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Hollywood seeks the holy grail

Will a slew of Bible-based dramas deliver box-office bounty?

Sometimes the oldest stories work the best. That, at least, appears to be the thinking behind a deluge of biblical tales heading cinema-wards.

Not since the biblical epic's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, have so many films clamoured to spread the word. In March Darren Aronofsky's Noah, with Russell Crowe on ark duty, arrives. That's followed by Ridley Scott's Exodus, telling of the tale of Moses, starring a grim-of-face and heavily bearded Christian Bale and slated to open just before next Christmas. The year will also see the release of Mary starring Ben Kingsley as King Herod, Peter O'Toole as the prophet Simeon and Odeya Rush as the mother of Christ. Meanwhile Robocop director Paul Verhoeven is pressing on with Jesus of Nazareth and, while Steven Spielberg recently passed on a second Moses movie, Gods and Kings, Ang Lee is tipped to take over.

Nor is it just film that's turning to the bible for inspiration. Last week saw the start of The Bible on Channel 5, a 10-part retelling of the good book's most famous stories, which was among the most-watched programmes in the US this year, pulling in over 13 million viewers an episode.

Indeed so great was The Bible's success that a film version, Son of God, has been cut from the New Testament scenes and filming has already begun on a second series, the wonderfully titled AD: Beyond the Bible, which will chart the spread of Christianity in the days after Jesus's death.

So why is religion such big news? In part it's a trend driven by economics and box-office receipts. In recent years Hollywood has been all about the superhero movie – but each new big-budget extravaganza seems to be delivering less than the one before. Biblical stories share certain traits with the superhero genre – an epic vision, clashes between good and evil, people triumphing against the odds, and the call for spectacular special effects.

Like the heroes of Marvel and DC, The Bible's leading men and women are known throughout the world and have the potential to bring in a huge audience of "fans". However, and crucially, unlike those comic-book guys, the heroes and villains of The Bible are in the public domain. There's no need to pay a costly licensing fee to God.

But those of a less religious bent might well wonder if the good book is actually an effective text for adaptation. The bombastic trailer for Noah, all orange skies, circling birds and water exploding up from the ground, walks a fine line between epic and ludicrous and, while Ridley Scott knows how to shoot a serious historical blockbuster, it's hard not to wonder if Bale's glowering Moses will raise more giggles than cheers.

The Bible only adds to those doubts. The 10-part series (made by Mark Burnett, the man behind US reality-TV juggernaut Survivor, and his wife, Roma Downey, best-known for saccharine 1990s show Touched by an Angel), aims to tell some of the Bible's most famous stories but consists largely of bearded men proclaiming God has ordered them to act while their wives wait in the shadows.

In the US it ran into controversy after Conservative commentator Glen Beck claimed that Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, the Moroccan actor playing Satan, resembled Barack Obama, forcing the History channel to put out a statement denying "this false connection". Reviewers were further unimpressed with the show's largely white cast and "marginalisation of women".

'The Bible' is on Saturdays at 9pm on Channel 5