This weekend saw the news that Oscar winner Octavia Spencer will be taking on one of the most powerful roles in Hollywood: God. The star of The Help has been attached to the adaptation of a best-selling Christian thriller called The Shack, about a man who receives a note from God concerning his missing daughter.
It’s a role that Spencer is already “daunted” by. The actress, next to be seen in this month’s dystopian sequel Insurgent, says she has “huge shoes to fill” and finds the opportunity “overwhelming”.
Physical godly manifestations have been thin on the ground in recent years, despite a huge uplift in the number of faith-based movies, such as Heaven Is for Real and Son of God, and even Ridley Scott’s big-budget epic Exodus: Gods and Kings used the voice of an 11-year-old boy rather than an on-screen actor.
Given the fervent fanbase for the book (it’s sold over 18 million copies worldwide) and the actors who have already inhabited the role (Morgan Freeman, John Huston, erm, will.i.am), she has reason to be nervous. But what can she learn from other movie portrayals of God?
The wisdom of Morgan Freeman
In Bruce Almighty, and less memorably Evan Almighty, Morgan Freeman’s take on the omnipotent creator was as Morgan Freeman-y as you’d expect, and for all the very best reasons. His commanding yet soothing voice and bottomless pot of charisma served the part well, and he was easily the best part of two comedies that deserve to be remembered for approximately nothing else. But while his performance might have gone down well with the masses, some Christians were less impressed, thanks to the film’s “unscrubbed framework” and “questionable content”. This should serve as a reminder for Spencer not to make any chocolate pies during production.
The helpfulness of Steve Coogan
While the appearance of God in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People might be another displeasing portrayal for many Christians, things could have been a lot worse, given what happens in the rest of the film. Steve Coogan takes on dual roles in the drug-fuelled Madchester biopic as Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson and God, seen by Wilson on a rooftop after a particularly strong joint. He offers a stream of pragmatic business advice and musical opinion, including praise for Shaun Ryder and the Smiths. Given the tortured protagonist of Octavia Spencer’s upcoming thriller, let’s hope she can provide some equally useful input, especially if it involves her calling Mick Hucknall’s music “rubbish” all over again.
The subtlety of Alanis Morissette
When news hit that Kevin Smith’s Dogma would feature sweary female rocker Alanis Morissette in the role of God, there was an expectation, and an associated fear from Catholic groups, that the casting would result in offence. But the small role was surprisingly dialogue- and angst-free, and Morissette, after understandably killing Ben Affleck’s fallen angel, comes off as actually pretty charming. The decision to lose the booming voice so often seen in films such as The Ten Commandments made for a refreshing change, and although The Shack is mainly focused on the conversations with God, Spencer would be wise to avoid loud histrionics. Plus it never hurts to feature an exploding head.
The kindness of George Burns
At the age of 80, George Burns was an unlikely choice to play the almighty in the comedy Oh God! but his portrayal of God as a sweet-natured grandparent was a big success. It played into what people wanted to see – benevolent rather than destructive – and the film was followed by two sequels and rumours of a remake, with both Betty White and Ellen Degeneres attached. While a compassionate grandmother might be a bit more of a stretch, Spencer could easily pull off a loving aunt.
The otherworldliness of Val Kilmer
While last year’s underwhelming epic Exodus: Gods and Kings might have given us a glossy three-dimensional take on the classic story, the tale had already been told with far more skill on a much smaller budget in 1998’s animated musical The Prince of Egypt. In the burning bush scene, the voice of God appears to Moses as a more ethereal version of his own voice, both originating from Val Kilmer. It’s a smart idea, as it helps to make the advice seem like it comes from Moses’s conscience. Kilmer manages to be commanding and godly yet still mysterious. Spencer’s soothing voice could suit this style rather well, although a lack of musical numbers would be a most welcome diversion.
So in summary...
Thou shalt be wise like Morgan Freeman
Thou shalt not indulge in potty humour
Thou shalt provide helpful advice about how terrible Mick Hucknall’s music is
Thou shalt not be shy about exploding at least one head
Thou shalt act like a kind, older relative
Thou shalt not allow any musical numbers involving Mariah Carey