If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear that Hollywood is making a Bible movie. What could possibly go wrong? As we all know by now, plenty.
So you can imagine the challenge I faced when I was first approached about adapting an Anne Rice novel into a movie about what Jesus’ life might have been like during the years in which the Bible is silent.
I was scared about the prospect but also fascinated-you see even though I was born and raised in the Midwest (go Badgers!)
I didn’t come to my own faith in Jesus Christ the conventional suburban Christian American way. I was born of Muslim parents who fled Iran and brought me up in a secular home, but I gravitated toward Christianity beginning with my marriage to Betsy who is also my screenwriting partner.
My faith grew deeper in recent years which made it seem only natural — and perhaps preordained — that this project would fall in my lap. The instinct to run with it was strong and immediate. I had to get this film made. I had to tell this story. For it was a clear expression of my story and my gravitation to Jesus.
But how to tell a story faithfully about a period we know almost nothing about? That question haunted me. I talked it over with Anne, friends, my wife and of course God himself. How could I honor Him through this work?
What I learned from getting to know Anne Rice was that she too sought to honor, not besmirch God through her novel. Although her Catholic faith was different than mine, we shared a common belief that the man from Nazareth was more than just a man and that with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we might try to imagine what Jesus’ life was like in the years between his birth and public ministry.
In the rich history of Jesus movies we’ve never seen Jesus’ life as a boy. There are great challenges involved because we know very little about his childhood. We know of his birth, the three Kings visiting the child with gifts, and we know at age 12 that young Jesus visited the Temple in Jerusalem and schooled the rabbis to their amazement.
I seek to present a realistic fictional portrait of Jesus inspired by Scripture and rooted in history. We imagine one year in the boyhood of Jesus. Most important to us was that we present a child who is consistent with the character of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.
Our story takes place when Jesus is seven years old. With the Holy Land in turmoil, young Jesus and his family leave Egypt (where they fled after the slaughter in Bethlehem seven years earlier) for the treacherous road home to Nazareth.
Like parents today, Joseph and Mary are fully aware of the dangers of their world: a corrupt King Herod, civil unrest, and brutal occupying Roman force. What was it like for Mary and Joseph to parent a child unlike any child before? How could they protect and guide him?
In terms of young Jesus the challenge of making this film was to present him as both fully divine and fully human. What did he know about himself and when did he know it?
Anne Rice’s dazzling novel addresses this fundamental question through the voice of young Jesus, his thoughts, his interactions, as he relates the journey back to the Holy Land.
He can state and reflect as he goes along.In a movie we have to show it and dramatize it in order for it to have any impact. Thus, the challenge of adapting any novel forces the filmmaker to make choices, to streamline, to focus. Through the voice of the main character Anne is able to relate the fears, the trepidations, the unknowns. In a film we have to make this tangible by creating characters who represent these. Hence the addition of young King Herod and the Roman centurion, Severus, played beautifully by actor Sean Bean.
But the biggest challenge is a theological one. We wanted to portray young Jesus acting in a way consistent with his adult ministry. Therefore we show a child who reacts to situations similar to how the Bible tells us about how Jesus reacted to like situations as an adult.
Luke 2:52 was a great guidepost for us: “He grew in wisdom, and in favor with God and man.” Attempting to summon the voice, the presence, and the words of Jesus brings with it inherent risks. We’ve tried to do so with reverence and respect.
While millions of Americans flocked to see Mel Gibson’s amazing work “The Passion of The Christ,” few remember that the movie wasn’t actually based upon the Bible, but rather upon a book by a German nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich who saw vivid visions of the death of Jesus and transcribed them.
In “The Passion,” Mel Gibson decided to give Satan a creepy baby, and was extensively questioned by some religious leaders about this extra-Biblical choice. I loved his response, when he said he did it because he knew that Satan likes to copy God so he figured he’d give Satan a son since God had Jesus.
That’s what artists often do–we fill in the lines and add color and context-and film is a great canvas, trying to imagine moments that we can’t know, yet doing our best to ensure they are consistent with the character and nature of our subjects.
The faith tradition of my ancestors doesn’t allow for the image of God to be captured in any form of art. My faith has a rich history of such depictions from the great masters who imagined what our Savior might have looked like and sought to honor him with their talents, asking Him to guide their brush strokes.
I may not be a great master, but in my own way I hope I’ve accomplished the same goal and it is my hope that those who already worship Jesus of Nazareth will grow to love him more and that those who haven’t thought much about him will be inspired by this story of a great man that all religions and cultures revere.