Religion has long been a tricky or outright taboo area for entertainment. The fear of boycotts, protests and bad word of mouth that surrounded films such as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Passion” made studios wary of devoting time and money to projects that might offend the faithful and result in scandal.
That fear extended to network television, where direct revenue from advertisement is easily threatened by controversy, and only syrupy shows with the gentlest of touches (“Touched by an Angel”, “Highway to Heaven”) survived for long runs.
Yet, as magazine editors and TV programmers well know, the truth is that Jesus, though he may not have been a capitalist, really sells. The ultimate financial success of “The Passion” and the ratings bonanza that greeted The History Channel’s ten-hour “The Bible” miniseries made it clear that there is a way to tap into religious stories that can both appeal to the masses and minimize the risk of offending the faithful. It’s even given a few studios the courage to flirt with sacrilege.
Hollywood and TV producers have a slew of religious-themed projects in development. It was reported this week that Reza Aslan’s controversial novel “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” has been optioned by Lionsgate productions. Given the firestorm that greeted the novel’s release early this year, it’s likely that any resulting movie will be the most controversial of the bunch.
Some of the other productions about Jesus include a look at the missing years of Jesus’s life. The History Channel, following on its miniseries success from earlier this year, is planning a series called Jesus: “The Lost Years” that will tell the story of a young Jesus beginning his career as an exorcist in the Roman occupied Holy Land. (None of the four Christian Gospels give any indication of what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30). The show will be based on the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (an early Christian text that was rejected by the church for being…well mostly just silly.)
This joins October’s announcement that “Waterworld” director Kevin Reynolds would be producing a film called “The Resurrection,” centered on a Roman centurion given the task of investigating rumors of a risen Christ in 1st Century Judea. The “CSI: Holy Land” jokes have already started pouring in.
Also coming down the line are the Ridley Scott directed “Exodus,” with Christian Bale and Aaron Paul cast as Moses and Joshua respectively; Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”; Paul Verhoeven’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (which will be explicitly non-faith based); a remake of “Ben-Hur” (in which Jesus has a small but pivotal role); a Warner Bros. film centered on Pontius Pilate; and, of course, the inevitable follow up to “The Bible” focusing exclusively on the life of Christ.
In many ways these new projects fit the mold of the current Hollywood insistence of only developing projects from properties with existing fan bases, leading to the glut of superhero movies, Sherlock Holmes reboots and odd marginalia like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” or television’s “Da Vinci’s Demons.” But by using religious figures they do risk walking into a minefield. Certainly, any portrayal of Jesus that flirts with self-doubt or (gasp) sexual tension will be met by a vocal outcry from those that consider this blasphemous.
The Superman comparison may be more than obvious, but heaven help the poor soul who tries to make Mary Magdalene into Lois Lane. And let’s just hope no one in Hollywood gets the bright idea to produce “The Prophet Mohammed: Werewolf Slayer.”
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