The Bible on the Big Screen
Whether a literal adaptation of a Biblical text or merely inspired by a Christian idea, the Bible has been interpreted in hundreds of various films and television features. Often raising as much controversy as box office profit, here are descriptions of a few films themed around a Bible story or Biblical times, how much they earned, as well as how they were received by audiences.
* Estimated domestic gross unless otherwise noted
The Ten Commandments (1956) - $65.5 million*
The last film directed by the prolific Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments, stars Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner as Moses and Pharaoh Rameses II, respectively. While partially a remake of DeMille’s silent 1923 film of the same title, the film is loosely based on the understood Exodus storyline from the Bible. However, further details were taken from other sources, such as the first century Jewish historian Josephus, the Sepher ha-Yashar, the Chronicle of Moses, and the Qur'an, as well as some fictional fabrications added out of artistic liberty. Despite the liberties that were taken, the film was hugely popular with both spiritual and secular audiences, being the fifth highest-grossing film of all time, when its earnings are adjusted for inflation for the relative income of over $940 million.
Ben-Hur(1959) - $74 million
The 1880 Lee Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was part of the popular genre of “historical fiction.” Though the prologe depicts the birth of Christ and characters from the New Testement are woven within the work, the story is mainly fictional. Variations of the work are always thought to be highly praised by Christians due to the book being blessed by Pope Leo XIII and the Vatican fully endorsing this 1959 film. The William Wyler film epic was the third adaptation of the novel, starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur. When adjusted for inflation, the film’s earnings are over $700 million, and among its many accolades a total of eleven Oscar category wins is a feat only to be matched by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) $12 million
Telling the story of Jesus Christ from nativity to resurrection, this George Stevens film stars Max von Sydow as Jesus with an impressive supporting cast including Dorothy McGuire, Donald Pleasence, Sidney Poitier, Martin Landau, the last film appearance of Claude Rains, and no stranger to the Bible epic film, Charlton Heston. Contemporary reception by critics was split into two extremes of notable praise or simply “a bore.” An initial running time of over four hours was eventually edited to just over two hours for general U.S. release. The estimated box office of $12 million is worldwide gross to date, but the film was financially a disappointment at the time of its release. The massive budget of reportedly $20 million, acclaimed cast, and Oscar-winning director did not prove a triple threat for earnings, and its failure to connect with audiences made Biblical epics an unspoken taboo for many years.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) $8.4 million
Nikos Kazantzakis penned the novel off which this Martin Scorsese film is based. The controversial work takes the stance that while Jesus Christ was free from sin, by seeing his life from his perspective one observes that Christ still faced all human temptations. This in combination with a controversial “alternate reality” portrayed toward the end of the film outraged religious communities. An extreme protest occurred on October 22, 1988 when a French Christian fundamentalist group threw Molotov cocktails, explosive, flaming glass bottles, inside the Parisian Saint Michel Theater. This resulted in thirteen injured, four with severe burns. To date, the film is still banned in the Philippines, Singapore, and South Africa. While not ostensibly a box office success, the film’s reception has developed into one of respect by critics and some religious groups, most notably, the conservative Christian group Promise Keepers.
The Prince of Egypt (1998) $101.4 million
As the first DreamWorks feature using “traditional animation,” The Prince of Egypt is another depiction of the Exodus storyline, following Moses from his birth to leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Many of the actors who voice the characters also perform the original Stephen Schwartz songs featured in the film, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Ralph Fiennes, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. The film won a Best Original Song Oscar for “When You Believe,” which was performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey at the Academy Awards ceremony. Though artistic liberties were taken with some aspects of the storyline, this work exemplifies the fact of most Bible epics tell their story through animation in recent decades. While banned in some Muslim countries on the basis of it being forbidden to depict Islamic prophets, which Moses is considered, the film was nonetheless a box office success. Until 2007 it was the highest-grossing non-Disney animated feature, when it was surpassed in earnings by The Simpsons Movie.
The Omega Code (1999) $12.6 million
The Omega Code is based on a novel by televangelist Paul Crouch. It is a relative blockbuster representation of the Evangelical Christian views on the millennium, taking the action drama route, depicting a plot by the Antichrist to take over the world. The film operates off the idea that the Bible reveals secrets of past, present, and future events when observed through the lens of a code, a controversial notion that would frequently be revisited in film and fiction. Receiving mixed reviews upon its time of release, the film earned well over its budget and is still shown on the cable station Trinity Broadcasting Network, the United States’ largest Christian television network, headed by Paul Crouch.
Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002) $25.6 million
Created by Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, the direct-to-video VeggieTales series already experienced success around nine years before the first full-length feature was released into theaters. The computer-animated children’s series presents themes of morality, compatible with Judeo-Christian belief systems, interwoven with pop culture references within their films of Biblical or original stories. Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie illustrates how VeggieTales often depicts a Bible story alongside a similar storyline set in current times, united by a moral theme, in this instance, compassion. Earning almost twice its budget, this initial theatrical release proved more successful than when it had distribution help with Universal Studios on the non-Biblical The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything in 2008. VeggieTales continues to make those moral themes found in the Bible accessible to younger audiences, while simultaneously entertaining its older viewers with topical references in their television shows and DVDs.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) $370.3 million
Directed, produced, and written by Mel Gibson, with collaborative efforts on the producing and writing credits, The Passion of the Christ focuses on the New Testament accounts of Christ’s arrest through resurrection. These events of Christ’s painful physical, spiritual, and mental suffering are known as “The Passion.” Passion narratives are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, found mostly in the Gospels of the New Testament, and are a point of study and reflection especially during Holy Week. Due to the familiarity of the story, Gibson chose to use Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew as the spoken languages in the film. This was in order to prevent audiences from impulsively completing well-known moments of dialogue and thus losing the impact of the story. Reviews for the film were mixed, either praising the evocative nature of the work’s spirituality or disapproving of the “excessive” violence depicted. Despite the varied reception the film was a box office success and remains the highest-grossing non-English language, R-rated film of all time.
The Nativity Story (2006) $37.6 million
As one may infer from the title, The Nativity Story depicts the Mary’s conception, the birth of Jesus Christ, through an explanation of King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, which is depicted at the beginning of the film. Though assumed to be inspired by the success of The Passion of the Christ, the same earnings and acclaim did not occur. Though honored as the first film to premiere at The Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI did not attend the screening. It is thought that the Pope was influenced by the controversy surrounding the 16 year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Mary, being pregnant and unmarried at the time of the premiere. Christian audiences were disappointed with the subpar reception of the film, seeing it as the demise of text-based Bible epics. The film had a modest opening weekend and gross domestic earnings resulted in breaking just over even from the $35 million budget.