When we began 2014–the “Year of the Bible” as it was called–many wondered whether religious audiences could carry films to financial success. With “Son of God” taking in nearly $60 million, “Noah” earning more than $100 million, and the insane success of “God’s Not Dead”, the answer is a resounding “yes.” But Hollywood will conduct its final experiment on Friday when Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” arrives in theaters.
In some ways, “Exodus” hopes to strike a balance between the two poles of recent Bible films. “Son of God” was a wooden and overly literal adaptation of the Jesus story that captured traditionalist Christians but didn’t penetrate deeply into the general market. “Noah” captured non-religious audiences with an all-star cast, but the fanciful, less literal portrayal put off some religious watchers. With an estimated production budget of $140 million, “Exodus” can’t afford to lose either. But in order to win over believers en masse, the film will have to overcome three hurdles.
DON’T MESS WITH THE TEXT
According to a 2014 poll of 1,200 adults nationwide, 79 percent of Christians say that accuracy is important to their ticket-buying decisions when it comes to movies dealing with questions of religion. In other words, these potential patrons want a biblical film that sticks to the text and gets at least most of the facts right. This can be a massive hurdle for filmmakers who want to make good art, not just regurgitate a well known tale.
I’ve argued elsewhere that “artistic liberties are inevitable whenever a story is transferred from one medium to another…[which] requires that audiences actually think about symbols and forms.” But most Christians sadly don’t think this deeply about films and art. They simply want their Bible movies to look and sound familiar and align with the images they already have in their heads–regardless of how mythologized those pictures may be.
Having screened “Exodus” last week, and not wanting to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I can report that there are some critical deviations from the text that viewers familiar with the Bible will notice. Whether or not these alterations will generate negative responses remains to be seen, but they are significant and numerous enough to be a possible hurdle for this film.
“I AM” A BOY?
Connected to the last point is the way the voice of God is imagined in this film: as a pre-teen boy. Played by 11-year-old British actor, Isaac Andrews, God turns out to be a temperamental and impatient, if not impetuous, child. While Scott seems to portray the character more as the voice of God or God’s messenger, when Moses asks who he is, the boy answers with the classic God-name: “I Am.” Religious audiences won’t miss this moment.