Jesus and Noah are coming soon to a theater near you.
But two stories regarding their respective film treatments could hardly be more different. And those contrasting stories potentially serve as a cautionary tale for filmmakers—especially those who don’t hail from the faith community—when it comes to bringing biblical characters and narratives to the big screen.
First up, the theatrical release date for Son of God was announced: Feb. 28, the weekend before Ash Wednesday. This two-hour, 15-minute film has been adapted from five episodes of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s much-watched History Channel miniseries, The Bible.
Regarding Son of God’s forthcoming theatrical bow, Burnett told USA Today, “We firmly believe this is God’s plan. There’s no other explanation for it. This is not even some limited independent release. This is a major motion picture release.” Wife Roma Downey adds, “It’s really thrilling. It’s been quite a journey of love. I don’t know if we could have dared to dream that we would have ended up with our story on the screen in this way. All roads have led to this.”
Though some viewers voiced concern regarding the dramatic license that The Bible occasionally took as it retold scriptural stories, many Christian reviewers, leaders and organizations—including Plugged In and Focus on the Family—praised Burnett and Downey’s commitment to the Bible’s core messages about God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on behalf of sinful humanity. And while prophesying box office success ahead of time is always ticklish business, it wouldn’t seem to take an Old Testament prophet to predict that Son of God will likely find a solid audience at multiplex next year.
In contrast, the prospects for another big-screen, big-budget biblical epic, Noah (due out March 28), seem much cloudier at this point. This week The Hollywood Reporter published a story indicating that the $125-million movie starring Russell Crowe was sailing into stiff headwinds at some early screenings. Three of them—one for a general audience in Los Angeles, one for a primarily Christian audience in Arizona, and one for a largely Jewish audience in New York—have all “generated troubling reactions” and “worrisome reactions,” so much so that Paramount is allegedly “at odds” with director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) over the high-dollar production’s final cut.
But Aronofsky, according to an unnamed source, is pushing back. “He’s very dismissive. He doesn’t care about [Paramount’s] opinions.”
Some Christians in the industry believe Paramount is right to be concerned. Director Brian Godawa (To End All Wars) reportedly obtained a Noah script in 2012 and posted a summary titled: “Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: Environmentalist Wacko.” In the article, Godowa skewered the script, alleging that the film will be “an uninteresting and unbiblical waste of $150 million that will ruin for decades the possibility of making a really great and entertaining movie of this Bible hero.”
Producer and author Mark Joseph shares those concerns, though he hasn’t seen the film or the script. He fears it could be “an example of a director not listening to those voices that would have been warning of the dangers of veering too far away from the biblical text. The director is there to serve the studio and the audience, not veer off into directions that go against the core audience’s beliefs—at least if the goal is to get them to come to the theater.”
For its part, Paramount is—not surprisingly—trying to downplay any suggestion that Christian or Jewish audiences might find the film problematic. The studio said that another screening in Texas was, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “well received,” and that early reports of conflict between the studio and the director have perhaps been exaggerated. Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said that even though Aronofsky “definitely wants some level of independence” regarding the film’s final cut, “he also wants a hit movie. … We’re getting to a very good place, and we’re getting there with Darren.”
Only time will tell, of course, which of these sneak-peak perspectives on Noah will prove to be the most accurate—whether Aronofsky’s high-dollar interpretation of this well-known biblical story is received as a creative and engaging one or whether audiences see it as blasphemous and disrespectful.
Still, the brewing controversy regarding Aronofsky’s vision for the film should serve as a warning to two other mega-directors who are currently at work on their own Bible-themed films: Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming movie about Moses, Gods and Kings, and Ridley’s Scott’s competing take (starring Christian Bale) on the same subject, Exodus.
To the extent that these directors follow Burnett and Downey’s pattern of respectful, reverent treatment of biblical source material, their films are liable to be well received by Christians. To the extent that they play fast and loose with major story details, theological underpinnings or core worldview questions, I suspect they’ll be greeted with fierce criticism from faith-affirming audiences.