The Omen doesn't stick to script

Posted: Jun 06, 2006 12:01 AM

There’s an interesting dichotomy in Hollywood when it comes to interpreting Scripture on film. While they seem to have great regard for the bad news of the Bible (demonic possession, seven seals of pestilence and famine, and that whole end of the world thing), they don’t have much esteem for the good news (the whole Jesus dying on a cross to save us all from eternal damnation thing.)

I’m no religious prude when it comes to adapting the Word’s most terrifying passages in service to a scary movie. But it would seem, if only for the sake of variety, major studios could occasionally greenlight a script that draws on the bits about hope for the future and freedom from sin as well.

I can rattle off dozens of major releases over the last 30 years that feature demons, apocalyptic horsemen, sons of Satan, or some other doctrinal downer, yet all those concerned with Christianity’s impressive upside either debuted as television mini-series or were products of a much earlier era. The Omen may be a stylish, intelligent remake of a stylish, intelligent 70s classic, but once again it demonstrates that the only biblical prophecies the movie industry will even play at taking seriously are those that don’t bode well for mankind.

Speaking of not boding well for mankind, as The Omen opens, a confederation of clergyman gathers at the Vatican to review evidence that the End (capital “E”) is upon the human race. Each slide that flashes on screen in front of them—9/11, the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina—confirms that the beast is poised to curse the world with his presence. The question, they ponder, is how will the Prince of Darkness unleash his son on the world. Diplomat Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) unwittingly provides the answer.

With the encouragement from a traitorous priest, Robert decides to protect his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) from the knowledge that their baby died in child birth. Instead, he swaps their deceased child for an orphaned infant born on the same day (June 6, naturally), and thus seals his and his wife’s fate as the adoptive parents of Satan’s spawn. Though Katherine feels no real affinity for her son, it’s not clear until his fifth birthday that her problem amounts to anything more than an extended case of post-partum depression. Then the nanny takes a high dive off a balcony and Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) throws a world-class temper tantrum to avoid going to church (though I have known other children who have done this, so perhaps that alone isn’t proof he’s the anti-Christ). Finally, the Thornes start to suspect that there may be something worse than ADD afflicting their son.

Director John Moore doesn’t deviate much from the original movie, at times even matching the predecessor shot for shot. His only major deviation is in his casting of the young, upwardly mobile couple. Fans of the 1976 version will likely find the Thornes’ youth disconcerting, but 25-year-old Stiles is actually a much more believable choice for the mother of a kindergartner than the 40-year-old Lee Remick was. And 39-year-old Schrieber comes off as far more age-appropriate than Gregory Peck, who was 60 when he played Robert Thorne.

Certainly the actors’ performances don’t suffer for their lack of years. Shrieber gives Robert a profound depth that belies the absurdity of his situation. In Townhall’s interview with him, Shrieber revealed that a pivotal moment for his character, when Robert collapses on the altar and begs Christ for forgiveness, was an improvisation on his part. Stiles doesn’t quite match his intensity, but she acquits herself at least as well as Remick did.

Moore also picks up the pace of his predecessor by adding more arresting visual images and tweaking the character of the literal nanny-from-hell, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow). In all, The Omen is a far sight more engaging and disturbing than the slice and dice fests that frequently pass for horror these days.

So what’s my beef? Only the complaints I outlined in the opening paragraphs…and the story’s unfortunate tendency to stray from its source material.

In the film, Robert, his wife, and several collaborators plot to defeat the designs of evil and postpone the end of the world. In other words, when it comes to defeating all the powers of Hell, man has only himself to rely on. Even if Robert and his cohorts succeed (and no spoilers here, I’m not saying whether they do or don’t), their efforts seem pretty pitiful.

But in the first draft, the plot plays out quite a bit differently. Man has no part to play in the great battle of Armageddon other than to surrender his soul to the good guy. No intrepid journalists, haunted priests, or tortured parents are necessary, only Christ descending from the clouds, squired by angels to declare victory. I know, I know, I’m being a little nitpicky. But what can I say? I’ve always been one for sticking to the script.