'Tolkien & Lewis' and the History of the Faith-Based Film

Atractive Films's Tolkien & Lewis

The term "faith-based film" gets tossed around a lot, often with reckless abandon. Presently, we're at the point when it's virtually a bespoke genre for the user: depending on who you ask, a faith-based film is either a movie espousing a Christian agenda (with the object of conversion), a movie simply dramatizing Bible stories, or even a flick that has a religious character or just a theme or two. While people are busy labeling Ed Norton's "Keeping the Faith" and Aronofsky's "Noah" as faith-based films, hell, why don't we talk about "The Exorcist" or "Paranormal Activity" in the same vein? Those adhere almost literally to institutional Catholic Christianity, after all.

C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are often roped into the discussion as well. And while it's no secret that Lewis's tale is a transparent parable for the resurrection of Jesus, Tolkien's story is far more complex in its use of religion, despite the title of final novel in the trilogy, The Return of the King.

Though these two series and the films they spawned may fall into a remotely inspired genre, the forthcoming film that details the friendship and religious conflict between the two great authors is apparently more direct. The Hollywood Reporter recently announced that "Tolkien & Lewis" will be specifically aimed toward the faith-based audience. We can expect that the film will incorporate Christian themes such as forgiveness, conversion, and perhaps more than one proselytizing monologue.

On a budget of less than $2 million, Harold Cronk's "God's Not Dead" has accumulated more than thirty times its cost in profits, as the latest in a string of faith-based successes. Though perhaps more tempered in its conversionary aims, Randall Wallace's "Heaven is for Real" just recently recouped its budget eight times over, aided by the presence of Greg Kinnear and Thomas Haden Church.

But before the recent madness (Sexy Jesus, anyone?) that proves the presence of a hungry demographic, the faith-based film had a long and troubled history, starting with its earliest incarnations in the silent era. Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca started out the trend with the aptly named forty-four-minute film "The Passion Play" in 1903.

Much as film comedy has roots in Vaudeville, so does the faith-based film in another theatrical tradition, which is also one of the oldest: the Passion Play. Long before the modern diaspora of interpretation with regards to the "faith-based" label, Nonguet and Zecca's film perfectly integrated the film's objective and its subject matter in the title: the original medieval Passion Plays sought to bring converts to Christianity through the staging of the life, torture, and crucifixion of Christ.

But this original concept of conversion was soon sidelined as early filmmakers found the silver screen better suited to telling epic stories rather than agenda-based ones. Cecil B. DeMille's affinity for Biblical stories made big-budget extravaganzas hip for nearly forty years, starting with his first, "The Ten Commandments" in 1923, and finishing up with 1956's more familiar version featuring Charlton Heston as Moses. DeMille occasionally dabbled in more directly religious fare, such as "The King of Kings" in 1927 (which, like the Passion Plays, concerns the last couple of weeks of the life of Jesus), but he mainly chose to lend the Old Testament a sense of might and grandeur to match its vision of God. In addition, the greater prevalence of God-fearing Americans during the 1940s and 1950s largely nullified the use of agenda-based films.

But the faith-based film soon fell out of favor with the film industry after the colossal bomb of George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told," both commercially and with audiences.

Though religion might have proven a viable commercial enterprise with the Evangelical Revival spearheaded by Billy Graham in the 1970s and 1980s, the faith-based film sat mostly dormant until inspirational fiction found a foothold in the post-apocalyptic "Left Behind" series of the mid 1990s and early 2000s, enlisting Evangelical poster boy Kirk Cameron to play the impossibly righteous Buck Williams in the film series of the same name.

2004's "The Passion of the Christ" brought Christian film to a new level, raking in over $600 million at the global box office and allowing independent agenda-based films to nab the funding they might have lacked in the past. Since then, the audience for these films has grown steadily (along with Kirk Cameron's once stalemated career -- he exhibited his earnestness once again in 2008's "Fireproof," which ended up recouping its budget seventy times while taking aim at pornography, divorce, and elder-neglect).

All this is to say that the concept of a faith-based film perhaps doesn't require an agenda of conversion to qualify it as such. But, as with the forthcoming "Tolkien & Lewis," it certainly doesn't hurt.