Four major films with religious themes will be released this year.
“Son of God,” which hit theaters on February 27th, is a reworking of a popular Biblical mini-series which aired on The History Channel last year. “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, was released March 28th. Critics say the film takes some liberties from the Biblical account, but its producers claim to have stayed true to the essence, values and integrity of the story. “Heaven is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear, tells the story of a little boy’s visit to heaven during a near-death experience. It hits theatres April 16th. “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” starring Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver, tells the story of Moses and comes out this December.
This flood of Bible-based films seems counter-intuitive when America looks less religious than ever. Pew Research’s Religious and Public Life Report found that 28 percent of Americans left the faith of their youth. The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1 percent) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18 to 29, one in four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
So does Hollywood’s seemingly sudden interest in religious film mean a religious revival for Americans? Not necessarily, says local producer Adam Abel, best-known for his work with director Ryan Little on the “Saints and Soldiers” films and “Forever Strong.”
“I don’t know that it’s necessarily some sort of renewed interest in religious content in entertainment as much as a desire from a general audience to see hopeful entertainment,” Abel said. “When religion is considered in our entertainment, people’s motivations for creating it vary from those who are non-believers who create it just because they can market it versus those who feel they have a personal mission to do it. But I think a general audience is still interested in hopeful entertainment whether it is the relevance of story lines and relatability of those things or watching something that challenges their religious thought — not to discard it but to see things in a different light than they had.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” According to Mahonri Stewart, a national award-winning playwright and screenwriter from Provo, Utah, the success of “The Passion of the Christ” and the commemoration of its 10th anniversary may be one of the reasons Hollywood is giving religious films another go this year.
“That film really showed that there was a huge market for religious film, but since then very few people have tried to follow up on that, which was a shame,” Stewart said. “You have some smaller, independent filmmakers doing that kind of work, but not on the scale that Gibson did. I guess a ship sometimes takes a long time to turn around — ten years in this case. But the production quality that films like “Noah” seem to be saddled with is very encouraging. I hope it’s more than a flash in the pan. I would love to see it become an enduring tradition again, like in Cecile B. Demille’s day.”
Whether this year’s trend of religious films sticks or not all depends on how well they take with American audiences.
“’The Passion of the Christ’ has already shown how these kinds of films can be received. That was a box office smash,” Stewart said. “There is a rich, largely untapped market out there for substantial, spiritual material. Spirituality can be a complex, dynamic, rich story that is more than a boiled-down Sunday school lesson. These stories can have impact, they can be soul searching, they can be challenging and they can lift our souls to higher and more compassionate understanding. They don’t have to be trite on one hand or cynical on the other. They can be so much more.”
While Utah Valley is a great market for faith-based films, it’s not the only culture grasping for more wholesome entertainment. During the screenings of “Cleanflix,” a documentary on Hollywood’s backlash to the edited films rented out by a small Provo business, co-director and producer Joshua Ligairi found that Utah Valley has a lot in common with the rest of the nation in terms of what people want (and don’t want) in their entertainment.
“We noticed that people with any religious background could really relate to the LDS community,” Ligairi said. “People would come up to me after the movie and say ‘that really reminded me of my home.’ We found that about 53 percent of Americans would enjoy sanitized entertainment if they had it available to them. We definitely saw a desire for clean entertainment. Particularly in this culture, but also in more conservative cultures in general, people want to be part of the cultural conversation but aren’t as interested in the sex and violence.”
While the slew of 2014’s Biblical films, (all rated PG-13 except “Heaven is for Real,” PG) will undoubtedly pique the interest of religious audiences, Stewart believes that religious films can hold just as much value for the non-religious viewer.
“There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis from his essay ‘Myth Became Fact,’ that I love and use all the time,” Stewart said. “The quote reads, ‘I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. The man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than the one who assented and did not think much about it.’ Now I’m a believer. I’m a Christian and a Mormon. But I also believe that mythology, whether one believes it to be true or not, can have great spiritual value. So, a person who doesn’t believe in God can still find great spiritual nourishment in stories that they don’t take literally.”
According to Abel, it’s the universal truths, and not necessarily the religious themes, that will appeal to people.
“I’m of the opinion that irrespective of whether we create an overtly religious film or a non-overtly religious film, the universal principles and themes people are interested in will be explored,” Abel said. “People will relate to sacrifice and hope and overcoming tremendous odds, to faith and being kind.”