Pop culture

In the beginning ... there was Charlton Heston

March 5, 2013 at 12:02 PM ET

The weekend ratings for the premiere of "The Bible," a new History Channel miniseries, were heavenly. The 10-hour series was produced by Mark Burnett, mastermind of "Survivor" and "The Voice," and his wife, actress Roma Downey. It combines Hollywood storytelling with CGI effects and modern songs, and will continue to air on Sundays, with its finale on Easter Sunday, March 31. Burnett and Downey said they were inspired by the famed 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments," starring Charlton Heston as Moses. Here's a look at some of the ways biblical stories have been brought to the movies, television and the stage in the past.

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Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" is the iconic Moses for many.

Faithful renditions

When you think of Moses, do you picture Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments"? With his white hair and beard, cape flowing behind him, stone tablets in his hand, Heston's portrayal is one of the most iconic in cinema history. The film won an Oscar for best visual effects, which included the parting of the Red Sea. Heston would return in another iconic story, "Ben-Hur," in which his title character witnesses various biblical events, including Jesus' crucifixion. And like "Ben-Hur," 1953's "The Robe" was based on a novel with biblical ties, telling the story of the Roman soldier who won Jesus' final garment in a dice game.

God the comedian

God is big enough that there’s room enough to poke a little fun -- most of the time. In 1977, legendary cigar-smoking comedian George Burns was 81 and his bespectacled, wizened figure seemed a perfect way to give God a human face in "Oh, God!" (and two sequels). In 2003 and 2007 respectively, "Bruce Almighty" and "Evan Almighty" gave us a different look at God: Older, yes, but in the guise of Morgan Freeman -- whose sonorous voice and regal manner naturally fit the role. Meanwhile, "The Simpsons" (with Harry Shearer providing the voice) has given God a recurring part for years -- though this particular Lord is a bit different from the rest of the four-fingered cast: To set Him apart, He has five fingers and five toes. But if you want true irreverence, turn to the members of Monty Python, who stirred up major controversy with 1979’s "Life of Brian," in which a neighbor of Jesus Christ’s, born on the same day, is mistaken for the Messiah. It was banned in a number of countries.

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George Burns starred in "Oh, God!"

Horror movies

The Bible has plenty of terrifying scenes and bloody battles, and that has not gone unnoticed by moviemakers. Jesus cast demons out of the possessed, but never quite in such dramatically described scenes as those of "The Exorcist," the 1973 movie that pits a priest against the devil who's taken over the body of a young girl. Young Linda Blair was just 12 when she performed the head-spinning, pea-soup-spitting role of a career. It's the Book of Revelation that Hollywood turns to again and again. In the 1976 film "The Omen" (which earned many sequels and a 2006 remake), a young boy turns out to be the Antichrist, wreaking plenty of biblical-inspired havoc along the way. And in 1988's "The Seventh Sign," a pregnant woman played by Demi Moore discovers that Revelation's apocalyptical signs are coming true.

Warner Bros. /
"The Exorcist" is perhaps the most famous horror movie with biblical ties.

Controversial takes

Any attempt at tweaking or even super-realistically retelling the story of Jesus Christ is bound to cause controversy, and even a respected director like Martin Scorsese couldn’t escape the wrath of those angered by 1988’s "The Last Temptation of Christ," which portrays Jesus marrying, having children, and growing old. More recently, Mel Gibson directed 2004’s "The Passion of the Christ," which earned him scorn for its portrayal of Jews, deviation from the accepted version of the story, and what many saw as excessive gore. An unofficial sequel, "The Resurrection," is in the works for release in 2015.

Newmarket Films /
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was a controversial and bloody take on Jesus' death.

Sing to the Lord

The 1970s saw two musical tellings of the life of Jesus come to stages across the country. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice wrote rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," based on the last week of Christ's life and including the Mary Magdalene-sung hit "I Don't Know How to Love Him." The other musical of the era, "Godspell," is structured as a series of biblical parables. It's hit "Day By Day" reached No.13 on Billboard's pop singles charts in 1972.

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