Hollywood’s ‘Noah’ wars: Why not quote the Bible?

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Let’s face it. That Noah character in Genesis 9 is one pretty wired, complex fellow. I don’t know about you, but I can see the volatile actor Russell Crowe digging into some of this stuff:

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded [a] to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

Cursed be Canaan!
the lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers
.”

In other words, whatever was going on with Noah in the events leading up to the flood and in the flood itself didn’t exactly turn him into a living ray of sunshine and light. This man had issues.

Some of that is soaked into the Hollywood drama covered in a new Hollywood Reporter piece that ran under this headline: “Rough Seas on ‘Noah’: Darren Aronofsky Opens Up on the Biblical Battle to Woo Christians (and Everyone Else).”

Now, on one level, this tale centers on one of the Holy Grails of modern Hollywood, which is the quest to latch onto the massive faith-based audience that lined up over and over for Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.” Hollywood big shots want that market share, but it’s clear that they are not sure how to woo said audience while continuing to do that edgy Hollywood thing that they want to do.

The Hollywood Reporter piece is all over that story. Here’s a sample:

The making of Noah, with Russell Crowe as the lead, turned into a head-on collision between an auteur filmmaker coming off a career-defining success in Black Swan ($330 million global, five Oscar nominations) and a studio working to protect a major investment that is intended to appeal to believers of every religion as well as those without any faith. Paramount Pictures, in partnership with New Regency Productions, is shouldering a budget on the March 28 release of more than $125 million, by far the costliest movie Aronofsky has made. (His previous high was $35 million for The Fountain, which foundered for Warner Bros. in 2006. Black Swan was independently financed and cost just $13 million.)

The trouble began when Paramount, nervous about how audiences would respond to Aronofsky’s fantastical world and his deeply conflicted Noah, insisted on conducting test screenings over the director’s vehement objections while the film was a work in progress.

Friction grew when a segment of the recruited Christian viewers, among whom the studio had hoped to find Noah’s most enthusiastic fans, questioned the film’s adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character. Aronofsky’s Noah gets drunk, for example, and considers taking drastic measures to eradicate mankind from the planet.

The finances and Hollywood politics of all of this are quite Byzantine. Check out this material, care of Paramount Vice Chair Rob Moore:

Moore says Aronofsky’s Noah is not in the more literal vein of the blockbuster Bible series produced for the History channel by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. “They’ve been very effective in terms of communicating to and being embraced by a Christian audience,” says Moore. “This movie has a lot more creativity to it. And therefore, if you want to put it on the spectrum, it probably is more accurate to say this movie is inspired by the story of Noah.”

At the same time, he says the film reflects “the key themes of the Noah story in Genesis — of faith and hope and God’s promise to mankind.” The studio is aware that a vocal segment of Christian viewers might reject the film over accuracy. Still, Moore says, “Our anticipation is that the vast majority of the Christian community will embrace it.”

And so forth and so on. So here is what I — literally — don’t understand:

At the heart of the story is this question: Can filmmakers tell the story of a dark and conflicted Noah without driving off Bible readers?

Folks, why didn’t the Reporter editors simply include some of the key chunks of Genesis in this story? I know that the language of the Bible is mysterious and that many details are hard to pin down in literal terms. But, as the chunk of Chapter 9 quoted above shows, it would be easy to show readers that there is more to Noah’s personality than a big boat, lots of animals, a dove and a rainbow.

If you are arguing about the source material, why not quote the source material? This is a strong story, but there was no reason to leave the Bible out of it. Instead we get:

The Bible’s account of Noah is not packed with detail. “From a storytelling perspective, the main points are that Noah is a man of faith who is picked by God, told to build an ark, builds the ark and survives,” says Moore. When the studio did early polling to explore the idea of a Noah movie, it found that audiences thought they knew the story and didn’t grasp what the movie might add. …

Aronofsky, who grew up in a conservative Jewish household, says his goal from the start was to make a Noah for everyone. For nonbelievers, he wanted to create “this fantastical world a la Middle-earth that they wouldn’t expect from their grandmother’s Bible school.” At the same time, he wanted to make a film for those “who take this very, very seriously as gospel.”

While he and co-writer Ari Handel dreamed up a world that included fallen angels with multiple arms and inventive, computer-rendered versions of animals, Aronofsky says, “I had no problem completely honoring and respecting everything in the Bible and accepting it as truth.” Genesis describes the ark as a giant box, he says, and that’s what he wanted for the film. “Of course, my production designer [Mark Friedberg] had a million ideas of what it could look like, but I said, ‘No, the measurements are right there.’ “

It’s strong stuff. But, in the end, this is a story that — literally — needed to quote its central source.

Is there a rule in some newsrooms against quoting the Bible?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Darren Blair

    As a movie reviewer, I’m likely going to see the film anyway; it’s opening up against some action film called “Sabotage” (release schedule: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/schedule/?view=&release=&date=2014-03-07&showweeks=4&p=.htm ), and so there’s not a lot of competition going on there.

    Thing is, I’m probably the only movie reviewer on the planet who also taught Sunday School, and so this should be interesting… ;)

  • R. Howell

    needs to quote it is central source?

    • tmatt

      Thanks. Always glad to fix typos

  • Julia B

    Darren: Stephen Colbert is also a Sunday School teacher. He’s not a movie reviewer, but I’ll bet he’ll have something to say about the movie.

  • Nate Fleming

    It’s really not the press’s job to convince Christians by quoting the Bible (although that might do the job, admittedly). I would think that doing this convincing falls on the shoulders of the filmmakers or the studio. But either way, the filmmakers and the studios are in a really, really strange place with this picture.

    On the one hand, they are trying to appeal to the Sunday go-to-church crowd, who would be happy to see someone quoting the Bible. On the other hand, they are also trying to appeal to the Sunday sleep-in-and-read-the-paper-in-bed crowd, who will likely be immediately turned off by someone quoting the Bible.

    For me, at the end of the day I just really hope that it’s a good movie. I’m not to concerned about how faithful to the text they’ll be. After all, it’s a movie! Not a sermon!

    • tmatt

      My point had nothing to do with convincing Christians. It had to do with illustrating the issues at the heart of the story.

  • Nate Fleming

    I was responding mostly to this – “At the heart of the story is this question: Can filmmakers tell the story of a dark and conflicted Noah without driving off Bible readers?”

    I thought you were making the point that they might avoid driving away Bible readers by quoting the Bible. Or, that the press might do this. Sorry if I misunderstood!


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