Stories of The Bible and its most legendary heroes may seem more at home in a Sunday School class than a movie theater box office these days, but if Darren Aronofsky's Noah proves one thing, it's that a Judeo-Christian hero can not only offer a truly gripping cinematic experience (read our review), but top the box office in sales as well.
Hollywood is never one to overlook a potential cash-cow, and as 'controversial' as Biblical adaptations (adaptation being the key word) always tend to be, we're in favor of telling strong stories on film regardless of where the source material may arise. So with Aronofsky proving that a strong director can turn a Bible tale into big screen success, we've nominated a few more that seem tailor-made for film adaptation, and if done right, could offer some truly gripping drama, as well as spectacle.
With a name like Gideon (meaning 'Destroyer,' or 'Mighty Warrior') one might expect Gideon to fit into the traditional role of Biblical warrior alongside Samson, but the truth is a far more interesting story. You see, Gideon was, like many others back in the millenia B.C., not in a particular hurry to lead the entire Israelite people into battle. And in this case, that task required he not only turn his own people away from the false idols they had (once again) begun to worship instead of God, but take the battle to the foreign people they had allowed to settle in Canaan in the meantime.
To make sure that he had really been charged to rescue his people from oppression, Gideon asked God to send a message not once, but twice (really, we weren't kidding about him being apprehensive). Once it was received, a quick destruction of the local monument to the deity Baal later, and Gideon set about assembling his forces. And this is where the story takes an intriguing turn. Given the trend of the Israelites being outnumbered, yet overcoming those odds proving their favor with the one true God, Gideon had a problem: the assembled army was too big.
The Lord said to Gideon, "The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, 'My own power has delivered me.' Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, 'Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.'" So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. - Judges 7:2-3
Setting about assembling an army smaller than he currently claim (to the puzzlement of his commanders, we assume), Gideon once again reduced the army's size until he held only 300 soldiers. But he devised a strategy that would send an army panicking even today: his 300 men would encircle the enemy camp at night, each carrying a trumpet and torch concealed inside a clay jar. At Gideon's signal, every man shattered the jar, sounded a trumpet, and cried out: "a sword for the Lord, and for Gideon!"
The enemy was so shocked, they turned their own swords against one another, and fled, being pursued and ultimately defeated by Gideon's army. In the end, the Israelite leader would refuse to become the people's king, but once again set in motion the events which would doom them to worship false idols. With long odds, memorable action, and even a hollow ending, the story of Gideon would make for one refreshing film.
2. The Maccabees
We'll admit that a film based on 'the true meaning of Hanukkah' may not sound necessarily 'epic,' but those who know the The Maccabees don't need to be told why it's the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Around 200 BC, Greek influence under the pressure of Alexander the Great had begun to take hold, and combined with lingering political impacts from Egypt and Syria, the Jewish people living in Judea were... conflicted, to say the least. But when the upper-class began adopting Greek culture and worshiping their gods, a priest named Mattathias could take it no longer.
Killing one such convert and fleeing to the wilderness, Mattathias set in motion a full-scale revolt that would take years to begin. Much of the credit falls to his son, Judas Maccabee ("Hammer") who made a nightmare for the ruling Seleucid dynasty by adopting guerilla tactics thousands of years before they would be given their accepted name. Proving to be both effective and terrifying, the Maccabean Revolt soon emerged victorious, capturing the Temple of Jerusalem and ridding it of pagan idols.
The Maccabees re-dedicated the Temple (by violently removing those inside) but could find just a single jar of oil to keep the Menorah lit - enough for a single day. As the final salute to the Maccabees' victory, the fire inexplicably burned for a full eight days; an event commemorated each year on Hanukkah.
Regaining religious freedom, or freedom in general, is a theme that is explored on a grand theatrical scale almost every year. So we can't think of a reason why a guerrilla war fought in the 2nd Century BC, and which had a massive impact on the shape of the western world isn't a prime candidate for the next installment.
Hollywood has already done its part to immortalize the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, led by the Red Sea-parting Moses into the Promised Land of Canaan. But when Moses and his people arrived in the land of milk and honey, there was still one issue to deal with: people were already inhabiting it. That meant that sooner or later, those people were going to have to be removed by force, and for that, Moses turned to a man named Joshua.
Having proven his potency as a military leader prior to the Israelites' arrival at Canaan, Joshua succeeded Moses as leader in the war-torn time to come. Boasting an army that was outnumbered and overpowered on an open battlefield, Joshua was forced to rely on tactics and topography to rid Canaan of its inhabitants - once and for all. The most iconic battle fought in Joshua's campaign also happens to possess the most overlooked details, taking place outside the small settlement of Jericho.
While the city of Jericho isn't necessarily impressive in size, its infamous walls posed a challenge to Joshua's forces. A group of spies infiltrate the city and narrowly escape capture with the help of Rahab, a prostitute. In the end, Joshua is given his divine plan: walk his troops around the city for seven days, and watch the walls come tumbling down with a blow of their horns.
Whether those words are taken literally or figuratively in a big screen adaptation, it's what Joshua does to the city's inhabitants once inside that bears repeating:
They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword... They burned the city with fire, and all that was in it. - Joshua 6:21-24
The extermination continued with the city of Bethel, and the psychological damage of Joshua's ruthless tactics preceded him everywhere, meaning armies soon began joining his forces instead of opposing them. But Joshua's greatest victory would come in a battle fought outside of the city of Gibeon, on a day when the sun itself stopped over the battlefield to give the Israelites the edge. However one chooses to explain that phenomenon, seeing the ensuing battle - or any others in Joshua's story - is ripe for a Hollywood adaptation.
4. The Binding of Isaac
The march of Abraham - the first of God's Chosen People - up Mount Moriah with his son Isaac in tow is likely one of the most misunderstood, or somewhat confusing Old Testament stories around. For those who aren't familiar, the story kicks off when God informs Abraham that to prove his faith, he is to sacrifice his son, Isaac upon an altar (as animals regularly were at the time). While Abraham is distraught, he and Isaac set off up the mountain to complete the task.
It is only as Abraham is set to bring the blade down upon his bound son that an Angel stops him, tells him he has proven his faith, and he sacrifices a nearby lamb instead. The meaning of the story is usually pointed to as both Abraham's conviction, and the Judeo-Christian God rewarding unquestioned faith. But we have to ask: what was the actual march up the mountain like for Abraham? For Isaac? Did Abraham ever have doubts? Did Isaac know what his father planned to do?
We can only assume that Isaac noticed the pair didn't bring a lamb or livestock along with their improvised altar, but whether Isaac's faith was as unfaltering as his father's is left unclear. In the hands of the right screenwriter and director, it's possible to think of a film adaptation that could cover just about every aspect of the human condition. Love, hate, fear, devotion, doubt, hope, despair - the story could cover it all - and with a happy ending, no less (for everyone but the lamb)!
In terms of 'epic' action and big screen spectacle, a film based on the binding of Isaac would be a polar opposite to a movie like Noah. But recent years have shown that audiences are more than ready to accept smaller, focused narratives; and there's something to be said for a film that proves you don't need action to tell a heart-wrenching story that tackles the very core of the notion of faith.
5. King David
Two hundred years after Moses led his people to the Promised Land (and Joshua helped bring it withing their grasp) a young boy named David came forward to enter his own name into Biblical history. While the young shepherd may be most well-known for striking down the giant Goliath - and gave every future battle between differing opponents a new nickname - it's what happened to the man after his first victory that we're most interested in.
No victory comes without a price, and for Saul, the ruler of the Israelite forces, making David one of his top soldiers afforded the young man immediate fame, power and influence. Following David's rise from soldier to leader following Saul's death would make for a dramatic enough story on its own. But the controversial and brutal acts that followed David's rise to power are too good to resist.
With the help of his 'Mighty Men' - a hand-picked group of fighters - the Biblical hero set out to remove (read: kill) Saul' successors as rivals, and while The Bible views his actions as good in the long run, seeing the brutality of it up close, and just what it took to remain in the budding Israel, would flesh out a character who is far more interesting than many give him credit for.
Take, for instance, David's defeat of the Moabites:
David also conquered the land of Moab. He made the people lie down on the ground in a row, and he measured them off in groups with a length of rope. He measured off two groups to be executed for every one group to be spared. The Moabites who were spared became David's subjects and paid him tribute money. - 2 Samuel 8:2
David's victory in wiping out entire peoples is impressive enough, but even the small scale drama is worth attention. Take for instance Bathsheba; the young woman spied bathing by the King, who he decided to romance (and dealt with her husband as any ruthless king does). The fact that Bathsheba was also the daughter of one of David's elite guard, and granddaughter to one of his closest advisors gives a sense of just how tangled a web David tended to weave.
Historians and theologians can debate whether King David's actions were justified or out of control, but the undisputable fact is that he was a far more interesting and complex figure than most realize. If Noah is deserving of extra attention, then David more than warrants a closer look.
Those are just a handful of the epic tales contained within The Bible packed with the drama, action, and moral message that movie audiences tend to crave. Sure, the likes of Samson and Moses have been chronicled already, but these character journeys are every bit as compelling. And if the story of a man who built a boat to protect the innocent from flood waters can be turned into a battle between light and dark, surely the right director could turn one of our choices into a masterpiece.
Which Bible stories would you like to see turned into an epic feature film? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.