Why a disclaimer for 'Noah,' a movie based on a religious story, not history?

After last week’s storms, the biggest deluge around is the onscreen one that puts Noah and a worldful of other creatures aboard an ark.

Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical blockbuster “Noah” launches at the end of this month, and the inundation of ads and trailers will now include this disclaimer, described by Paramount as an “explanatory message”:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the Book of Genesis.”

Why issue a disclaimer that liberties were taken with a feature film based on a story that hasn’t a splinter of historical proof? That is, nothing apart from some geological evidence of large-scale floods predating the Old Testament, floods that may be responsible for other cultures’ similar rescuer-in-a-big-boat mythologies, like the Gilgamesh epic and Greek and Roman tales.

Paramount must have been in a pickle. It couldn’t say “based on a true story” without seeming to buy into biblical literalism, and yet it had to deal with complaints — and possible box-office boycotts — from the religiously sensitive who would object to anything but a literal telling of the Old Testament version.

(A literal telling would also require Russell Crowe to be more than 500 years old, because that’s what Genesis says was Noah’s age when he begat his three sons, who are grownups by the time the flood hit.)

Paramount edited and screened several versions of the movie for the faithful, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The final cut is not evidently one of those.

The studio also talked with the conservative National Religious Broadcasters, whose president issued this statement: “Because of the quality of the production and acting, viewers will enjoy watching main themes from the Noah story depicted in a powerful way on the big screen. However, my intent in reaching out to Paramount with this request was to make sure everyone who sees this impactful film knows this is an imaginative interpretation of Scripture, and not literal.”

In 1988, believers who hadn’t yet seen “The Last Temptation of Christ” — the film based on the novel that was Nikos Kazantzakis’ harrowingly human “read” of Jesus — condemned it loudly. French Christians firebombed a movie theater screening it, and the protests ended up limiting the film’s reach. And that movie opens with a disclaimer that it is not the accepted biblical version of Jesus.

Cecil B. DeMille, who had already made silent films with biblical themes, defanged potential criticism of his epic 1956 religious potboiler “The Ten Commandments” when he aligned with a fraternal group to put up hundreds of granite Ten Commandments monuments outside city halls and courthouses across the country.

Consider another film about a large ship, this one incontrovertibly documented, with eyewitnesses who lived into the present century: James Cameron’s “Titanic.” That movie took liberties with a very well-known event, yet it didn’t inoculate itself with anything like a disclaimer. Then again, an aggrieved “Titanic” community couldn’t be large enough to do much box-office damage, and “Noah” seems to be reaching for believers and blockbuster fans alike; otherwise, why bother with the asterisk?

For my matinee money, I think the ideal movie poster tagline for “Noah” would have been cheeky, not reverential, and pinched from another seafaring movie: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

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