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

How 'Christ the Lord' Became 'The Young Messiah'
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.

Honestly, I think we deserved a PG. I absolutely believe ours is a family film. I think you can take seven-year-olds and up very comfortably to this movie. Ultimately it is the parents’ decision, and I support that, but the violence in our movie—even when the Romans are ambushed by the rebels—it’s pretty tame stuff. I mean, it’s stuff you see on any afternoon TV movie, comparatively.

The Gospels refer to the brothers and sisters of Jesus [e.g., Mark 6:3]. In the Catholic tradition, they were cousins or slightly more distant relatives, but I love the fact that your film begins with Jesus playing in the street with his sister, basically. Were you aware of the fact that this is an aspect of the gospel story that hasn't really been handled before?

I was aware that this hasn’t been handled. We play it kind of safe, because we use “cousin,” “brother,” and “sister” interchangeably, and what we found through our consultants and advisers was that in that time, cousins and extended family were referred to as “brother” and “sister.” It doesn't mean “brother” and “sister” by the definition that we use today. So we thought, “You know what? They're cousins but they call them ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ It's that simple.” That's what we went for. It seems to work.

However one sorts out the traditions there, I just really like the fact that the film begins with Jesus playing with his “sister,” because I had sisters growing up, I have two sons and a daughter, and people often don't think about the fact that Jesus had a childhood like that, with siblings of both genders.

Well, thank you. It’s funny, a lot of people have commented on that, in different ways. I’ve had a lot of women say to me, “I just think it's wonderful that he’s there, playing with his little sister—he may not really like it, but he’s doing it—and that he defends her; he speaks up for her.” I got a lot of comments on that.

I read somewhere that you had been baptized since starting the film.

Yeah, I was baptized a few years ago, but my journey to Christianity started long ago, probably longer ago than I even know. It just seemed like a natural evolution, especially after I married my wife, Betsy, in a Christian ceremony with a pastor, and I think it kind of started then. But then it evolved, as you're raising your kids and they are baptized.

It just seemed natural, for me, a natural evolution to end up doing this movie and for it to just sort of fall into my lap, which is kind of the way it happened. If Anne Rice hadn’t written that review—I mean, my wife had read the book, but the notion that we would do a movie from that book hadn’t occurred to us, because it just seemed like that was out of the realm of possibility, and there had been others who were trying to do Anne’s book as a movie. It just seemed to be a natural evolution both personally and professionally to go towards and become closer to Jesus.

What was your background before you got married?

Religious background? My parents are Muslim, from Iran. They’re immigrants, came to this country many years ago. I was born here in the United States and raised primarily in a kind of secular home, so that’s my background.

The book was originally going to be part of a series, and Anne Rice did write one sequel [2008’s Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana], but I believe she has said she is not going to write any more. So is there any talk about possibly adapting that second book?

Not presently. We’ve got to see how this movie does and go from there. The second book is him, I believe, as an adult.

Yeah, it jumps ahead in time, so you’d probably have to re-cast all the parts.

My feeling is that if people want a sequel, they’re going to want more of him as a child. And the conversations that we’ve had, the reactions to screenings, that’s usually been the indication. So maybe, it’s even been mentioned that maybe we should go to the Temple with him at age 12. So I don't know.

That sounds like an interesting possibility. Certainly your producer, Chris Columbus [director and/or producer on the first three Harry Potter movies], has experience with kids aging along with their characters in multi-movie installments.

I know. And I think it may have been Chris who first mentioned that! (laughs) That’s how very successful franchises are made.

December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
The Hard Work of Making Anne Rice’s Jesus Book into a Movie