The Hard Work of Making Anne Rice’s Jesus Book into a Movie
Image: Focus Features

It's been a long, rocky road to the big screen for The Young Messiah, but at last, it's here.

The film is based on a 2005 novel called Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which takes place when Jesus is seven years old and his family is returning to Nazareth from Egypt. It was written by Anne Rice—best known for her vampire novels—after she returned to the Catholic church. An early attempt to make a film based on the novel fell apart in 2007, and Rice herself publicly quit Christianity in 2010, though she said she still follows Christ.

The book’s film prospects turned a corner when Rice wrote a glowing review of The Stoning of Soraya M., a 2009 movie about the treatment of women in Iran that was directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American of Persian descent. Nowrasteh acquired the rights to Rice’s book, wrote a script with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, and got Harry Potter director Chris Columbus to come on board as a producer. The film comes out March 11.

CT spoke to Cyrus Nowrasteh about creating new characters for the film, the tricky nature of movie ratings, the role the film played in his own journey towards Christian faith, and the possibility of a sequel. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

How involved was Anne Rice beyond letting you have the rights to the property? Did she have any input after that?

Contractually, no. We acquired the book and ran with it, and we were going to do it the way we wanted. However, we felt that Anne had a lot to contribute, because she had done a lot of the research. Also, we wanted to make changes, and I just felt that, as the original author, she was entitled to be at least consulted and informed. I would do that with any author, whether they have it in their contract or not. So she was well aware of the process of what we were doing, and she was very supportive.

The subplot with the Sean Bean character [a centurion who took part in the slaughter in Bethlehem and now has orders to find Jesus] is not part of the book, and the Devil is in the book but not as prominent as he is in the film. How did you come to the decision to either add or expand those roles in the film?

Is there a better antagonist than the Devil? I don't think so.

Every movie needs an antagonist. If you don't have it, you don't have a movie, you don't have a story. Is there a better antagonist than the Devil? I don't think so. It was just too juicy to pass up, and Anne did have the Devil in her book. We just decided to have him lurking about a little bit more, you know what I mean?

And as far as the Roman centurion and Herod [are concerned], in Anne’s book there’s a lot of talk and description of threats, chaos, discord in the Holy Land, and the fears that the family is encountering—so in a movie, you can’t just say, “Hey, it's dangerous out there.” You know what I mean? You’ve got to show it! It’s got to be alive on screen. You’ve got to have characters who represent it. You have to experience it as a dramatic event through characters. So they were critical, the centurion and Herod, in conveying that idea that was represented in Anne’s novel.

Because it’s a movie about children, do you see this as a family film, or as a film for families or kids? Because the film does have a fair bit of violence in it.

Compared to Risen? I mean, let me tell you something, Peter. It is a joke that our movie and Risen are the same rating. You compare the violence in those two movies. I guarantee that you don't see anything in our movie. You know why? Because I was very careful about it. [It’s] all suggested. All impressionistic. It is the context—this is what I was told by the ratings board—of what is going on that gave us the PG-13.

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The Hard Work of Making Anne Rice’s Jesus Book into a Movie