LOS ANGELES, CA — It has been over 20 years since a major Hollywood studio made a live-action Bible movie for the big screen. The last such movie was King David, with Richard Gere, and it was regarded by many as a disappointment — both for the revisions it made to the biblical story, and because it flopped big time at the box office.
The few Bible-related films that have come out since then have tended to be either self-financed independent movies (e.g., Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) or low-budget art-house flicks (e.g., Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which was based not on the Bible, per se, but on a controversial novel).
But that will all change December 1, when New Line Cinema — the studio behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy — releases The Nativity Story, a dramatization of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. The virgin birth, the miraculous conception of John the Baptist, the visitations of the archangel Gabriel, the shepherds, the Magi — it’s all here, more or less as it appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
And what’s more, the film has been made for a mainstream audience by experienced Hollywood veterans, only some of whom claim an explicit Christian faith. If The Nativity Story is a success, it could be the first cross-over hit of its kind since the religious-movie heyday of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Wyck Godfrey, one of the Nativity Story producers and a Christian himself, says he and fellow producer Marty Bowen wanted to avoid any sort of “niche” mentality. Christians watch the same shows that others watch, so why shouldn’t shows made from a Christian point of view be accessible for general audiences too?
“We wanted the film to be entertaining and compelling enough, and a relatable enough story of faith that, for that huge audience out in the world that is searching for something and they don’t know what, there is an opportunity that they may stumble into the theatres and they may see something about it,” he tells a handful of reporters sitting around a table at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills.
“Maybe it would have the ability to reach out beyond the core Christian audience and connect with people who may not be Christians but are looking for something,” he continues. “Because I think the themes of the movie — and the emotional journey of the movie — is universal. It’s not a Christian theme that we own, you know.”
Some might say that the filmmakers are just trying to cash in on the success of The Passion, and Godfrey concedes that studio executives are more likely to put money into biblical movies, now that they know there is an audience for them. But he says studios haven’t been going out of their way to make such projects happen.
Instead, this project got off the ground when Mike Rich, a screenwriter whose credits include Finding Forrester and The Rookie, called Bowen, his former agent, and said he was interested in writing a screenplay about the first Christmas.
Rich, who is also a Christian, says he wanted to open the story up for non-believers, by depicting the social circumstances within which Mary and Joseph lived.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we took such a strong interest in the historical accuracy of the story,” he says. “Perhaps for a non-believer, what it boils down to is, ‘Where does the longing for this Messiah come from?’ . . . It’s one of the reasons why we included little snippets like the freedom fighters running through, and the tax collectors, and the strict nature in which decisions were made on economic matters.”
As universal as the film may be, it still contains a number of messages that can only be described as deeply and particularly Christian. For example, one of the Magi declares, upon seeing the Christ child, that the baby in Mary’s arms is “God made into flesh.” Did Rich have to fight to keep that line in? Was he concerned at all that the studio or the filmmakers might try to tone that sort of thing down?
“It was on the bubble, from start to finish, it really was,” says Rich. “But I’m glad we got it in there. It was a line that follows up [an earlier line, in which Jesus is called] ‘the greatest of kings born in the most humble of places’ — and there’s nothing to validate or confirm that that statement was made at that particular moment, but it’s the overriding backbone to Christian faith, so I wanted to get it in there.”
— A version of this article was first published in ChristianWeek.