The latest controversial movie to test the old showbiz axiom “all publicity is good publicity” is the forthcoming film Noah from director Darren Aronofsky. The reported $125 million action epic marks his first foray into big-budget, CGI-spectacle territory. Until now, Aronofsky has worked exclusively on smaller, grittier independent fare such as Black Swan, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler.
The controversy revolves around how audiences with a faith-based background, be it Christian or Jewish, are likely to respond to Aronofsky’s re-imagining of the story of Noah as told in Genesis. Early screenings of the unfinished film to both of those audiences yielded significant criticism. Kim Masters of the Hollywood Reporter writes:
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.
The nervous studio responded by testing another half-dozen different cuts of the film—none of which tested any more positively among the target audiences than Aronofsky’s version did. In the end, he was given the greenlight to produce the final cut of the film on his own terms. In his first interview about the film’s rocky production, Aronofsky acknowledges, “I was upset, of course. No one’s ever done that to me.”
Internal resolution notwithstanding, however, speculation has continued to swirl regarding the way Christian audiences are likely to react to the film.
This week, the Hollywood trade publication Variety reported on an online survey conducted by the site faithdrivenconsumer.com. The survey is titled: “Noah Movie Controversy?” and asks, “As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie—designed to appeal to you—which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?” Variety reported that 98% of respondents answered “No” to that question and framed the story as an ominous sign for a studio that’s depending on Christian moviegoers to cover its nine-digit monetary investment.
Shortly after the story was published, Paramount took what’s being characterized as an unusual step of releasing its own internal data about potential faith-based viewers. The studio cited a survey from the Barna Group (among other things), which said that 86% of Christians polled who were aware of the film would recommend it to their friends.
It remains to be seen, of course, how faith-oriented audiences will respond to Aronofsky’s take on Noah. What is safe to say, however, is that his vision of Noah and the will be unlike any we’ve ever seen before.
In his conversation about the film with the Hollywood Reporter, Aronofsky, who’s Jewish, said of his approach to the iconic story:
“We wanted to smash expectations of who Noah is. The first thing I told [actor] Russell [Crowe] is, ‘I will never shoot you on a houseboat with two giraffes behind you.’ … You’re going to see Russell Crowe as a superhero, a guy who has this incredibly difficult challenge put in front of him and has to overcome it. … For people who are very literal-minded, it would be great to communicate that the themes of the film are very much in line with the themes of the Bible—ideas about hope, second chances and family. If they allow that, they’re going to have an incredible experience with the movie. If they don’t allow it, it’s theirs to lose.”
Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore, whom the Hollywood Reporter characterizes as “one of the few top Hollywood executives who identifies as a devout Christian,” said that compared to Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s History Channel miniseries The Bible and the upcoming theatrical release of Son of God, Aronofsky’s approach is less literal and more “creative.”
“They’ve been very effective in terms of communicating to and being embraced by a Christian audience. 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. [But the story reflects] the key themes of the Noah story in Genesis—of faith and hope and God’s promise to mankind. … Our anticipation is that the vast majority of the Christian community will embrace it.”
After Noah docks at theaters on March 28, we should know fairly quickly whether Christians are flooding into theaters to see it … or streaming in the other direction due to lingering concerns about the film’s faithfulness to—or deviation from—its scriptural roots.