'Noah' flooded with religious critiques

Russell Crowe in a scene from "Noah."

Russell Crowe in a scene from "Noah." (Credit: Paramount Pictures / Niko Tavernise)

Darren Aronofsky set out to film the story of Noah, but the writer-director is beginning to look a little like Job.

The production of "Noah," an epic fantasy starring Russell Crowe as the biblical ark builder, surely tried Aronofsky's patience. It required building two massive arks, an exterior shell in Oyster Bay and an interior version in Brooklyn. During shooting, the filmmakers encountered a very real flood named superstorm Sandy, which halted production at Oyster Bay due to fallen trees and debris. Co-star Emma Watson, who plays Noah's adopted daughter, used the downtime to tweet about the "irony."

All of that, however, may have been the easy part.

Even before its release Friday, "Noah" is the subject of debate, criticism and outright condemnation within religious communities around the world. After an early draft of the script began circulating, Christians who read it called it "deeply anti-biblical" and "anti-human." Some Christian audiences who saw early screenings of the $125 million production had negative reactions and raised questions about the film's adherence to Scripture. Perhaps the most dramatic response came from Egypt's Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar institute, which issued a fatwa against the film for depicting a holy figure. "Noah" has so far been banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

"There isn't really a controversy," Aronofsky told Variety earlier this month. "The controversy is all about the unknown and about the fear of people trying to exploit a Bible story. It will all disappear as soon as people start seeing the film."

ENVIRONMENTALIST NOAH

Aronofsky, 45, who grew up in a conservative Jewish household in Brooklyn, has been fascinated by the story of Noah for much of his life. As a young teenager, he wrote a prizewinning poem about Noah and has been mulling a big-screen adaptation for years. Given Aronofsky's dark, sometimes surreal films -- "Pi," "The Wrestler," "Black Swan" -- his "Noah" was bound to be a little unorthodox. In a recent article in The New Yorker, he called it "the least biblical film ever made."

Back in 2008, Aronofsky described Noah as "the first environmentalist," and today that seems to be the crux of the controversy. Judging from early reports, "Noah" portrays an intense, sometimes violent figure who believes that God's flood is -- at least in part -- punishment for man's mistreatment of the Earth. Reportedly, one version of the story had Noah considering killing the last surviving woman to eliminate mankind.

Brian Godawa, a Christian writer and blogger who critiqued an early draft of the script in 2012, complained that "Noah" painted a picture of an "environmentalist wacko." Godawa, who has published his own biblical fantasy novels, "Noah Primeval," stresses a scriptural point: The flood, he says, was God's punishment for man's violence against man, not against Earth.

"That is going to betray the trust of religious viewers," Godawa says. "God created the Earth for man to rule over. Nature is a servant of man. That's a nonenvironmentalist worldview."

That point was echoed by Dr. Daniel L. Smith- Christopher, a biblical scholar at Loyola Marymount University, who also reviewed the script. "Noah is made into an 'Earth-First' activist here," he objected in a blog post at TheWrap.com.

"Noah" is faithful to the Bible "from the themes to the facts," says Ari Handel, who wrote the script with Aronofsky. "The central line is that mankind had corrupted the Earth and filled it with violence," he says. "Why people might feel like that is some kind of out-of-context, modern-day agenda, I don't know. But all that stuff is straight out of what's available to us in early Genesis."

Whatever the early draft contained, "Noah" is now a very different and "theologically healthy" movie, says John Snowden, who served as the film's biblical adviser. "I'm a conservative, politically and theologically, and I have a natural skepticism about Hollywood," says Snowden, a former minister who had never before worked on a movie. "I can't emphasize enough that I don't think there is anything controversial in the film."

A RELIGIOUS THUMBS-UP

In recent days, the tide of controversy has ebbed slightly. Paramount, after working with the National Religious Broadcasters association, agreed to add a note to all "Noah" marketing materials explaining that the movie used "artistic license" to tell its story. The association, in a joint statement with the studio, essentially approved the movie for faith-based consumption. Board member Phil Cooke wrote a post on his personal website titled "Why I'm Recommending Christians See The Movie 'Noah.'"

"This will be a national conversation that millions will participate in," he wrote. "What an opportunity for the Christian community! Instead of condemning it outright, let's join the conversation."

Spirit seems to be moving Hollywood

Aside from "Noah," there's a deluge of biblical and religious-themed movies coming our way. Reports have circulated about Brad Pitt playing Pontius Pilate, Will Smith making a film about Cain and Abel and a Moses project that has ping-ponged from directors Steven Spielberg to Ang Lee, but here are a few of the films currently scheduled for release.

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (April 16) The story of Colton Burpo, a little boy who in 2003 emerged from surgery to describe visions of heaven and details about past events that he could not possibly have known. It's based on the nonfiction best-seller by Colton's father, pastor Todd Burpo, played by Greg Kinnear.

LEFT BEHIND (June 20) Nicolas Cage, Jordin Sparks and Chad Michael Murray star in a movie based on the popular Christian novels about life after the Rapture. It's a reboot of 2001's "Left Behind: The Movie," a critical and commercial dud that starred Kirk Cameron.

EXODUS (Dec. 12) Though few details are known about this retelling of the Jews' pilgrimage from Egypt, the Christmas-season release date suggests a possible hit. Christian Bale plays the prophet Moses, while Joel Edgerton ("The Great Gatsby") stars as the pharaoh Ramses. The cast includes Aaron Paul, John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver. Ridley Scott ("Prometheus") directs.

MARY (2015) The mother of God will be played by Odeya Rush ("The Odd Life of Timothy Green"), a 16-year-old actress born in Israel, in this biblical adaptation by the Australian director Alister Grierson. Ben Kingsley plays her nemesis, King Herod.

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