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Aronofsky’s Embattled ‘Noah’ and the Impossibility of Making Great Religious Films

Well, here’s a filmmaker/studio clash we’d never have seen coming: according to The Hollywood Reporter, Paramount and director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) are butting heads over Noah, the forthcoming $125 million biblical adaptation starring Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson. THR reports that test screenings for a mostly Jewish audience in New York, a Christian audience in Arizona, and a general audience in California have produced vague-sounding “troubling reactions” and “worrisome results,” and it’s “not clear” whether the filmmaker has retained his right to final cut. Why, it’s almost like an idiosyncratic filmmaker tackling a Bible story with a massive budget was a tricky proposition to begin with, eh?

It’s not like there isn’t precedent for this kind of trouble. The most obvious example, of course, is The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantakis’ controversial, Scripture-inspired novel. Though certainly not playing with the kind of cash as Aronofsky (his budget was something like $7 million), Scorsese was a distinctive artist using his medium to tell a biblical story and mount a testament to his own faith. And everybody lost their minds; it was protested, sight unseen, by Christian fundamentalists, who managed to scare most theater chains away from screening it.

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As a result — and here’s the part that Hollywood didn’t like — it didn’t make money. In sharp contrast, Mel Gibson’s 2004 epic The Passion of the Christ made boatloads of coin, over $600 million on the actor-turned-director’s $30 million investment. Sure, it was controversial (particularly with Jewish moviegoers), but one can only imagine that Paramount had its eyes on some of that sweet Passion cash when it green-lit Noah (with its marquee cast and expensive visual effects) and pegged it, just like Passion, to an Easter-friendly release date.

But the question worth asking is: Had they seen any of Aronofsky’s other films? The director was certainly in a power position, coming off the twin critical and financial successes of The Wrestler and Black Swan, but the former film is also the closest thing he’s ever made to a straightforward narrative. The rest of his filmography consists of dark, twisted, experimental pictures like Pi, Requiem, Swan, and The Fountain, the wildly ambitious and utterly bananas sci-fi/historical triptych that was far and away his most troubled production to date.

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By all accounts, he made the film he told Paramount he was going to make. As SlashFilm points out, an early script review by Hitfix’s Drew McWeeney promised a “wild and dangerous” story set in a “freaky, scary world.” McWeeney predicted that “it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when people start to discuss the ideas embedded in the work and Aronofsky’s approach to Biblical history. Is his movie meant as pure allegory? Is this how Aronofsky imagines actual events?… I think it would be hard to pin this version of the story down to any one faith, and in shaking off the dusty respectability of the accepted version of the story, Aronofsky and [co-writer Ari] Handel may have actually found a way to give it a stronger thematic resonance than I would have imagined.”

Ah, but that whole “hard to pin this version of the story down to any one faith” — there’s the rub. There’s something mildly antithetical about making art out of faith, inasmuch as the responsibility of the artist (whether a filmmaker, a painter, a novelist, etc.) seemingly becomes honoring that faith rather than creating a singular work. THR quotes Mark Joseph, who has worked on marketing for “faith-based” films from Passion and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to Letters to God and Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Joseph — who, of course, hasn’t seen the movie — worries that it’s “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 [emphasis mine], not veer off into directions that go against the core audience’s beliefs.”

And there, in one quote, is your problem. There’s no point in hiring a sui generis filmmaker like Darren Aronfsky and then expecting him to crank out a boilerplate DeMille-style Biblical Epic™. They hired the guy, and they knew what they were getting, and now that he’s delivered it, suddenly everybody’s panicking — and, it should be noted, leaking stories to THR. There, an anonymous source sneers, “Darren is not made for studio films. He’s very dismissive. He doesn’t care about [Paramount's] opinion.” As well he shouldn’t. But he might’ve been screwed from the jump. Great art is about a singular vision, but adapting a religious text is too often about dramatizations that conform to everyone’s expectations and ruffle no feathers. And if Paramount’s “fixing” changes Aronofsky’s Noah from the former to the latter, they’ll end up with a picture that tries to please everyone, and ends up satisfying no one.

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