It’s no secret that Hollywood loves adapting books for the big screen. From YA sensations like The Hunger Games to Oscar-nominated hits like The Big Short, the film industry has known for a long time that movie versions of novels and nonfiction are often a hit with both critics and audiences.
And there’s one book, in particular, that’s been the source material for several films: the Bible. In fact, since 1903, dozens and dozens of Hollywood productions have been based on the stories of the Old and New Testament. Some films, like Ben-Hur, are often considered to be Biblical epics, even though their plots don’t match what we find in the Bible. But many other films do have a firm grounding within the revered Christian text.
Recently, a new string of Biblical-themed films hit theaters nationwide. Risen stars Shakespeare in Love‘s Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a Roman tribune and non-believer tasked with hunting down Jesus after his body disappears from his tomb. Like Ben-Hur, Risen takes some liberties with its Biblical source material, but has been received positively by Christians who appreciate the film’s fresh and lighter approach to telling the resurrection story.
Critics, however, have been a little less enthused. The film received mixed to positive reviews; most feel that it benefits from the unique and nuanced storytelling, but fails to do much more than “preach to the choir.” In the pantheon of Bible-based films, Risen seems to fall somewhere in the middle as far as quality is concerned. Here are five of the best and worst big-screen Biblical adaptations.
Best: The Ten Commandments (1956)
In every sense of the word, The Ten Commandments is a big film. It features an enormous ensemble of actors. It clocks in at over three and a half hours in length. It features some of the most impressive scenery and set design of any movie from its era. And, given that it’s been preserved in the National Library of Congress, it stands high above many other Biblical films with regard to stature and significance. The Ten Commandments follows Moses (Charlton Heston) through many of the Bible’s most memorable moments — from the parting of the Red Sea to the creation of the titular tablets. It’s been hailed by critics and adored by generations of audiences. And its approach to revealing the power of the human will is something that can resonate with believers and non-believers alike.
Worst: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
It is, undoubtedly, one of, if not the most polarizing Biblical film ever made. And while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was undoubtedly a powerful reminder of faith for Christians, its depictions of violence were so graphic, it made many moviegoers ill. Critics praised Jim Caviezel’s performance as Jesus, but took issue with not only the film’s extreme violence but also argued that it entirely obscured the message that his sacrifice was meant to send. And the controversy over what some felt were anti-Semitic undertones has cast The Passion of the Christ in a negative light for many.
Best: King of Kings (1961)
Nicholas Ray’s epic retelling of the life and death of Jesus Christ made didn’t make a big splash with critics or moviegoers when it was first released. But over time, it’s come to be viewed as one of the best cinematic representations of the Biblical figure and his impact on those who knew him. King of Kings has been praised for its thoughtful portrayal of Jesus, his disciples, and his enemies. Its rich visuals, clever use of symbolism, and unforgettable score — as well as deft performances from Jeffrey Hunter as the titular character and Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot — combine to make King of Kings an underrated gem of a Biblical adaptation.
Worst: The Nativity Story (2006)
On paper, there’s nothing exactly wrong with this feature-length adaptation of one of the Bible’s most beloved stories. But despite its strong leads — Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘s Oscar Isaac and Game of Thrones‘ Keisha Castle-Hughes — The Nativity Story falls incredibly flat. As we’ve seen, the best Biblical adaptations manage to bring stories to life in new and exciting ways. The Nativity Story provides a faithful rendering of Mary’s pregnancy, her journey with Joseph to Bethlehem, and the birth of her son, Jesus. It also touches on the political upheaval surrounding King Herod’s fear of his successor. But most critics felt The Nativity Story was dry, dull, and ultimately lacked the cinematic and emotional depth required to make the movie truly memorable.
Best: Noah (2014)
The very elements that made The Nativity Story a creative failure are those that made Noah a rousing success. Darren Aronofsky’s take on the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark is visually stunning from beginning to end. And despite the grand scale of the story, the film gives us an intimate look at the man behind one of the Bible’s most legendary stories. With powerful performances by Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman and masterful direction by Aronofsky, Noah wowed many critics and was a big success at the box office. And it’s undoubtedly the most compelling cinematic Biblical adaptation of the 21st century thus far.
Worst: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2015)
Ridley Scott is known for creating exceptional epic films — from Alien to The Martian. But when he took on the Bible, his directorial skills came up seriously short. Exodus: Gods and Kings tried to tell the story of Moses’s quest to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. But while the film was heavy on spectacle — particularly when Moses parted the Red Sea — this emotional and powerful story felt largely empty due to the film’s thin script, poor character development, and lack of narrative cohesion. Exodus: Gods and Kings failed to impress critics and audiences alike, proving that a great Biblical adaptation needs more than a bunch of A-list names to be a success.
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