• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.


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    Matt Page

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    Sunday, May 21, 2017

    The Nativity Story from The Passion to Trump

    It's been over a decade since New Line's attempt to mirror the success of The Passion of the Christ ended in failure. This perhaps ought not to have been a huge surprise. For every TheTen Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959) and there is a GreatestStory Ever Told (1965) or The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) - a film that tried to ride on the coattails of a successful epic, yet failed.

    In the aftermath of the film's failure many sought to discover why the film had been unsuccessful, and many different ideas were proffered. My own theory was that whilst various factors contributed to its disappointing performance, the speed with which the film was produced (less than a year between writer Mike Rich turning in his script and the film debuting in cinemas) didn't allow for sufficient quality control.

    Ten years on, I think that's a valid criticism of the film, and indeed I think that the speed of the production was a key contributor to the problem, but not in that way. Instead the issue was the amount of time that was spent promoting the film to its natural niche audience. As producer Wyck Godfrey said, just a few months after the film's release, Gibson spent six months promoting his film, they only spent one.1

    But whilst the length of time that went into the promoting the film was certainly a factor, not to mention the corresponding amount of effort that it suggest, was a huge factor, I think the failing was not only about how long the respective filmmakers spent marketing their films, but also how it was done.

    The key difference in this respect is the way that Gibson tapped into the sense of persecution that appears to have developed amongst many Christians in America  – something that was surely part of the reason such a large proportion of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. I wrote about this a little in my recent post "How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood", but I'd like to revisit the subject here. In doing so I aim to be briefer overall whilst looking at the perception of persecution in more detail. These two pieces should probably sit alongside one another then, always recognising both that the roots of this issue are complicated and that there are many causes as well as a lot of background noise all of which makes a definitive analysis impossible to find.

    However, at the very least this perception of persecution goes back to the early 1970s. On the one hand books like "The Late, Great Planet Earth" (1970) popularised the kind of theology that anticipated a time of persecution, as a pre-cursor to the second coming.2 At the very least that gives something of an incentive to spotting evidence that the church is being persecuted. And then, of course there was Roe vs Wade and the shock wave that sent out, that sense that traditional Christianity's position of power was under threat.

    Whilst Ronald Reagan's election as president was initially greeted as a victory for the religious right disappointment at the community's perceived marginalisation under Reagan grew, such that by 1988 "traditional" Christianity was seen as losing ground to liberalism. And then in Hollywood - one of the main centres of the growth of liberalism - Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. This was perhaps the leading conflicts in the culture wars of the late twentieth century and this isn't the place to get into the rights and wrongs of that particular film. However I do remember reviewing Thomas Lindlof's book "HollywoodUnder Siege" (about the controversy surrounding the release of Last Temptation of Christ) years later and being struck by the fact that the only people to make any money from the film were those Christian lobbyists who had run successful fundraising campaigns off the back of their opposition to the film's release.3 The perception that the religious right is under attack from liberalism has only grown since then such that in 2004 the scene was right for Mel Gibson.

    Gibson's approach typically involved a number of key aspects (again see my previous article). Firstly he claimed that he had been trying to make his Jesus film for years but none of the major studios would have it. I've no evidence to support or disprove that claim because as far as I know it's never been challenged. I'd sure like to see some though. Part of the reason it's not been challenged is because no-one is surprised that big popularist studios were not interested in an ultra-violent Jesus film in two dead languages based on the anti-Semitic visions of a nun.

    But the way Gibson told it was rather different. There was no calm of acceptance of what was in all likelihood a business decision. No, this was a tale of persecution; a tale of a Hollywood elite treating traditional Christians unfairly.

    Another aspect in Gibson's story regarding the film was the various intimations that God was in favour of it. The stories of miracles and conversions, of the "Holy Ghost directing traffic", the leaked 'papal' summary "It is as it was" and the repeated claim that he wanted to really show it as it was.4 In contrast to films such as Last Temptation his would "show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened...like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred...I'm telling the story as the Bible tells it".5

    In other words - whether intentionally or just naturally, he painted himself as a warrior in the culture wars standing up for God against liberalism. In so doing he made supporting his film a sign of faithfulness. Let's show Hollywood there's an audience for faithful depictions of the Bible, (even if, as it turned out, the results were not necessarily as faithful as might have been claimed). Lindsay describes this as a process of "scripturalization" that occurs through four stages of "directorial inspiration, ecclesiastical endorsement, experiences of spiritual transcendence, traditions of viewing and devotion".6

    In trying to market their film the makers of The Nativity Story attempted to reproduce The Passion of the Christ's strategy of attempting to court church leaders in order to gain their endorsement for their film. Just as Gibson talked to church leaders in order to secure support for The Passion, so writer Mike Rich, director Catherine Hardwick and producer Wyck Godfrey did the same. In fact they even made explicit links to Gibson's film to do so. Prior to the movie's release, Rich spoke of how he "was really inspired by the scene where Jesus falls while carrying the cross and Mary has a flashback to Jesus as a small child in danger".7 Rich even stressed explicit links with Gibson's epic such as the fact that parts of both films were shot in Matera, Italy, as well as the fact that they were loaned "the big olive tree...from the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane".8 Similarly the film's historical advisor, William Fulco, also drew links between the two films pointing out how "this film could not have been possible without The Passion."9

    The film's marketing team also commissioned prominent Roman Catholic film specialist Sister Rose Pacette to write a study guide for the film as well as edit another book collating eleven essays on the film and there were numerous special screenings for church representatives.10 The film's creators even arranged for it to premiere at the Vatican, Making it the first feature to do so.11

    Yet merely drawing the links between The Nativity Story and The Passion, and gaining acknowledgement of its worthiness was not sufficient. Whilst the film was seen as "authentic" and "faithful" the producers didn't create a similarly compelling narrative 12 Some church leaders did try to tell their followers that this was "an opportunity to get behind" a "family-friendly" film "as a way of telling Hollywood that's what audiences want".13 Whilst sending messages about the kind of film Christians wanted to see (even if they admitted it wasn't a great work of art) was something of a cause, it was nothing like as compelling as Gibson's. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs the fear of persecution, or even expressing support of an associate who is being persecuted significantly outranks entertainment preferences.

    As mentioned above the far shorter amount of time spent both creating relationships with church leaders and building a sense of anticipation about the film's release was also critical factor, as was the fact that Hardwicke and Godfrey lack Gibson's star power, but what The Nativity Story really lacked was a compelling story of how watching their film was a show of defiance and support for their community in the face of a supposedly unsympathetic, if not malevolent, behemoth like Hollywood.

    =================
    1 - Moring, Mark. "Nativity Comes Home" Christianity Today. 20 March 2007 -  (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/nativitystorydvd.html) cited at Queen Spoo - http://nativitymovie.blogspot.co.uk/)
    2 - Lindsay, Hal. "The Late Great Planet Earth" Zondervan (1970)
    3 - Lindlof, Thomas R. (2008) Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p.283-4.
    4 - More detailed sources for these quotes can be found in my post here - http://biblefilms.blogspot.co.uk/2005/11/film-new-passion.html
    5 - Zenit Staff - Zenit - "Mel Gibson’s Great Passion" - https://zenit.org/articles/mel-gibson-s-great-passion/ - March 6, 2003
    6 - Lindsay, Richard "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015). p.8
    7 - Pacette, Rose "The Nativity Story: Contemplating Mary's Journey of Faith" Boston: Pauline Books & Media 2006. p.5-6
    8 - Pacette, Rose (ed.) "The Nativity Story: A Film Study Guide for Catholics" Boston: Pauline Books & Media 2006. p.6
    9 - Patterson, Hannah - "The greatest teen drama ever told" The Guardian, 1 December 2006 - https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/dec/01/2
    10 - Namely the two referenced in 7 & 8 above.
    11 - Moore, Carrie A. "The Nativity Story - Vatican premiere spotlights a new marketing tool" Desert News, Nov. 25, 2006 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650209537/The-Nativity-Story--Vatican-premiere-spotlights-a-new-marketing-tool.html?pg=all
    12 - See, for example the debate between Christian film critics here - http://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/2007/02/the-nativity-story.aspx
    13 - Moore, Carrie A. "The Nativity Story - Vatican premiere spotlights a new marketing tool" Desert News, Nov. 25, 2006 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650209537/The-Nativity-Story--Vatican-premiere-spotlights-a-new-marketing-tool.html?pg=all

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