**Disclaimer: The ending of the films are revealed for critical review purposes.
As church attendance is declining in most factions of Christianity, films featuring religious references have been more popular than ever recently. The public’s response to Hollywood films based on Jesus serves as overwhelming evidence of this phenomenon.
Take Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, for instance. Based on the New Testament, The Passion recounts the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life, portraying the arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Gibson, a devout Catholic, co-wrote, co-produced, and directed the film.
Another example of Hollywood cashing in on Jesus can be found in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s mystery-detective fiction novel, The Da Vinci Code. Starring Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon, The Da Vinci Code follows Langdon as he investigates a murder in Paris’s Louvre Museum that could potentially divulge some very critical secrets, which if revealed could challenge the fundamentals of the Roman Catholic Church.
One based on fact and the other fiction, both films grossed millions of dollars worldwide and caught the attention of religious communities and moviegoers alike.
Gibson set out to produce a film that made “graphic and inescapable the price that Jesus paid (as Christians believe) when he died for our sins” (Ebert, 2004). At least 100 minutes of The Passion explicitly visualizes the brutal torturing and death of Jesus (played by James Caviezel). This was one of Gibson’s stated goals, however, “to make clear the agony Jesus (must have) endured, to give viewers an ‘experience’ that approximates the Passion, a pain they will remember and believe (in)” (Fuchs, 2004). And Gibson did just that. While the movie may be far too gruesome for some, it is certainly a film one walks away from with a newfound perspective of Jesus’ sacrifice.
The Passion has been screened by church groups across America and praised for its accuracy, with some “calling the film a teaching and converting ‘tool’ to be used for years to come” (Fuchs, 2004). Ted Haggard, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, goes as far to call it the “most accurate film historically than anything that’s ever been made in the English world” (Corley, 2004:175).
Gibson’s claim to faithfully represent the New Testament and praises like Haggard’s are alarming, however, because much of The Passion does not represent accurately either the Gospels or history. As Corley and Webb (2004:176) explain, The Passion, like all other films, “is an interpretation of a story from one perspective, and movie directors have the right to interpret from whatever perspective they choose and portray as they see fit.”
In key points during the film, Gibson “takes considerable license with the Gospel narratives. The film adds scenes that have no basis in the Gospels’ plot, and considerably alters the characterization of many of the key characters” (Corley, 2004:174). The film’s altering of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, who is seen rather sympathetically, has sparked many claims that the film is anti-Semitic. The positive portrayal of Pilate shifts the blame of Jesus’ death to the Jewish authorities and crowds in the film. Consequently, “one definitely comes away from the film with the understanding that it was primarily the Jews who are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus” (Corley, 2004:174-175). So while viewers do walk away from the film with a new perspective, the authenticity of that perspective is undoubtedly skewed.
The Da Vinci Code is another film that experienced the truth debate upon hitting the big screen. The film closely follows the popular book, which makes the claim that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene. Like the book, the film also asserts a colossal cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church, which accordingly did everything in its power, including murdering millions of people, to cover up the relationship (Waxman, 2005).
Similar to the book, the film received stark criticisms from many in the Catholic Church. Both the Catholic League and Opus Dei (the film’s central villain) sent letters to producers and Columbia Pictures expressing their concerns with the film’s portrayal of Catholicism. Westminster Abbey even declined the producers' request to shoot there, calling the book and film "theologically unsound" (Waxman, 2005).
Many readers of Brown’s novel are convinced that The Da Vinci Code is fact masked in fiction—the film’s production team stuck close to Brown’s storyline to buy into that fan base. Producer John Calley even argues that the movie “could be a tool for discussing the origins of religion, even challenging its basic assumptions” (Waxman, 2005).
Both films serve as examples of why viewers need to question the legitimacy of the information they consume from the media. One must do their own research and fact-finding before believing, understanding that all media representations—whether it be from the news media or Hollywood—are simply social constructions. The problem lies in the reality that not enough media consumers challenge what they see or hear.
The Passion is based on Gibson’s perspective, yet it’s perceived by many as the stone cold truth. The Da Vinci Code adheres closely to Dan Brown’s fictional plot, yet Brown himself and many fans believe his storyline to be the truth cloaked in fiction. The reality is that these films are mere interpretations of facts and stories from one perspective. Therefore, the films should be respected for what they are as films and not for what some viewers intend them to be, historically accurate.
Buying into moviegoer’s newfound interest in religious themes, The Passion and The Da Vinci Code are just two examples of the media shaping people’s thoughts about religion. The films act as perfect examples of how the media as cultural institutions have become “producers of religious imaginations, rather than conveyors of the messages of religious institutions (Hjarvard, 2008:18). Consequently, it is up to conscious media consumers to dissect media representations and to discern their own notion of the truth. And at the end of the day, sometimes it is best to enjoy a Hollywood movie for what it simply is, entertainment.
Corley, Kathleen E., and Robert L. Webb. “Conclusion: The Passion, the Gospels and the Claims to History.” Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: the Film, the Gospels, and the Claims of History. Ed. Kathleen Corley and Robert Webb. New York: Continuum, 2004. 173-178.
Ebert, Robert. “The Da Vinci Code.” Chicago Sun-Times 18 May 2006: Ebert. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060518/REVIEWS/60419009/1001>.
Fuchs, Cynthia. “The Da Vinci Code: Not Theology.” PopMatters 19 May 2006: Film & TV. <http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/davinci-code/>.
Fuchs, Cynthia. “The Passion of the Christ: Faith and Pain.” PopMatters 30 August 2004: Film & TV. <http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/passion-of-the-christ-dvd/>.
Hjarvard, S. “The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change.” Northern Lights 6 (2008): 9-26.
Waxman. Sharon. “Sprinkling Holy Water on ‘The Da Vinci Code.’” New York Times 7 August 2005: Movies. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/movies/07waxm.html>.