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John Paul, Two

Dueling networks race to tell the late Pope's life story

Nobody claimed it was an original idea.

The pope was the pope, after all -- the man who survived Nazis and fought communism, who suffered gunshot wounds and Parkinson's, whose funeral captivated millions. His life screamed ''biopic" in several languages.

So it stands to reason that, some two hours after John Paul II's death, Lorenzo Minoli, a producer of 2000's ''Jesus" miniseries, looked out his window overlooking the Vatican, phoned his partner Judd Parkin, and said, ''Let's do it."

Meanwhile, the Italian production house Lux Vide, which had worked with Minoli and Parkin on ''Jesus," was nursing an idea for a pope film of its own.

Eight months later -- lightning-speed, in filmmaking terms -- TV is set to unroll two dramatizations of the pope's life, appearing within days of each other on competing networks. Minoli and Parkin's ''Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II," airs on ABC on Thursday. The Lux Vide version, the miniseries ''Pope John Paul II," starts next Sunday on CBS and continues the following Wednesday.

The airings will end this round of behind-the-scenes jostling, as each production team worked to differentiate its film. CBS, for starters, can boast the famous cast -- when Ian Holm dropped out as the pope, Jon Voight stepped in -- and a screening last week before Pope Benedict XVI.

ABC, meanwhile, can boast the earlier airdate; it was recently switched from Dec. 18 to Dec. 1, three days before the CBS premiere. The Thursday night series ''Night Stalker" had been abruptly canceled, said Quinn Taylor, the network's senior vice president for TV movies and miniseries. ''The biggest motivating factor was, we had a hole to fill," Taylor said. ''The fact that it comes a little bit before theirs -- well, I suppose it's a business, after all."

Not that this business of parallel programming is anything new; the same millennial Easter season that ''Jesus" aired on CBS, ABC put out a claymation Jesus film called ''The Miracle Maker."

On network TV, competition is its own sort of religion.

In truth, the dueling pope movies are strikingly different in scope, theme, and feel. ABC's ''Have No Fear," a two-hour movie, is a psychological take on the pontiff's life, focusing on the loss of his mother and his decision to remain pope despite his increasing frailty. This Karol Wojtyla is pious from the start -- as a little boy, he volunteers to pray with his sick mother -- but feels guilt over his indifference to slain San Salvador archbishop Oscar Romero. He is played by German-born Thomas Kretschmann from teenagehood to heavily-made-up old age.

CBS's four-hour miniseries ''Pope John Paul II," written and directed by TV film veteran John Kent Harrison, tells a broader story about late-20th-century history and geopolitics, seen through the eyes of an extra-intelligent pope. This Wojtyla is a reluctant world player, surprised as anyone when he is named bishop of Krakow, and not above being the butt of some gentle comic relief. He is played by British actor Cary Elwes until the moment he takes over as pope, when he miraculously turns into Jon Voight.

The CBS version has the access; producers say they were the first to film actors inside the Vatican and tout the footage of the Sistine Chapel they used to help them re-create the room for a conclave scene. Such are the benefits, apparently, of working with Lux Vide, Italy's best-known -- and best-placed -- TV production company.

But that connection has become another tussling point due to the murky matter of Opus Dei. That's the conservative Catholic group with close ties to the Vatican, fictionalized, to much controversy, in the novel and film ''The Da Vinci Code." Lux Vide's president, Ettore Bernabei, is a vocal member, as is Bernabei's son Luca, a producer of the CBS film.

The makers of the ABC film haven't been shy about pointing out the potential implications. Their pope is shown making mistakes, they say. Can Opus Dei members offer that kind of balance?

Minoli and Parkin say they have some idea; they worked with Lux Vide on 2000's ''Jesus" and the 1998 TV movie ''Nicholas' Gift." Minoli said he talked to Lux Vide about collaborating on a pope project, but ''it didn't work out."

He now uses that as a selling point.

''We made sure that we were making a movie that was not a partisan story . . . vetted and approved by a small part of one faith," said Minoli. Opus Dei, he said, when pressed, is ''exactly what I'm referring to."

The actual Opus Dei link is a little less concrete. A spokesman for the group said Opus Dei had no official role in the CBS film. John Allen, author of the recent book ''Opus Dei," said the Bernabeis' reputation for strong faith surely helps their bid for access. But Lux Vide's advantage, Allen said, probably stems more from its work for RAI, the Italian state TV network with exclusive access to Vatican events.

Besides, Harrison said, the script he eventually wrote bears little resemblance to Lux Vide's original version, which he said was ''a little too liturgical." When he arrived in Rome last June, he said, he spent two days talking to Ettore Bernabei, ''who has pretty firm opinions about Catholicism, Christianity, politics, and all of it. I realized that either they were going to trust me to make the movie or I was going to have to patch things together and make some coordinated effort to please everybody, and that wouldn't be any fun at all."

So he said he asked for permission to ''tell the movie the way I see it, which is sort of the pope's point of view." Bernabei agreed, and introduced him to the pope's private secretary, spokesman, and choirmaster. Polish crew members told Harrison about life under communist rule.

''To understand where he comes from helps me understand his point of view, and then everything kind of falls into place," Harrison said.

That was fortunate, since CBS wanted results as soon as possible; the network was recruiting Harrison a month after the pope's death. (''It was definitely one of those 'I've got good news and bad news' situations," Harrison said. '' 'We can do the movie, but we want it tomorrow.' ")

He finished writing some scenes at lunchtime during the eight-week shoot and was still doing post-production work on the eve of last week's papal screening -- where Voight signed autographs and Benedict XVI viewed an abbreviated version, dubbed in Italian.

The ABC producers likewise raced to work. Parkin and screenwriter Michael Hirst -- who wrote the 1998 Cate Blanchett film ''Elizabeth" -- delivered the script in one month last spring and filmed in August and September.

They considered focusing on Wojtyla's life before his papacy, in part to avoid ''simply re-creating the famous moments," Parkin said. They nixed the idea when they learned that ''A Man Who Became Pope," a Polish-Italian biopic that aired on the Hallmark Channel in August, was taking that approach.

As for the CBS version, ''We tried hard not to know what they were doing," Parkin said. ''At the beginning, I suppose there was a sense of 'There's a race here, so we need to move quickly.' But we had to move quickly anyhow. There's still a lingering interest in the man, so you don't want to do this film four years from now."

That was certainly the thought in Hollywood, where network executives spent the weeks after the pope's death considering TV movie proposals -- and then turned to the sensitive matter of scheduling.

ABC's Taylor said he chose Minoli and Parkin's version in part because it would air for only one night. ''It's a little more difficult for us to preempt Sunday night and put on a miniseries than it is for others," he said, a not-so-oblique reference to the ratings success of ''Desperate Housewives" and ''Grey's Anatomy."

It wasn't easy at CBS, either, said Kelly Kahl, the network's executive vice president for scheduling and program planning. ''Not to pat ourselves on the back," Kahl said, ''but our schedule has been doing so well that it's actually hard to find places to do part two of a miniseries."

Of course, the networks care about content, too -- and each claims to offer the deeper papal take. ''The scene with the South American priest, " Taylor said, referring to Romero, ''makes me cry every single time."

Kahl, meanwhile, touts the benefits of a two-part series (''We're going to be able to tell a much richer story") and the virtues of an audience in Rome. ''A papal stamp of approval on a movie about a pope is about as good a blessing as you could hope for," he said.

That's why CBS executives were unfazed, he said, when ABC announced its schedule change.

''We saw they were putting theirs on a Thursday. That's not a high viewing night for them," Kahl said. ''We figured that we'd both be written about at the same time anyway. You stack the two up side by side, we think we have the better product."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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