Aronofsky’s Noah Hits Stormy Waters: Are Good Bible Movies Impossible to Make?

aronofsky v paramount

I am intrigued by Paramount’s big budget Noah film.  It’s been a long time since Hollywood has tapped that overflowing stream of Biblical narratives that entire careers could be devoted to producing.  I’m pleased that it’s not a low budget independent movie, because it would invariably suck, but I’m also curious what a true artist such as Darren Aronofsky will do at the helm.  Apparently, pre-screened versions are not pleasing the audience and Paramount is not getting much cooperation from the Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream director who has final cut. Full story here .  Is this just the beginning of inevitable controversy due to the subject matter, can we blame the good ol’ media, or is it something more?  I have some thoughts.  Come rant with me:

Why is it that the Christian community at large loves to rail against Hollywood’s interpretation of Bible stories yet they can’t ever seem to make a decent one of their own?  As a cinephile and a Christian with very strong beliefs about both I find it absolutely maddening how starkly and unnecessarily disparate the two things are.  The Bible doesn’t even need to enter into it for a bad Christian movie to be made.  Try to adapt a story from scripture and it is almost guaranteed to fail.  This happens in spite of the wealth of great characters and tales of heroism that the Bible is brimming with like an eternal spring.  The stories are free and tap into the most significant truths about the nature of man and the meaning of life.  The Bible for all of its offerings has barely been touched and the stories that are told are simply retold without expanding to new possibilities.  Hollywood doesn’t know any better.  It’s bound to rehash what it has already done and most people only know a few of the big popular stories such as Moses and the Exodus, the Gospel of Christ, Noah and the flood, and David and Goliath.  You would think the Bible is only about 80 pages long.

Christian independent filmmakers try occasionally to fix this, but the films turn out really bad.  Even if they are able to get good sets and costumes, the acting is dreadful, mostly because the scripts are so terribly written.  Hollywood  can blame it’s irreverence on ignorance and utter disregard for the value of the source material, but Christian filmmakers should know better.  To adapt a Bible story for a movie audience, you have to be a prophet.  You have to risk being unpopular and you better be offensive.  Christians are too afraid to really say something and so they make bad movies because a good movie should challenge you, especially when dealing with such weighty subjects.

The Bible is a collection of what I like to refer to as the best stories badly told.  If you read it, you know what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of great stuff in there, obviously, but to really get a solid picture in your mind of what’s going on, lot’s of supplemental reading is required.  Even with historically contextual information at your disposal, the narrative jumps and changes focus a number of ways that are difficult to keep up with.  That combined with the fact that the text is so rich with profundity and symbolism, you can read and read and read and still miss everything.  All of these great amazing ideas just sitting there for the taking are booby trapped.  You cannot take the approach of being faithful to the text and make a good movie.  The structure of the stories prohibits it.  If you do, you will make something very superficial that will not stand the test of time and only make a few camps happy in some morbid way.

By seeking not to offend, you offend regardless and alienate yourself and your work, most importantly, you render yourself completely and utterly useless.  If Jesus tried to please the Pharisees we would have no Christianity.  I am not saying your aim should be to offend.  Your aim should be truth.  Truth will stir something in people.  Naturally some of them will be offended, but in the end, something of substance has been created.

There are so many versions of the Bible.  Translation upon translation.  Never mind that most people haven’t even read the thing, there are debates over which translations are closer to the intended meaning.  Some popular preachers, like to mix and match verses from different translations to suit their own thesis.  These ministry mash-ups are but one way the scriptures get tweaked on a weekly basis in mega churches like Saddleback in southern California.  Non Christians like to think of Christians in one light probably based vastly on media coverage and partially on regional influence, but their is a whole spectrum within Christendom that is not unlike the volatile political spectrum in the United States.  A typical Christian is just as fictional and misleading as a typical American and the average American probably knows about as much about the content of the Constitution as a Christian knows about the Bible.

With all the potential controversy it’s no wonder the Bible is shunned when it comes to making a movie adaptation.  The few who attempt it are admirable, but the demands for constant compromise doom these projects from the beginning.  Yet, film has seen remarkable evolutionary changes as an industry.  No longer are we tied down to only one version of a story.  just look what a comic book franchise can mean cinematically.  visionary directors are able to explore new interpretations of movies only a few years old.  Like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, separate accounts of the same story is not only happening with more frequency the potential value is only beginning to be recognized.  I think the world of cinema is ready for the Bible even if the audience is squeamish.  with the right shepherds, these stories can be meaningful new translations for a world increasingly populated by books as movies.  In order for that to happen though, the switch in the heads of the makers needs to flip from “what will people think?”, to “what is this story trying to say?”

You can’t tell a good Bible story on screen if you stick only to the source material.  You have to develop the story according to the true spirit of the scripture.  That is much of what the Gospel is about.  Jesus insisted on what was right when what was written had been corrupted.  When you chose to be blind to portions of the Bible to preserve your beliefs about other portions, you are allowing the same corruption.  The healthiest thing for everybody is to stop saying “this is true because…” and instead take the time honored “What if…” approach.  in order to spark conversation rather than just debate.

I don’t know what Darren Aronofsky will contribute to the conversation, but I admire him as an artist– and a provocative one at that.  I am very interested in seeing what he does with the story.  If I dislike it, it wont be the end of the world, but it has the potential to be really great.

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Movie Review: Battleship

The low held expectations of, I think, most people when they found out that Hasbro not only planned to make a movie based on the Battleship board game, but that it was in fact put into production as a summer blockbuster a la Transformers was due mostly to skepticism about how such an adaptation would even be possible.  The inevitable question that would follow the rolling eyes of anyone who’d read about it was “How?”  It seemed an insane and poor attempt to wring more money out Hasbro’s properties, especially in the wake of the underwhelming G.I. Joe.  When the Ouija board movie was scrapped it seemed like Battleship shouldn’t stand a chance, yet it was given big money production and seemed unflinching in its development and marketing strategy.  All the while, I for one believed the entire experiment was doomed.

Such gross conflict is exactly what Battleship thrives on in its film incarnation.  It may be flippant and clumsy, but the premise is actually very strong and the plotting really proves that not only can it be done, but it turns out it can be done pretty well.  It is funny to me when I think of how much must have been riding on the success of the film and how little the makers seemed to take it seriously, particularly at the start of the film, where engaging your audience is crucial, they seem to test your willingness to submit to a film over two hours in length with no (then) discernible plot.  The characters are goofy with questionable dialogue and the scenes are irreverent and almost whimsical.  It’s fun, but only increases doubts that the movie will ever come together.  Happily this trial is a short one and once the filmmakers begin to take things more seriously the film begins to look better and better and slowly, but definitely wins you over by the end.

The hero of the story is Hopper, a romantic, gifted, but arrogant naval commander who is always in trouble and looked after by his strait laced brother, a captain.   Their superior is also the father of Hoppers girlfriend and they need his permission in order to marry.  Hopper is like maverick in Top Gun if he consistently under performed and disappointed.  He’s not the guy you want making decisions when the fate of the world is at stake.  Meanwhile, the alien threat in this movie is very menacing.  The set up, which somewhat and very ingeniously mirrors its source of inspiration in a way that should satisfy even the most cynical movie fan, leads the naval fleet into near hopelessness.  The film turns out to be very delicately plotted, satisfying the basic, but crucial demands of its source material, and previous Hasbro successes.  The references to the game, whether implied by peg shaped missiles or graphically depicted with computer monitors and birds eye perspectives, or simply buried in the premise made this adaptation a win, as did the wildly imaginative alien tech and the strategy that keeps you engrossed and hoping Hopper can pull out a “W” just this once.

Battleship borrows heavily from Iron Man, Top Gun, Aliens, and is definitely modeled after ID4.  While it doesn’t reach that level of greatness it does bring some freshness to the mix of “been there done that ” that makes it a fun, enjoyable film worth watching at least once.  In fact, in terms of the many sources cited and referenced in the film I’d compare it to John Carter which is also reminiscent of several earlier films in its search for a unique identity.  I only think that while John Carter might have been more interesting because of those allusions Battleship comes out a better film in spite of them.