God On Film: Religious-Themed Flicks Like 'Nativity' Trek To Theaters

'Passion of the Christ' ushers in new era of movies seeking to spread theological messages.

LOS ANGELES — There is a section in John Milton's "Paradise Lost" where the devil, disguised as a serpent, tempts Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The brief passage is an interpretation of what Christians call original sin. It is the climax to what many consider to be the greatest work in the English language. It is, some experts contend, the hardest 20 lines to understand fully in all of poetry.

And soon, it's coming to a theater near you.

A nearly 350-year-old epic about the revolt of the angels under Lucifer, their subsequent banishment from heaven, and the Judeo-Christian fall of man, "Paradise Lost" is hardly the only thoroughbred in an industry-wide "steeple" chase. Never before have so many studios made such a concentrated push for Christian support.

On Friday (December 1), New Line joins the congregation with "The Nativity Story," starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, mother of Jesus. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew, like most artistic interpretations of Jesus' birth, focus primarily on, well, the birth. Screenwriter Mike Rich hoped to change that.

"It occurred to me that while I knew, visually, how the journey to Bethlehem ended, I had very little idea of how [Mary and her husband Joseph] got there, what kind of people they were and what kind of challenges they faced," Rich said. "As a person of faith myself, those were compelling questions."

The film premiered Sunday, not in New York or Los Angeles, but at the Vatican, at a private screening attended by many of the Catholic Church's highest-ranking bishops and dignitaries.

The growth of a cultural climate friendly to the melding of religion and entertainment presents a unique opportunity for Rich and other "persons of faith" to present their message. "Hollywood is wide open to religious themes right now," writer Jerry Jenkins observed recently. "We feel the urge to take advantage of this window, which will close as soon as these types of movies quit succeeding. We must generate quality work with a clear message."

Jenkins, the co-author (along with Dr. Tim LaHaye) of the "Left Behind" book series — which tackles Revelation, or the Christian End Times — Jenkins has rode the crest of religion's current wave to become one of America's best-selling writers. At last count, the "Left Behind" books had sold more than 60 million copies.

"The Nativity Story," like "Paradise Lost" or "Left Behind," takes religious dogma and fictionalizes it for storytelling purposes.

"I had seen the Nativity story as we all do, with minimal detail and almost no insight into who Mary or Joseph were as people," director Catherine Hardwicke explained. "I saw the opportunity to really get inside the heads, hearts and soul of this young couple. I thought by humanizing them, audiences could relate to the film on a personal level."

It's a delicate line to walk. The theological messages contained in religious films are often complex and difficult to explain. For many followers, the success of "The Nativity Story" will depend not only on how well it's filmed or how much money it makes, but on how it delivers these dogmatic directives — how well it is able to, as Jenkins said, "encourage those who agree with us and inform those who don't, or who are uninitiated about the subject."

"The crucible will be competing head-to-head with the best moviemakers on the planet and, rather than cursing their message, acknowledging their quality and trying to match it while broadcasting a Christian worldview," said Jenkins.

To this end, in February 2000, Jerry formed Jenkins Entertainment with his son, Dallas, who is living proof that in life — as in Miltonic epics — the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Dallas, currently in post-production on his feature-length directorial debut, "Midnight Clear," starring Stephen Baldwin, believes Hollywood is just beginning to grasp the potential marketplace for faith-based films — a marketplace they weren't aware of when "Left Behind" was produced only six years ago. Released direct to video in 2000, that film starred Kirk Cameron.

"We look at it as a failure of missed opportunity, because it could have been bigger," Dallas said. "I don't think Hollywood was quite ready for, or understanding yet, of the magnitude of success those books have had. They were starting to. But by the time they were starting to, the production company was already on their way to making the movies and didn't want to spend more than a couple million dollars."

According to Jenkins, the shift in studio mindset occurred entirely as a result of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which demolished records for an R-rated film while grossing $382 million domestically. "On Monday morning, the weekend after 'Passion' opened, every studio in Hollywood was going, 'OK, how do we capture this market that we did not know existed?' " said Dallas. "It really hit them when 'Passion of the Christ' was so monumentally huge. How does a foreign-language film about beating the crap out of a guy make $300 million?"

Sony Entertainment has since picked up the rights to the "Left Behind" series of films, and now handles all of the franchise's distribution and marketing. "Hollywood is no longer rejecting these films," Dallas said. "They are not scared off at all about a specific message, a Christian message. They are trying to capture the audience that is supporting films like 'Passion'; that came out in droves for 'The Chronicles of Narnia.' "

"The Nativity Story" will open on 2,800 screens, almost double that of the weekend's other big release, thriller "Turistas."

"I was asked years ago, before 'Passion,' when I thought a Christian movie would be #1 at the box office," Dallas recalled. "I asked the interviewer when the next 'Lord of the Rings' movie was coming out. The lines are no longer clearly defined."

To many, films like "The Nativity Story" and "The Passion of the Christ" represent the latest shakedown of the Tree of Knowledge. Now, Christian filmmakers and Hollywood executives will keep their fingers crossed and hope things turn out better for them than they did for Adam.

Check out everything we've got on "The Nativity Story."

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