Box-office religion: What explains Hollywood’s 'holy movie' picks?

KIRSTEN ASKS:

I wonder why I cannot think of any movies with stories from the Torah, Quran, or other holy texts. Are there any in the works?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

There’s considerable mystery about Hollywood and “holy movies.” Why are they often amateurish or offer ham-handed derision toward beliefs and believers? Why do few high-quality movies respect religion despite the large potential audience? Showbiz wised up a bit when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) scored $370 million in U.S. box office and became history’s most profitable film with an R rating (due to violence).

Kirsten posted this question early in 2004, which turns out to offer eight notable features with religious aspects. On her specific point, studios know the U.S. audience has far more Christians than Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, and that factor affects releases globally. Note that any movie drawn from the Jewish Torah equally appeals to Christians, since their Bible begins with the same five “Old Testament” books.

With the Quran, there’s a huge problem because the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad’s person forbids any visual depictions of him. For Islam, that’s blasphemy, a capital crime in some lands (Pakistan’s notoriously broad law covers “visual representation”) and can involve the danger of riots and vigilante murders.

The Guy knows of only one major feature based on the Quran: “Mohammed: Messenger of God,” titled “The Message: The Story of Islam” in video release. The Arabic version appeared in 1976, followed by an English version with a different cast in 1977. The director was Muslim and funding came mostly from Muslim regimes in Libya, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

The production scrupulously avoided showing the Prophet, nor was his voice ever heard, and the script extended the same prohibitions to his immediate family and key successors. This necessitated an awkward plot built around the Prophet’s Uncle Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn. Despite such caution, the movie provoked agitation across the Muslim world. .”

The worst episode erupted in Washington, D.C. Muslims from a breakaway Hanafi sect mistakenly supposed the movie had visuals of Muhammad. Hoping somehow to halt theatrical release, these assailants seized a Jewish office, a Muslim mosque, and a D.C. government building, captured more than 100 hostages, killed one victim, stabbed or shot many others, and terrorized the nation’s capital for 38 hours before surrendering. The movie became a flop, and further commercial films from the Quran seem unlikely.


Continue reading "What explains Hollywood’s 'holy movie' picks?" by Richard Ostling.

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