also endure the pain of standing against his brother Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton).

Though Scott will certainly turn in a spectacle driven drama, there is one problem that may or may not hamper the film’s success and that is that the Exodus story is one that has been told a number of times by now. Aronofsky, at the very least, was adapting a portion of the Bible that is rarely shown on screen, and so there is a novel aspect to Noah. Scott, however, has to find a way to make Exodus a film that can tell an old story in a new way. The dangers of being repetitious when it comes to religious stories can be seen in another Biblical film that was released this year; Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Son of God, a chronicle of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

This film is similar to Noah in that it has received negative reviews, but it has received very different criticisms than Aronofsky’s picture. While Noah is seen as an oddity that can at least be admired for its weirdness, Son of God is seen as just another Christ film that tells the same story that we’ve been told in many other movies. In essence, the fact that it offers nothing new is what has hurt the film the most (it currently holds a 22% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and it is something that Scott has to watch out for in regards to his film. While there is no doubt that Scott’s technical skills will shine through in Exodus, one wonders what spin he’ll put on Moses’s story that will both inspire the spirit and intrigue the mind.

The Bible has been a part of humanity for countless generations, and while it is up to everyone to decide for themselves whether they believe in its content or not, most find something of worth in their interpretation of it, whether it is good or bad. The Biblical picture is a fascinating means by which filmmakers are able to tell the parables of old, but the well of romanticism has run dry. Now, it seems, is just a good a time as any to show the other side of the coin, the side that shows man’s tumultuous relationship with God and how the path of righteousness is not always an easy one to follow. The season of the tender Biblical epic was needed and has now passed. What lies ahead may be harder to bear, but just as necessary to experience.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. The Biblical narrative is full of central characters who are not any clear way heroic. Jacob stole his brother’s inheritance and yet God turned him into a patriarch. The twelve tribes of Israel are founded by men, with the exception of Benjamin, Ephraim, and Mannasseh, who sold their brother into slavery. Israel’s first king, Saul, follows a Walter White esque course trajectory. He is first a sympathetic hero, then later a villain who seeks to kill God’s new appointed king, David.

    To determine that biblical characters lack ambiguity, darkness, and mixed responses would be to be ignorant of the main fare of the bible. Also, I also believe that is where Darren Aronofsky has fallen short. He changes the Noah epic to make Noah brutal.

    In the original story God has Noah preserve wives for all his sons so that humanity could begin again. It is through a deliberate to the text that Aronofsky creates his “darken” Noah, thus rendering any real insight into the inherent ambiguity of the flood story mute. A movie could very well be made within the original parameters in mind, and still deal with whether or not Noah’s not letting people into the Ark is cruel.

    • I agree that the change was drastic and did make Noah into a fairly despicable person, but I don’t know if I’d say that Aronofsky was wrong in doing so. I myself put a lot if stock in The Bible and believe in a lot of the wisdom it has to offer, but I don’t mind if people ask questions and offer different interpretations. I neglected to talk about this movie in my article, but I think Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is similar to Noah in that it drastically humanized a divine person. To find fault in these kind of people (though they are usually fictional faults) does serve to create a connection with the audience. We can certainly admire them and love them as holy icons, but if they are made slightly human then I think we are able to relate to them more. But I don’t know for sure, and I certainly don’t want to set anything in stone. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. I think if a person wants to enjoy a movie based on religious books, take a minute beforehand to set aside your expectations and religious associations with the title.

  3. Films about Biblical stories and religious themes have for many years had a bad name, either being cheap and preachy or very controversial like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But finally we have received a thoughtful, intelligent film with Christian themes thanks to Darren Aronofsky.

    • I agree. While I do have a soft spot for the classic Bible pictures and even some of the newer ones (I enjoyed The Nativity Story and The Passion of the Christ even though it may sound otherwise in the article). But while those films function mostly as straight stories, Noah does delve deeper into the psychology and spirituality of a man who is tasked to do a very difficult thing. I’m really happy to see that such a film has been made and I hope that Exodus proves to be just as interesting and meaningful.

  4. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I can’t help but recall the old Bible games for the NES (the Wisdom Tree ones) with this. There have been numerous biblical films over the decades which have all avoiding being kitsch, but I struggle to name a video game that handles the Bible seriously and effectively. Where’s the game equivalent to The Last Temptation of Christ? A lot of untapped potential to explore.

  5. Jerry Ch

    Noah has been getting some shitty criticism. I did not watch the movie expecting I would learn something historical or I would watch a movie version of the Bible. What I expected was a decent film with great actors, nice scenes and graphics and this is exactly what I watched. There were also nice some nice messages.

  6. dakota shanks

    Without the doubt “The Bible:In The Beginning” is one of the greatest religious epic film ever + one of the great triumpt of early hollywood movies!! John Huston who act/direct/narrated the film did a great job and he surely looks good as Noah as well! He truly deserves the credit!! And the rest of cast members too did a wonderful job too,not to mentiong Peter O’Toole who played three angels of God did a great performace to the existent it was very mysterious!! Though it was brief I especially loved the dark and perverted sences of Cities of Sodom and Gomorha in the film. It was quite mysterious and perverted in same time. It was awe-hsome!! Without the doubt “Bible:In The Beginning”is truly one of the earlier master piece with great religious significance and it deserves to be way up there along with other great religious master pieces like,”Ten Commendments”,”Ben-Hur”,”Solom and Sheba”,The Greatest Story Ever Written”,and in our time “Passion of Christ” and so forth!!

    • I just watched it the other night for the first time and loved it too. I wasn’t raised with any Christian background and am very new to The Bible. It’s great to have some of the stories put on the screen where I can more easily understand them. Having the characters played by great actors doesn’t hurt either 🙂

    • RaleighReiter

      I didn’t like the Noah’s Ark bit too much as Noah seemed a bit of a bumbler.
      The ark, as described in the Bible, would have been a large floating chest. The one in the film hardly looked seaworthy, and would not have held all those animals.

    • Less ah “graphic” than the Bible book, but a pretty good one. My favorite story is Noah’s Ark, also scenes in Sodom with Peter O’Toole as the Angels kept my attention.

  7. This is a sign of the times. In decades past, people had a craving for wholesome media. They appreciated Biblical movies that didn’t stray in the slightest bit from the stories they depicted just like they appreciated bubblegum pop music with little to no lyrical content and television shows that centered around the everyday life of a simple family. Today’s society seems to have a desire for darkness. Folksy singers like John Denver and Jim Croce have long been replaced by melancholy crooners like The Weeknd (who I am a huge fan of) and JMSN. Family-oriented TV programs like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet no longer exist because people prefer grim shows such as American Horror Story. It only stands to reason that Biblical filmmakers would follow the crowd and adapt to the dark trend that everyone is so enthralled by.

  8. Maria the Writer

    I enjoyed your article. It is true that the movie industry has returned to Biblical movies, but I believe they are promoting fallacies to the public. Every movie that has been released along with the Bible stories that aired on the History channel has either swapped the character’s identities from the presentations in the Bible. The cinematography is excellent in them all, but that one aspect of the stories not completely matching up with the biblical parables are annoying.

  9. Thoughtful article! Just a note: to the best of my knowledge, Cleopatra is not a biblical character. The movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is more of a riff on Shakespeare’s play “Anthony and Cleopatra.”

    • I understand; as far as I know, I’m pretty sure that The Fall of the Roman Empire isn’t a Biblical film either. I just included those two so as to give examples of extravagant productions that didn’t yield much critical praise. But you are totally right, those films are adaptations of any work in the Old or New Testament.

  10. I think anytime religious ideals are made into movies, there is always going to be backlash involved. I think the key is separating one’s personal feelings for what the picture is trying to display from what a person may take out of it.

  11. So Noah movie seems to be getting a fair amount of flack from religious types around the world because perhaps it differs from the story they claim but cannot prove is real. Wonders.

    • Danny Cox

      Not to mention that Darren Aronofsky, the director for Noah, is an atheist and some say he intentionally made the movie in an extremely anti-Biblical fashion.

  12. Mary Awad

    I’m a pretty hard-core catholic but I’m all for different interpretations of Bible stories. I think it keeps them interesting and fresh. Sometimes the canon of the Church is so blah, it needs a little umph if you know what I mean. Nice article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Thank you for your kind words and I’m in agreement; I’m fairly religious myself (Christian) but I enjoy thoughtful, genuine inquiries and interpretations that offer different angles into Biblical stories.

  13. Austin

    I honestly think that Noah’s biggest downfall was the title: Noah. If Aronofsky had named it anything else, it would have been an acceptable, if provocative, portrayal of the humanity of a man burdened with the task of witnessing mass human genocide while balancing the demands of his creator with the humans needs as a family head. It’s something out of an apocalypse movie. But Aronofsky, being who he is, has to stir some trouble up but naming it Noah. Props to him for doing so, and to you as well for doing the movie justice. To be honest, I was working on a piece with the same topic as yours, but you pulled it off much better than I was doing.

    • Thank you for the kind words man, they mean a lot. I hope I was able to touch down on the same topics that you were going to in your article. Your point about the title is really interesting because it brings up the question of whether more people would’ve been okay with it had it not specifically been a story about Noah from the Old Testament. There are a number of Great Flood stories from a number of different cultures so you’re correct in saying that had Aronofsky just called it “The Great Flood” or something, people would’ve probably said, “Oh, maybe it will be like the Noah story, but for all we know it’s just a different story with a similar set up.” But by specifying Noah from the Book of Genesis, it immediately became a Judeo-Christian story which could offend people who don’t abide changes to the original. But then again, there is no guarantee that that would’ve occurred. It is some interesting food for thought though. Thanks again for commenting Austin 🙂

  14. BadTripFilms

    I’d be interested to read an examination of the biblical film’s evolution tied to technological advancement. The author cites previous biblical films that were made before the technological boom we are presently in – “Noah” may well be the beginning of another biblical boom. Filmmakers will now be able to create versions of these stories that were never before conceivable. I think a question to ask is – are bible movies making a come back because of their topic matter or simply how they’re executed?

    • That’s a terrific question and frankly I don’t know. Even for it’s time, films like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are spectacular in regards to their effects (I’m thinking mainly of the Angel of Death and chariot race sequences respectively). Moreover, one of the novel things about those pictures was that the effects were almost entirely real; the chariot race sequence in particular was so realistic that many audience members believed that when the chariots toppled over and the dummies fell out and got trampled by horses, that it was actual actors who were getting hurt so, needless to say the production was effective. With that said though, filmmakers can still add their own art design to films to make them feel new and different (one only need look at Noah). So, while I do think the technical boom may influence how filmmakers craft their movies, I don’t think it alone is the reason for the recent surge in Biblicaly themed films.

  15. I haven’t seen Noah, but chapeau to Aronofsky for tackling a biblical character that enjoys an almost embarrassing amount of scholarship, but little pop culture exposure. It’s a choice with balls if you consider that most filmic interpretations of biblical narratives are limited to the much more idealized (though not necessarily unambiguous) Moses and Jesus. Although one of my favourites is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Vangelo secondo Matteo, I think it would be refreshing to see more biblical films take up characters Jaye has mentioned in his reply above — Jacob, Abraham (who is ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac! How’s THAT for morally or emotionally charged?!), or Lot. The Old Testament alone provides almost endless material for Hollywood rewrites.

  16. innatelykait

    When it comes to religion–be it movies, texts, or even worship–you can’t please everyone 100%. I think people need to go into these things knowing that they might not align with what they believe and realize that it is first and foremost to entertain and make money rather than impart a religious message.

  17. ShayS

    I liked this article because it takes into consideration what the Bible says and what the movies says. Sometimes the movie tells us what the Bible says and sometimes, the movies completely change the Bible. However, I do like the fact that Noah was mentioned because it was a good movie because it made the audience think about things they probably wouldn’t normally think about. I didn’t see Son of God because I saw the Bible series on the history channel and it pretty much just copied that. Overall, thanks for the article.

  18. Stephanie M.

    Lovely article; I applaud you for tackling the darker side of Biblical pictures, particularly the most recent. I also agree that, while not all the changes are positive, Biblical films have made some improvements over the lavish and homogenized ’60s epic versions.

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