Now Featured in the Patheos Movie Club
The Young Messiah
A Focus Features Presentation
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh
From Page to Screenplay
In 2005, Anne Rice wrote a fictional account of the childhood of a young Jesus Christ, entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. It quickly landed near the top of The New York Times bestseller list that year.
Screenwriter Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh read the book when it was first released. "I was a fan of Anne's books and was interested to see how she'd approach this material, and I loved it," she says. The novel excited her so much that she even found herself giving the book to a number of friends, something she says she never does. She didn't, however, immediately think of the book as a movie. It wasn't until director and co-screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh (Betsy's husband) received a call from the agent he shared with Anne Rice about the potential project several years later that the film adaptation, The Young Messiah, started taking shape. It transpired that Rice was already familiar with the Nowrastehs' previous film, The Stoning of Soraya M., and had written a glowing review on Amazon.com about the movie. Rice wondered whether the Nowrastehs would be interested in taking a look at her book. Cyrus read the novel quickly and, like his wife, responded immediately to the unique take on the story of Jesus as a young boy and how his family comes to a fuller understanding of his nature and purpose. "I thought it could make a beautiful film," he remembers.
A fresh take on the life of Jesus would allow an exploration of what life for the young Jesus might have been like, based on the knowledge of the man that he became. The story would also give viewers the opportunity to understand Jesus' full humanity and, as a result, open up opportunities to discuss the life of Jesus and what the Bible does say about him. By portraying him as a young child (something we know very little about) it can highlight the fact that God was made human flesh, and not just as a full grown adult. Finally, The Young Messiah would give filmgoers the cinematic experience of diving into life in that era, showing what traveling to Jerusalem would be like in Jesus' time and what life was like under oppressive Roman rule, for example, all of which is grounded in extensive historical research.
Cyrus happened to be working with 1492 Pictures on another project. Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh recalls, "He was talking to producer Michael Barnathan, the usual chit-chat, and Cyrus mentioned that this book had been brought up."
"It instantly lit up as a great idea," Barnathan says. "It's the notion that it's just about a child. We'd see it from the perspective of this boy who over the course of a year comes to understand much more about who he is, why the world around him is the way it is, why people are after him, and why he is special."
At the heart of The Young Messiah is a relatable tale about the struggle of a family trying to cope with a child who is realizing how very different he is from everyone else. Barnathan elaborates, "Anne said she chose this time period to write about because in human development at age seven, a human being starts to look inward. It's the first time a child says, 'Who am I?' and 'What am I going to be when I grow up?' as opposed to 'I'm hungry' or 'I'm cold'. It's their first look inside, and this happened to coincide with the year the first King Herod died. So she lined up those two things and thought, what an interesting time for this young boy to be looking inward and to wonder who he is."
With 1492 on board as producers, Betsy and Cyrus got to work on adapting the novel for the screen — a process which didn't come without challenges. The first was that the book spans a longer period covering several physical journeys for the holy family. The filmmakers believed that the movie version would benefit from being tighter. "It needed a ticking clock," Cyrus says. "For it to be a movie, it really needed this drive to a conclusion."
The film commences seven years after the family has fled to Egypt from their home in Nazareth. "Betsy and I felt that it needed things that Anne alludes to in the story, but doesn't completely dramatize. What she alludes to in the book is the sense of threat, chaos, danger, and civil war. A young Herod has assumed the throne and he's worried because everyone's talking about a Messiah, a boy who's performing miracles. That's a threat to his power. We felt that young Herod needed to be a character and should send someone off on a mission to find this boy who's performing miracles, who may be the Messiah, who may be the child who was missed in Bethlehem seven years ago."