By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”
Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.
Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rides a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.
Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, “Noah” is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”
Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into stiff criticism.
Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.
Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.
“I can understand some of the suspicion because it’s been 50 years since an Old Testament biblical epic has come to the big screen,” Aronofsky said recently. “And in that time a lot of films have come out of Hollywood that have rubbed people the wrong way.”
2014 is supposed to be the year Tinsel Town reversed that trend and finally got religion.
A decade after “The Passion of the Christ” surprised Hollywood, rankled liberals and raked in $600 million worldwide, big studios are backing a flotilla of faith-based films.
In addition to “Noah,” there’s “Son of God” from 20th Century Fox, which came out in March and is culled from the History Channel’s megahit miniseries, “The Bible.”
In April, Sony Pictures will release “Heaven is For Real,” based on the bestselling book and produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Texas megachurch pastor and multimedia entrepreneur.
The movie “Exodus,” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses, is scheduled for December. So, too, is “Mary, Mother of Christ,” which is billed as a prequel to Mel Gibson’s “Passion.”
More biblical epics may be on the horizon. Steven Spielberg is reportedly in talks to direct another movie about Moses, and Warner Brothers recently bought a script about Pontius Pilate.
The box office hasn’t seen this many faith-based films since Charlton Heston delivered the “The Ten Commandments” in Technicolor. And that’s not even counting “God is Not Dead,” the indie sleeper that took in $8.5 million last weekend.
So what’s behind Hollywood’s religious revival?
“The biggest factor is the dynamic growth of the box office international markets,” said Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore, one of the forces behind “Noah.”
Moore pointed to the $14 million his film has made in Mexico and South Korea, two of the more than 20 countries where “Noah” will run this year.
As Hollywood’s supply of comic-book heroes seems to run dry, studios know the Good Book comes with a built-in audience of billions. The Bible’s heroes and villains are jeered and cheered on nearly every continent. Its morally complex stories are rife with blockbuster-ready special effects like locust plagues, apocalyptic floods and talking donkeys.
But the controversy over “Noah” illustrates the promise and the peril of bringing the Bible to the big screen.
Yes, there’s a ready-made audience that loves the book, but will they tolerate a script that strays from Scripture? On the other hand, will increasingly secular young Americans flock to see films that look and sound like sermons?
“The earlier emphasis of faith-based films was to sacrifice quality for the message,” Jakes said in a recent interview. “But it’s dangerous to divide entertainment from evangelism. You’re not going to connect with the average movie-goer if you’re not putting out good stuff.”
But even Jakes, a longtime pastor and film producer, said it’s not easy to turn a religious text into a movie.
The author of “Heaven is For Real” has been adamant that the movie mirror the bestselling book. And Jakes cautions that the film’s depiction of heaven does not comport with Christian orthodoxy.
“It’s a little boy’s vision of heaven,” he said. “It’s not a theological film by a council of scholars.”
Like Jakes, Mark Burnett said he sees the silver screen as an evangelistic tool.
“We believe that over the next few decades, billions of people are going to see ‘Son of God’,” the reality-show producer said. “This is not just some film to us.”
Burnett pitched his movie hard to religious leaders before its release. Evangelical pastors like Rick Warren rented out entire theaters, and Catholic bishops endorsed the film – which hews to the New Testament telling of Jesus’ life.
The Christian push lifted “Son of God” to No. 2 on its opening weekend in February when it made more than $26 million in the United States.
Since then, sales have fallen sharply. But Burnett cautions filmmakers against bowdlerizing the Bible to succeed at the box office.
“There’s a big price to pay for departing from the sacred text,” he said.
Just ask Universal Pictures, the studio behind Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which sparked outrage in 1988.
Not only did Christians boycott the movie, in which Jesus fantasizes about married life, some sent death threats to studio executives.
“These stories hit really sensitive areas,” said Elijah Davidson, director of the Reel Spirituality program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
Noah’s tale is a prime example. Just four short Bible chapters, it’s more sketch than story: The protagonist doesn’t speak until the boat finally lands ashore.
“And yet it’s a foundational story for many Christians,” Davidson said.
For centuries, theologians have taught that God’s covenant with Noah and post-flood promise to be merciful prophesied Christ’s later arrival.
Building Noah’s arc
Aronofsky, who describes himself as culturally Jewish but not especially religious, said he respects how important the Noah story is for believers.
“We tried very hard not to contradict anything in the Bible,” the director said. “But we also wanted to bring the story alive for a 21st century audience.”
Wiry and intense, with a shaved head and a Brooklyn accent, Aronofsky looks like a man who’s just finished one fight and is girding for another.
“What’s been missing from the whole controversy is my personal passion for the film,” the director said. “I’ve been thinking about this for 30 years.”
When he was 13, Aronofsky’s middle-school class in Coney Island was asked to write about peace.
He penned a poem about Noah called “The Dove” that was recognized by the United Nations. (As a thank you for setting him on the creative path, Aronofsky gave his teacher, Ms. Fried, a bit part in “Noah.”)
Even as a child, the director said, the Noah story unsettled him.
Aronofsky didn’t see the happy tale of rainbows and doves told in children’s books. He saw the humans and animals consumed by the waters – the world drowning in the deluge outside the ark.
As he began his film career, the director grew obsessed with telling the Noah story from that perspective – and employing the power of modern special effects to portray Earth’s first apocalypse.
“It’s one of the oldest and most famous stories in the world,” Aronofsky said. “And yet it’s never been told on the big screen.”
There are good reasons for that. After all, it’s a dark story.
God, distressed at human wickedness, decides to hit the cosmic reset button. His waters wipe all life from the planet, except for the fortunate few on the ark. After the storm, Noah gets goodly drunk – perhaps the first known case of survivor’s guilt – and curses the descendants of his son Ham to slavery.
To understand Noah, and to give his character a story arc, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, spent 10 years poring over the Book of Genesis and the midrash – stories written by rabbis to fill out the Bible’s narratives.
They also read texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch, a work ascribed to Noah’s great-grandfather. Handel, who studied neuroscience, is known as an obsessive researcher. The script’s bibliography runs five pages long, single-spaced.
“We had to figure out how Noah and his family would get through this, and what it would feel like,” Aronofsky said.
The studio also hired a Christian consultant for the film. John Snowden is a former youth pastor at Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, where Moore, the Paramount executive, is a member.
Snowden, who was pastor to Moore’s son, said the filmmakers’ questions ranged from the sublime (Why did God create human life?) to the ridiculous (Would Christians be upset if Noah wears pants?).
“I gave them a sort-of manifesto of Christian theology,” said Snowden, 38, who now lives in Nepal. “The most important part of the story is why God created humanity, which is basically to reflect God’s glory. Those are the kind of conversations we would have.”
Script or Scripture?
Several evangelical leaders have posted positive reviews of the film, and, with the help of a Christian marketing firm hired by Paramount, are spreading the word that nothing in “Noah” belies the Bible.
But others aren’t so sure.
On March 16, megachurch pastor Rick Warren tweeted this message to his 1.3 million Twitter followers:
Director of new “Noah” movie calls it “The LEAST biblical film ever made” then uses F word referring to those wanting Bible-based [films]
For the record, Aronofsky said he’s made the “least biblical biblical film ever made.” That is, don’t expect the camel-and-sandals settings of last century’s Bible movies.
“We wanted to smash those expectations, Aronofsky said. “We are reinventing the biblical epic for the 21st century.”
Count conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck among the unimpressed.
Before he even saw the movie, Beck, who is Mormon, called “Noah” a “slap in the face” to religious people.
“It’s dangerous disinformation,” he told his 10 million radio listeners.
After Paramount screened “Noah” for Beck last weekend, he acknowledged that blasting the film sight unseen was “kind of a dirtball” move.
Then he blasted the movie again, calling it a “$100 million disaster.”
Beck’s biggest problem with “Noah” was Noah himself, whom Mormons believe is the angel Gabriel in human form.
“I always thought of Noah as more of a nice, gentle guy, prophet of God,” Beck said, “and not the raving lunatic Paramount found in the Bible.”
Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, said he has the same problem with Aronofsky’s depiction of Noah.
The Bible calls Noah a “righteous man,” Johnson said. In the movie, his character is much more complex.
Noah begins the film as a rugged environmentalist who teaches his family to respect the Creator and all of creation. As he becomes increasingly zealous, Noah seems bent on destroying life rather than saving it.
“I understand that the writers want to create tension and resolve it, but they push it to a spot where if you haven’t read Genesis, you wouldn’t know whether Noah is really a man of faith or not.”
Moore, the Paramount executive, said focus groups had similar questions: How much of the film is from the Bible and how much was invented by Aronofsky?
At Johnson’s urging, Paramount agreed to include a disclaimer before the opening credits and in marketing materials stating that the film is “inspired” by the Bible and true to its values but takes certain liberties with the story. (The language mirrors Disney’s disclaimer for “The Prince of Egypt,” which was based on the Book of Exodus.)
“People needed to know upfront that this is not a literal re-telling of Scripture,” Moore said. “It helped set their expectations for a movie about a guy who goes on an intense journey. This is probably not the Noah they remember from Sunday school.”
Aronofsky and Handel insist, however, that their film never directly contradicts Genesis, and even takes pains to remain faithful to it. The ark, for example, is built to the Bible’s specifications, down to the last cubit.
Ultimately, though, the director has little patience with literalists on either side of the believer-atheist divide.
It’s ungenerous to insist, as some Christians do, that there is only one way to interpret Genesis, according to Aronofsky. But it’s also ridiculous to argue, as some atheists have, that no ark could possibly hold all the animals.
The story of the flood has lasted for millennia not because it’s “right” – or wrong – but because it’s deep and alive and unsettling, the director said.
The artist’s job, like Noah’s, is to make sure those kinds of stories survive – to prepare us for the next storm.