Meet the Real Angels, Hollywood

By Joel Miller

Hollywood is going back to the Bible. Major releases covering the stories of Noah, Moses, and even Cain and Pontius Pilate are in the works. But if producers are looking for a real opportunity within the pages of Holy Writ, they should look to angels.

Let's admit the obvious. Hollywood usually blows it when it comes to angels. Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life may be endearing, but he's nothing like the angels we find in the pages of scripture.

Ditto for Christopher Lloyd in Angels in the Outfield or Denzel Washington in The Preacher's Wife. And if John Travolta had played Gabriel instead of Michael, Mary would have called off the Annunciation.

Perhaps all this newfound interest in biblical stories and characters offers Hollywood a chance to do it right for a change. Forget sappy, romantic, and cute. In researching my new book, Lifted by Angels, I was struck by how overwhelmingly powerful and even frightening angels are.

The first angel we encounter in scripture is an armed cherub with a whirling blade of fire. And lest we think about Valentines and greeting cards when seeing the word cherub -- the Bible presents cherubim with four faces and eyes in their wings. It might be better to call them monsters.

Though scripture has several instances of angels disguised as regular humans, angels are spirits, and volatile ones at that. The psalmist, for instance, speaks of angels as winds and flames. The prophet Ezekiel describes an angel in the form of a man but adorned with flames and lightning and gleaming like polished metal. And the thirteenth chapter of Judges shows us an angel ascending to Heaven in the updraft of a blazing sacrifice.

It's no wonder that people are typically terrified by angelic encounters. When the archangel Gabriel appears to help the prophet Daniel, he stuns the man. "I was frightened and fell upon my face," reported Daniel.

Frequency and familiarity fail to mellow things. In another encounter, though Gabriel goes unnamed in the text, he appears like "a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold...His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude."

Gabriel is next forced to reach down and retrieve Daniel from the floor because the prophet has blacked out.

Perhaps Hollywood goes wrong because it wants to make angels more approachable, fun-loving, or romantic. I readily admit the plot possibilities are minimal if our human characters keep falling apart and can't function for all their fright.

But the biblical angels are good at moderating their appearance. For instance, Gabriel softens his visage for Daniel so the prophet can manage, and several stories in scripture present angels comforting humans with great tenderness. Still, it's worth noting that they somehow pull it off without casting Nicholas Cage.

Perhaps what producers need here are some better story ideas to work with. I talk about several in Lifted By Angels -- each with strong cinematic possibilities -- and offer them here free of charge:

The life of Jacob, in which the patriarch is comforted and protected by angels, ultimately wrestles one, and ends his life crediting "the angel who has redeemed me from all evil."

The life of Daniel, who spends his days in Babylonian captivity, seeing mind-blowing visions, and interacting with angels while also being thrown in a den of lions. Bonus points for including the Bel and the Dragon story, in which an angel brings Daniel a meal while he suffers imprisonment.

The book of Tobit, in which the archangel Raphael, disguised as a human, accompanies the hero Tobias on a journey to secure a treasure and rescue and wed a young widow tormented by a terrible demon.

The book of Revelation, wherein angels offer incense on the altar of God and pour out plagues upon the earth, while the archangel Michael and Satan lock in fierce combat, culminating in the victory of heaven over the forces of darkness.

The city that spawned the movie industry owes it to its namesake, Los Angeles ("The angels"), to get this right for once. And there's apparently no better time to try than right now.

Joel J. Miller is the author of Lifted By Angels and blogs frequently on faith and culture.

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