NEW YORK -- It must have sounded divinely simple for executives at Paramount: take one of the Bible’s most beloved parables, cast it with stars, throw a huge marketing campaign behind it then watch as the citizens of the most Christian country in the world flock to the multiplexes bearing gold.
The formula had, after all, been lucratively tested by Mel Gibson, whose modern version of a Medieval Passion play took more than $370 million in the US, despite the director seemingly hobbling the production with Bronze-age dialect and scenes of snuff-like violence.
Yet despite a few successes, Hollywood still suffers an uneasy relationship with America’s religious conservatives, a movement seemingly in perpetual rage against the filth and degradation pumped out on the Californian coast.
For many Christians in the US, Hollywood represents permissiveness, liberalism and an acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle – a place that is happy to award a film about an AIDS patient its top honour in a ceremony hosted by an openly gay woman (although Matthew McConaughey struck back on behalf of the devout with an unusually God-heavy Oscar acceptance speech).
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe, the film Noah, scheduled for release in the UK early next month, was designed to build a further bridge between Tinsel Town and the under-tapped market of religious conservatives to whom a Christian-themed production might appeal.
Yet this £160 million epic about the apocalyptic deluge has run into some stormy weather, becoming the focus of ire from the very target market the film was hoping to exploit.
After executives pushed an early version of the Noah to Christian leaders hoping to land hugely important endorsements (The Passion of the Christ was affirmed by everyone from Pat Robertson to Billy Graham), rather than support the film, evangelicals complained that Aronofsky was playing fast and loose with their Book, creating a piece of cinema that wasn’t based on a literal interpretation of scripture.
So following complaints and with legitimate concerns over return on investment, the film’s producers bowed to pressure from the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), an international association of Christian organisations that seek to promote Biblical truth in film, TV and radio, who demanded the movie be run with a disclaimer, saying that the film was “inspired by” the story of Noah.
The full disclaimer in the final film states: "While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is the cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide."
Rumours abound that Aronofsky had already suffered severe disagreements over the film’s final cut, with studio bosses re-editing the film to better appeal to religious conservatives, including adding a Christian rock song to the credits. Speaking to Variety earlier this year, Aronofsky said that he wanted to make Noah to explore themes of environmentalism, another notion unlikely to garner support from those on the Christian right. How much of that remains in the final movie is unknown.
The director, clearly stung by the criticism and the re-edit, then went on the attack, telling the audience at the film’s world premiere in Mexico City earlier in March that Noah is "the least biblical Biblical film ever made", ramming home his disdain by adding, "it’s a very, very different movie… anything you’re expecting, you’re fucking wrong".
To make matters worse, last week religious groups outside the US decided that Noah should be sunk, with Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates banning distribution of the film as it "contradicts the teachings of Islam". Despite getting panned before its release, it seems the story of the 500-year-old shipbuilder did deliver a rare moment of unity between Christians and Muslims.
Yet all is not lost for the film. The controversy has created a buzz around Noah, and with a cast that includes Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins, along with some fair impressive disaster scenes, Paramount Pictures should more than claw back the production costs from the secular, even if they don’t land the religious jackpot.
And with Son Of God, another Biblical epic, already making money at the US box office, the story of the flood is unlikely to dampen Hollywood’s desire to cash in on those who prize scripture above all else in the future.