Whenever Hollywood makes a movie from a well-loved story or saga — Batman, Tolkien, “50 Shades of Grey” — there’s usually a period of ... well ... let’s call it adjustment, along with a “spirited” give-and-take among fans over such things as casting, content and approach.
Usually, though, the material’s devotees don’t believe the filmmakers will burn in hell if their ideas are ignored. (OK ... maybe the Dark Knight crowd does. We all know they can get a little intense.)
But that’s precisely the belief with “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky’s $130-million retelling of the Old Testament account of apocalyptic deluge and a floating ark that opens on March 28. The same people who gripe that Hollywood never makes any faith-based movies are complaining because Hollywood has gone and made a religious movie, albeit one that might not be as literal-minded as they’d like.
“It’s tough to make movies for the easily offended,” Pepperdine University communications professor Craig Detweiler said. “Studios assume these biblical stories are in the public domain, but a lot of believers consider the Bible their private property, and if you don’t interpret them the same way they’ve been taught, they’re going to speak out.”
Hollywood and religious groups have long been leery of each other, often with good reason. Cecil B. DeMille invited a host of religious representatives — Catholics and Protestants along with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Christian Scientists — to offer blessings on the first day of filming “King of Kings,” his 1927 epic on the life and passion of Christ. And what did DeMille do after receiving the consecration? He opened “King of Kings” with an orgy scene that set up a love triangle among Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. The man knew you needed more than just salvation to sell tickets. You needed a little sin too.
There’s plenty of wickedness in Aronofsky’s “Noah.” There has to be, otherwise God wouldn’t have any reason to destroy the world. But there are a lot of other elements in the movie that audiences might not remember from Sunday school lessons, though they are found in the Bible — giant men, a monster called a Leviathan and a post-flood Noah getting drunk on wine and passing out naked. Also in the movie but not in the Bible (though it is fixed in church teaching) — people pounding on the ark’s door after the torrential rain begins, pleading with Noah to let them inside to safety.
“People think they know this story, but what they’re remembering is just the basic framework they heard as kids,” Aronofsky told me a couple of years back while we were espousing a mutual love for R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis and the low-budget 1976 Sunn Classic documentary “In Search of Noah’s Ark,” a movie that looks like it cost $5 yet, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, grossed $55 million in its theatrical release.
Venture outside that half-remembered framework, though, and you run the risk of drawing the wrath of evangelicals. When Christian screenwriter Brian Godawa obtained an old, undated version of the “Noah” screenplay in November 2012, he blogged his outrage, labeling Aronofsky’s Noah an “environmentalist wacko” and warned that if you came to the movie expecting a “biblically faithful retelling of the story of the greatest mariner in history and a tale of redemption and obedience to God you’ll be sorely disappointed.”
This pronouncement — the film unseen, an unfinished script reviewed a good year and a half before the movie’s release date — made fine copy for culture-war types inclined to believe Hollywood enjoys nothing more than promoting its own progressive agenda at the expense of Christians’ beliefs.
And it also worried Paramount Pictures enough to eventually add a disclaimer to the movie’s marketing materials, explaining that “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.”
The story of Noah can also be found in the Koran, which means the movie has been banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates for violating Islamic rules on the depiction of prophets. In Egypt, a Sunni Muslim organization has issued a fatwa over the film, proving that blind, blanket judgments can cut across many faiths.
“Scripture is sacred, so it’s reasonable that people would approach with caution that a secular industry is depicting something they consider holy,” John Snowden, a Christian who served as “Noah’s” biblical advisor, told me in an email exchange. “I don’t fault anyone’s caution. Many films have been made by Christians, for Christians. For the most part, we’re OK with that. However, I’m frankly as excited or more about the prospect that a movie would be made about the Bible that targets both Christians and people who aren’t of a Christian faith. It opens up a dynamic opportunity for cultural conversation.”
Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. Christians protested Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” based on hearsay, scandalized at the idea that the movie portrayed a sexualized Jesus. Had they bothered to watch the film, they would have learned that, in adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Scorsese was presenting the Jesus as taught in the Gospels — fully divine and fully human. The temptation of the title comes when Satan, trying to prevent Jesus from redeeming humanity by dying on the cross, seduces him with a vision of a normal life filled with family, love (yes, including sex ... but for the sake of procreation!) and simple pleasures. Jesus rejects the devil’s temptation and accomplishes his mission.
“Growing up in the Catholic Church, the emphasis was always placed on the divine,” Scorsese told me, talking about the movie. “And you’d watch a movie like ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ and it was like Jesus was this brilliant, glow-in-the-dark figure. I can’t relate to that. It denies his humanity. And it doesn’t teach you anything new. It doesn’t make you think.
“Years before it ended up being made, I had a meeting with Paramount, [which] had originally signed up to make the movie. And I was in a room with Barry Diller and Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg and they asked why I wanted to make the film. And I answered, ‘So I can get to know Jesus better.’ Now, I’m not sure that’s what they wanted to hear, but it was the truth.”
That kind of inquisitiveness doesn’t seem to be the kind of approach that anyone wants to hear. But it’s the only path to the kind of discovery that might deepen one’s faith, both in religion and the movies that attempt to examine it.