On Friday, the remake of Ben-Hur hits theaters. While obviously not based on the Bible, it does take its inspiration from one of the other best-selling books about Jesus, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The original Ben-Hur is also mandatory Easter television programming — along with The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told, big studio epics from the 1950s and 1960s that were made during an era when Hollywood had no problem taking a cue from the pulpit. That, of course, has changed drastically over the five or so decades since. To get a better sense of where the voice of God stands in movies now, MEL Radio talked to Christianity Today’s chief film critic Alissa Wilkinson about the mighty return of the swords-and-sandals genre, Kirk Cameron’s faith-based films assembly line and why Life of Brian is the best movie about Jesus ever.
To hear the full interview, click on the PodcastOne embed above. Otherwise, check out the edited version of our conversation with Wilkinson below.
You recently tweeted, “‘Christian’ isn’t a genre of film (it’s a market segment), but I’d love to write a series on the most popular and what genres they *are* in.” How many genres of Christian films are there?The faith-based market has a few genres it really loves. One is the “near-death experience” genre — e.g., Heaven is for Real or 90 minutes in Heaven. There’s also the “football movie” subgenre — e.g., Facing the Giants — which is essentially an independent film made by a church that did really well. The Blind Side falls into this category as well. Next, there are political movies like God’s Not Dead. They’re all based, more or less, on the same internet meme that’s been going around forever about the freshman who confronts the atheist professor and wins. Finally, there’s a family drama genre that’s really just sermon illustrations — these people had a problem but now they have this step-by-step solution to fix it. Those tend to be the Kirk Cameron movies or Pure Flix movies.
How do bigger Hollywood films like the Ben-Hur remake and Noah fit within these genres?
Not all that cleanly. Studios are really confused about how to make a movie for a faith-based audience that will make a lot of money. Noah is a good example. It was marketed to a Christian audience like, “We made this for you!” But it’s obvious that isn’t the case.
Because it goes off-book. Which is funny because The Passion of the Christ has all kinds of stuff in it that isn’t in the Bible and is drawn from Catholic tradition. But when The Passion came out, there hadn’t been a lot of movies for a faith-based audience in a long time. So everybody got excited and conveniently forgot about the stuff that isn’t on the page. Personally, I think going off book is great. I mean, it’s a movie, it should be creative and imaginative. But nothing makes a faith-based audience madder than straying from a literal interpretation of the Bible.
You mean literal chapter and verse?
Yeah. And I gave Noah a pretty positive review; I tend to like Darren Aronofsky. But I got more flak for it than I did for giving Wolf of Wall Street a positive review. It was unreal.
Why were people so angry about it?
A lot of them hadn’t seen the movie yet; they had only heard Glenn Beck talk about it. And he had said something about how it doesn’t mention God at all. That, of course, isn’t true; they just call God “The Creator,” which would make perfect sense if taken literally. The rock monsters also drove them bananas. Those creatures kind of exist in some Jewish traditions, and Aronofsky was drawing heavily on Jewish traditions. But Christians were like, “This is our story! You can’t add things to it!” What a lot of them forgot was that the actual story of Noah in the Bible is only like 40 verses long.
It’s like turning a Dr. Seuss book into a movie. There isn’t a lot to go on.
Not at all. You’re trying to make a feature film so you need to have characters with motivations and things that typically stretch beyond a few paragraphs.
You mentioned Wolf of Wall Street earlier, which Martin Scorsese directed. A lot of people forget that he also directed one of the most controversial Christian films of all time — The Last Temptation of Christ.
I’m even more fascinated to see his next movie, Silence. The book it’s based on is about Jesuit priests and is explicitly about faith and apostasy. I’m intrigued that nobody has yet to picket the mere mention of it, whereas Scorsese got firebombed for The Last Temptation of Christ.
What are your thoughts on films that aren’t necessarily anti-religion — for example, The Last Temptation of Christ — but that present an image that doesn’t necessarily align with the beliefs of the more devout?
If I were advising someone from a market perspective, I would say sidestep the faith-based audience entirely, because you’re never going to convince them to see your film. Creatively, though, I think seeing how other people understand Jesus or the Bible is great. That’s what art should do; it’s a perfect way to see the world outside of your own hermetically sealed set of assumptions. I can think of very few examples in which I would feel personally offended by a portrayal of any of those characters or stories — even if they deviated greatly from the text.
In fact, the only thing that does offend me is the God’s Not Dead series. I think it portrays people in a really dishonest manner. The basic assumption is that there are no happy atheists, and there are no miserable Christians. It’s a very black-and-white world, and that’s just dishonest.
How are any of these films marketed to Christian audiences?
The only tried-and-true method, which pretty much began with The Passion, is to go to pastors and provide them with sermon notes and clips or have advanced screenings for them.
So there’s basically a separate press kit for churches?
Yeah. And sometimes they’ll say, “You can buy tickets as a bloc on opening night.” But that’s not working as well as it did with The Passion and a lot of the big faith-based films that followed. Mainly because of oversaturation. In 2013, there was a huge jump in faith-based films. It went from maybe one every three months to one every other week. What the marketers have told me is that pastors came back to them with fatigue, saying, “It’s fine if we go as a church a couple times a year, but I’m not going to pitch your film to my congregation. It’s not what I’m here to do.” So that method has been dropping big-time.
At Sundance this year, though, I talked to a marketer who specializes in big data. They were excited about all the niche faith-based markets they could now target — the people who watched certain movies on Netflix, the people who checked into a church more than once a week, the people who liked certain religious books on Facebook. They felt this allowed them to be more effective than carpet-bombing the whole market. That said, they still think that me and somebody’s grandma are going to see the same films, and that’s just not true. They haven’t figured out that there are numerous markets within the faith-based audience.
What was the impetus for Hollywood sticking its toe in faith-based waters? Was it The Passion? Was it the cottage industry Kirk Cameron built? Was it a combination therein?
It definitely was The Passion. Nobody saw it coming. Mel Gibson paid for it himself, which is why he got away with it. It’s a super violent film in Aramaic. Who wants to see that?
Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are responsible for a lot of this, too. Their Son of God made a ton of money, which is even more surprising when you realize it was basically a supercut of Jesus scenes from The Bible, a series that had already aired on the History Channel. There were a handful of other movies that also were successfully marketed at a big audience. The Blind Side is one of the better examples. There are tons of problems with it, but the faith elements are readily apparent. It allowed the faith-based audience to feel like, “This is us! This is our story!”
Is that why we’ve come full circle with movies like Ben-Hur — a big studio film from 1959 that’s been remade into a contemporary tentpole release, both of which have serious religious overtones, even though they were released almost 60 years apart? Even Noah was the work of Darren Aronofsky, one of the best independent filmmakers alive.
Noah was something Aronofsky was really interested in making, and he finally got enough money to do it. That’s true of Scorsese’s Silence, too. So some of these movies are passion projects. The problem is that a passion project from someone like Aronofsky, who publicly professes to be an atheist and not a Christian, doesn’t typically connect with Christian audiences. Now, if Aronofsky had said, “I’m a Christian,” it would’ve been a different story. To that end, I’m fascinated to see what happens with The Birth of a Nation later this year. It’s a historical film, but it’s made by somebody who’s vocal about his Christian faith. I’m interested to see how that plays with an audience that might not be predisposed to be on Nat Turner’s side of the story.
How do the most devout portions of a Christian audience feel about movies like the Oh, God! series with George Burns — where God is a character but in a very mainstream, comedic way? The same for mainstream movies about atheism such as Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying.
The response is generally negative. But that’s speaking in super broad terms. Most of those films don’t even cross the radar of people who might consider themselves part of the audience for faith-based films. The big data person I talked to at Sundance said the typical person who went to see God’s Not Dead in the theater didn’t see any other movies at the theater that year.
Are there any examples of a movie that would appeal to both a mainstream audience and a faith-based audience?
There haven’t been a lot of good examples of crossover films, if you want to call them that. In the same way that in the 1990s you didn’t see a lot of crossover in music in those two markets either. The swords-and-sandals movies are probably the best examples. The other film that comes up a lot is Calvary, in which Brendan Gleeson plays a good priest. It isn’t a film that would play to a certain segment of the faith-based audience because it has a lot of bad language and frank sexual discussion. (It’s partly about the fallout of the priest abuse scandals.) But it’s played pretty well with religious audiences who would never go see a small Irish indie otherwise.
Last question: What’s the best movie about Jesus?
I really love Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I think it’s fantastic. It’s sad to me that people ever considered it controversial because it’s not blasphemous, it’s just really funny. That said, faith-based movies are usually not funny in any way. The reason why we can’t do comedy within the Christian world continues to mystify me. I really hope it changes.