This weekend, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings hits theaters, bringing the Old Testament story of Moses to the big screen. The epic is just the latest in a long line of biblical adventures and dramas from Hollywood that combine modern storytelling with the ancient tales from scripture.
Though many of Hollywood’s Bible adaptations have faced the same sorts of criticisms (particularly when it comes to the racial makeup of their casts and creative liberties with their scripts), religious movies have become a hallmark of American cinema.
Here’s a look at 9 of the best Biblical adaptations ever to come out of Hollywood.
The Ten Commandments
Widely recognized as one of the greatest American movies of all time, when it released in 1956, The Ten Commandments was arguably the most ambitious film ever attempted by Hollywood. The budget, special effects and scope of the Charlton Heston Bible story were unprecedented, even in an era known for its epics. But beyond all of its memorable visuals, huge set pieces and bold creative choices (it’s four hours long and takes some liberties with the text), The Ten Commandments is at its core a compelling story about a man’s calling from God and his struggles with his own humanity.
Prince of Egypt
In this adaptation, Dreamworks turned in a perfectly serviceable animated take on the first few chapters of Exodus. Featuring a truly all-star voice cast back when stars were less inclined to do voice work (Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Jeff Goldblum and even Steve Martin got in the game), Prince of Egypt is largely faithful to the biblical narrative and even manages some real moments of human drama. At a time when Disney was at a creative low point and Pixar was just getting started, Dreamworks produced a real gem.
Ben-Hur‘s primary narrative isn’t based on a Bible story, but rather the tale of a prince-turned-slave. Ben Hur’s themes parallel messages of Scripture, while the setting itself parallels the actual Gospels. Based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the audience—as well as the movie’s hero—actually witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus and experiences His healing power. And, of course, it culminates in one of Hollywood’s most famous action sequences (a violent chariot race).
The Passion of the Christ
When it was released in 2004, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was shocking: Instead of focusing on the life and teachings of Christ, Gibson focused on the day Christ was crucified, graphically showing the brutal execution in agonizing cinematic clarity. Though some critics took issue with Gibson’s creative choice, beyond its artistic merits, The Passion remains one of the more important Bible films ever made: Taking in nearly $400 million, it is the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, and it helped usher in a new era of Hollywood creating content for Christian audiences.
The Bible Miniseries
Like The Passion, The Bible miniseries will likely be remembered as much for its impact on cable TV as it will be for its actual artistic contributions. The History Channel miniseries was one of the highest-rated events of 2013. It launched several side-projects (Son of God and the upcoming A.D.: Beyond the Bible miniseries). Spanning from creation to Christ’s resurrection in just 10 episodes, The Bible may not have been able to capture all of the details, but its selection of Bible stories—pointing to the coming of Christ—provided for an entertaining, fast-paced TV experience, tailor made for the bingewatching era.
Adventures in Odyssey
Though Focus on the Family’s well-loved radio program usually spouted tight morality tales based in the present, the idea of adapting Bible stories must have been too strong for the creators to resist. They created a sort of time machine to whisk their characters into Bible stories for what often turned out to be very rousing re-creations. Focus on the Family has an innate understanding of radio, and at its creative peak, their Odyssey broadcasts could be truly transportive, via some wizardly sound design from Dave Arnold and Bob Luttrell. In their excellent adaptation of the Elijah story, you’ll feel your hair singe when the prophet calls down fire from Heaven.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Overlong and occasionally dull, George Stevens’ look at the life of Christ thrives on its performances, of which it has a number of spectacular ones. Jesus himself is played by the great Max von Sydow (famous for The Exorcist and Shutter Island, and about to be famous for his role in the upcoming Star Wars relaunch), Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and even John Wayne(!) as a Roman guard. Widely criticized upon its release, history has been kind to the epic, which now looks less like a colossal failure than it does a frequently messy but nevertheless fascinating passion project.
David and Bathsheba
The story of David and Bathsheba is ripe for Hollywood adaptation, so it’s odd that it has only been done once. But then again, it would be hard to do it better than Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward did back in 1951. A very big, very campy adaptation that nevertheless gets into the temptation and tension facing David as he tries to maintain his righteous facade even as he succumbs to his attraction for another man’s wife. Hayward and Peck are in top form, but the best performance might be Raymond Massey’s as the fiery prophet Nathan, whose intensity lingers over the picture even when he’s not onscreen.
The short-lived, big-budget NBC show was an ambitious retelling of the story of David that lasted just 13 episodes. It may seem like an odd choice, but unlike most of the other selections, it took traditional Bible stories and made them into a modern prime-time drama. Set in a not-too-distant future kingdom called Gilboa (the location where the real King Saul died), nearly every element of the story is a reference to biblical themes, stories and characters. Kings wasn’t a perfect show—and was polarizing among TV critics—but the attempt to bring the story of David and Saul to modern audiences through a compelling drama makes it one of the most unique (though largely forgotten) Old Testament adaptations ever to come out of Hollywood.