Thanks in part to the weird PR war over which spring Bible film — Son of God or Noah — is the most Biblical of all, Darren Aronofsky's ark epic will now display an "explanatory message" on all of its marketing materials. That message, basically a disclaimer, explains that the film is "inspired by" the story of Noah in the Bible, but is not, in fact, the Bible story. Instead, viewers are informed that the "biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis." The disclaimer seems to be the end result of a crazy-making debate over how to win over Christian audiences for a "secular," Hollywood film about a Biblical figure.
Apparently, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and Paramount came up with the idea to handle a concern that viewers might think the Black Swan filmmaker's Russell Crowe-starring epic was a literal telling of the biblical story. Despite Paramount's good intentions, the disclaimer seems like a terrible idea, and unnecessary to boot. It undersells the capacity of filmgoers — particularly Christian ones — to understand the difference between a movie and scripture.
Besides, the story of Noah in Genesis is absolutely unfilmable as written. That's because the story of Noah in Genesis is notoriously full of narrative and tonal contradictions. Without getting bogged down too much in the scholarship, the general consensus among those who have academically studied the first five books of the Old Testament is that what we know today as the Book of Genesis draws from at least four distinct source texts, compiled together by an editor at a later date. Some Christian and Jewish sects believe that editor was the Moses of the Bible. But for our purposes, the identity of the editor doesn't really matter: what matters is that many smart people who pay attention to the Bible, whether for religious reasons, scholarly reasons, or a combination of both, have to contend with a lot of editorial quirks in the text. The Noah story is so full of those contradictions that it's usually used as an example to illustrate how (and why) the Bible was compiled in the way it was.
Here are some of those inconsistencies:
- At first, God tells Noah to "bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you." (Genesis 6:19). Later, God says "Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate." (Genesis 7:2)
- Famously, the flood is supposed to last for "forty days and forty nights," a phrase repeated throughout the story. But in at least two places, the text says that the flood lasted for a hundred and fifty days.
- In the narrative of source text visible in Genesis, God is very personal, almost embodied, even sniffing Noah's animal sacrifice after the floods recede. In the other version, God doesn't have these qualities.
Many potential Christian viewers of Noah would be aware that the Genesis story is not a suitable script as for a feature-length film, taken literally. Of course they would be — they know the Bible pretty darn well. But Paramount's disclaimer isn't a response to nothing. The company had some bumps in the road with early test screenings of the unfinished film, during which some conservative Christian viewers responded poorly to a pretty dark scene where Noah gets drunk (even though a drunken Noah does appear in the Bible). And in part because of the easy juxtaposition to Son of God, a film made by Christians, for Christians, a few theologically conservative campaigners have managed to break through to the mainstream with arguments that Christian filmgoers should pack the seats for Son of God, and definitely not for Noah.
One such effort comes from Faith Driven Consumer (the guys who brought you the "I Stand With Phil" campaign in response to Phil Robertson's brief suspension from A&E's "Duck Dynasty.") FDC's Matthew Faraci sent out a release last week touting a poll done by his organization that "98% of faith driven consumers indicate their entertainment needs are not satisfied by Noah." After Variety published the poll's results, Paramount was forced to issue a statement noting that the FDC's survey didn't actually ask respondents about Noah, the film. Instead, FDC asked for a response to the following very leading question: Would you, the viewer, be "satisfied with a biblically themed movie — designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood.” Paramount noted that the Christian polling firm Barna Group did their own quantification of Christian interest in Noah, and found that 86 percent of Christians who knew about the film would recommend it to their friends. And a majority of pastors indicated that they'd recommend it to their congregations.
Then there's Ray Comfort, who is publicizing his own Noah film after deciding that Aronofsky's version depicts the Biblical figure as a "psychopath." But his trailer (released on Friday) is more about mocking atheists and talking about the End Times than it is about a literal depictions of the Noah story:
Noah and Son of God really shouldn't be in competition with each other for the same audience — movies aren't a zero-sum game — but the marketing controversy over which Biblical film will be the next Supreme seems to be helping Son of God's ticket sales: Christian organizations bought out entire screenings of the film across the country ahead of time for "theater takeovers" to mark its theatrical release today, presumably to send a message to Hollywood about how to make a Bible film the right way. But the "Christian" audience shouldn't be viewed as a Borg-like entity of a single opinion. Instead, there's room for both Bible films — the Aronofsky take on classic epic cinema, and the faith-affirming retelling of the Gospels of Jesus.
Likewise, Son of God's army of Christian support may find that not everyone in its core audience is blown away by what they see on the screen: A review of the film on Christianity Today compared it to "watching someone else's professionally filmed wedding video," or "a bit like listening to a pretty good tribute band doing a set list of Top 40 hits you have heard most of your life." Even Faith Driven Consumer was forced to give it just 4 out of 5 stars for "Entertainment Value."