The Hollywood Reporter has a long article about the backlash director Darren Aronofsky has been getting from some Christians in the test audiences for his upcoming “Noah” epic, starring Russell Crowe as the Bible hero. Aronofsky says only ten or twenty percent of his test audience has criticized the license he took with the story, but clearly their resistance bothers him. (He’s also distinctly grumpy about the idea of screening his unfinished film for test audiences, something forced upon him by the studio; he reasonably maintains that it’s unfair to judge a massive special-effects film with most of the visuals waiting to be spliced in.)
The director maintains that he means no disrespect, and furthermore says some of the controversial moments in the film really are rooted in Scripture; the story of Noah is one of those things a lot of people remember incompletely or incorrectly. However, he concedes that he does bring his own personal vision to the story, and isn’t shooting for the level of fidelity achieved by a project suhc as the History Channel’s “Bible” miniseries. Filming “Noah” according to this personal vision has been one of Aronofsky’s lifelong ambitions.
Every artist who seeks to interpret religious works is running the risk of criticism for anything he changes or adds. Some religious works are considerably more perilous to adapt than others. People are understandably sensitive about articles of their faith being insulted, misrepresented, or trivialized.
But the Bible functions also as a core work of Western literature and philosophy – quoted and referenced in the essays, plays, political discourses, music, and artwork that define our civilization. Western culture is a kaleidoscope through which the illumination of Scripture shines. People who are not devout Christians are nevertheless reflexively familiar with major scenes from the Bible, which have become iconic elements of our shared heritage. Noah and his Ark surely count among these most familiar elements; most children would look at a sketch of a boat full of animals and proclaim it to be Noah’s Ark.
The meaning of the story lies at the root of our culture as well. It’s commonly presented as a parable about the importance of steadfast faith against the tide of popular opinion. Sometimes it’s used as a lesson in the importance of preparation and diligent effort – the folks who didn’t pitch in on that Ark project certainly came to regret their poor decision. And there is something about the story of our loving God laying waste to the world that haunts Western philosophy. How could we have brought things to such an awful pass? How would you feel to be Noah, in the moment those rising flood waters raised the bow of your mighty ship above the vast throngs of doomed people drowning all around you?
Every person of faith will decide for themselves if Aronofsky’s interpretation is worthwhile; maybe it won’t be a good enough, big enough movie to remain controversial with anyone for very long. Strictly from a cinematic and storytelling standpoint, not everything I’ve seen or heard about the project has been encouraging. (I speak as one who thinks Aronofsky’s unsuccessful “The Fountain” was a misunderstood gem, which stuck with me long after the credits rolled.)
But as a matter of general principle, I think artists should be given some leeway with these great chapters of our religious and literary heritage. Let’s see what they’ve done before passing judgment. The devout might consider the value in bringing even a less-than-faithful adaptation of the Bible to a broad pop-culture audience; perhaps some of those viewers will be inspired to read the original, and maybe they’ll get hooked and keep reading. I recommend holding the tomatoes until we find out whether the artist has made good use of his creative opportunities.