Can religion sell? Noah and the search for an audience

Let the floodgates open. © Niko Tavernise, Paramount Pictures Corporation

Can religion sell? Noah and the search for an audience

The trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah features a craggy-faced, bearded Hollywood star, a cast of hundreds and a host of incredibly well-rendered CGI animals. The latter might be a sign of our times, but in all other aspects the clip bears a striking resemblance to another trailer, some 60 years older. Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments was released in 1956 by Paramount, the same studio that has produced Noah, during a period when biblical adaptations were a staple of Hollywood cinema.

Biblical epics fell from favour in the late 1960s, their demise attributed to the impact of television on the big studios (it costs a lot of money to part the Red Sea) and an increasingly secular North American culture. Today, it seems Hollywood might be turning back to the Bible for inspiration.

At the time of writing, Warner Bros. Pictures is said to be developing a movie about Moses, which according to The Wall Street Journal Steven Spielberg is in talks to direct. The same company is also rumoured to have recently acquired the script for Pontius Pilate. Another Moses project, Exodus, is in development at 20th Century Fox, with Ridley Scott attached. Sony Pictures is developing The Redemption of Cain. And, in 2015, Lionsgate will distribute Mary, Mother of Christ, billed as a prequel to The Passion of the Christ.

Why the return to Christian stories? There are various potential explanations, economic, political and cultural. On a pragmatic level, biblical epics provide low-cost source material for the kind of big budget, special-effects laden spectacle that Hollywood is currently wielding in its latest battle with the small screen. As Bob Berney, former president of Newmarket Films, puts it:

If you’re doing big, epic effects films, you’re going to run out of flying superheroes. These are the superheroes of the ancient time.

Or as the tagline for The Ten Commandments would have it, Bible stories are some of the “the greatest adventure stories ever hurled from any book”.

But the recent surge of Christian filmmaking that has taken place in recent years isn’t limited to big-budget productions such as Mel Gibson’s notorious The Passion of the Christ (2004) and the Christian production company Walden Media’s cinematic adaptations of C S Lewis’ Narnia series. The grassroots melodramas directed by pastor Alex Kendrick, including Flywheel (2003), Fireproof (2008) and Courageous (2011), have all seen remarkable success at the US box office. It’s worth noting that both categories of film started to emerge (or re-emerge) in the years immediately following 9/11, and dovetail with the rise of the Christian right in US politics.

Of course, the story of the flood is one that Christianity shares with the other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. Reports that the film has been banned across parts of the Middle East and North Africa are hardly surprising: in Islamic culture it’s forbidden to depict sacred figures.

More intriguing is that when Paramount tested the film with evangelical Christian audiences, many were scathing. A profile of Aronofsky in the New Yorker suggested these audiences disliked “dark” scenes in which Russell Crowe’s Noah appears drunk, despite the fact that such a scene does indeed appear in Genesis. And an alternate studio cut set to Christian rock music (Aronofsky signed away final cut rights for a $160m budget) scored even lower with the same audiences. Paramount have now reverted to the director’s original vision for the film.

Emma Watson as Noah’s daughter-in-law. © Niko Tavernise, Paramount Pictures Corporation

Unlike Gibson or Kendrick, Aronofsky is not a professed Christian. Unlike DeMille he has no track record of working within the genre of biblical epics. Instead he is known for such bleak, violent works as Requiem for a Dream, The Fighter and Black Swan – all of which feature characters with strong obsessions that drive them to destruction.

His authorial reputation may well have contributed to a certain wariness about the final product. The director himself is offering mixed messages, claiming in separate interviews that the film is the “least biblical biblical film ever made” and that once a wider audience see the final version, they will see how faithful it is to the spirit of the biblical text.

At the behest of the National Religious Broadcasters, Paramount have added a disclaimer to the film stating:

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.

It’s not a million miles away from the voiceover DeMille opened The Ten Commandments with, in which he informed audiences that some elements of the picture were not to be found in the Bible, but that the filmmakers intention “was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story, created 3,000 years ago”.

That film too saw its share of pre-release controversy, much of which had to do with the extended orgy sequence that precedes Moses’ descent from Mount Horeb with the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. And yet until the release of Mel Gibson’s film in 2004, it was the highest grossing religious film ever made.

The execs at Paramount might be genuinely concerned about Noah’s reception. But the religious upset surrounding the film has if nothing else brought it to wider attention: what’s at stake here is not really politics, but publicity.

Did you know that The Conversation is a nonprofit reader-supported global news organization?