The End of the World: Coming Soon To A Theater Near You
Last week, news broke that director Darren Aronofsky is shopping around what Deadline described as a $130 million dollar “edgy retelling” of the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark. Even for the unpredictable Aronofsky—who recently bowed out of the big-budget sequel to Hugh Jackman’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine—it seemed like an odd detour.
There’s no mistaking any of Aronofsky’s films for the work another director. A sense of grimness and weight permeates each of his films, from his stunningly assured debut feature Pi to last year’s surprise hit Black Swan. His nightmarish adaptation of Hubert Selby’s Requiem for a Dream is the kind of movie that makes you call your family members to tell them you love them. But can Aronofsky’s singularly dark vision be applied to the story of Noah? And can contemporary Americans be persuaded to turn up for a big-budget adaptation of one of the Bible’s oldest stories—no matter who’s in the director’s chair?
Not long ago the biblical epic was a hit with all of America. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments—the Charlton Heston-starring adaptation of the Book of Exodus―was the top grossing film of 1957. And 1959’s Ben-Hur received eleven Academy Awards―a record that has never been surpassed. Adjusted for inflation, The Ten Commandments is the fifth-highest grossing movie in American history. Ben-Hur is thirteenth.
Despite these successes, the biblical epic eventually fell out of favor in Hollywood. Straightforward, earnest adaptations like The Ten Commandments were supplanted by leaner, edgier films like The Last Temptation of Christ. The diminishing role that religion played in daily American life manifested itself at the box office. In recent years, epics of comparable scope have been not biblical, but historical (Kingdom of Heaven), mythological (Clash of the Titans), or fantastical (The Lord of the Rings trilogy).
Today’s Christian moviegoers have a pretty meager selection of direct-to-DVD films; there’s not much range between the awful Left Behindseries and the kid-friendly VeggieTales. When the occasional Christian-themed movie actually makes it into theaters (like 2008’s gloriously corny Fireproof), it tends to be consumed almost exclusively by a Christian audience.
Major studios are still sometimes willing to release movies with Christian themes—as long as those themes are diluted or buried. The first three novels of C.S. Lewis’ allegorical The Chronicles of Narnia have been adapted, but the emphasis has always been on the Lord of the Rings-style action, not the earnest Christian moralizing. To Hollywood, the Christian audience is essentially a niche audience, and the films that appeal to Christian audiences are too narrow and toothless to appeal to anyone else.
The big exception, of course, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Gibson—a devout Catholic, despite the unsavory aspects of his personal life―was hell-bent on making the most punishing, inaccessible film possible. The Passion of the Christ is more than two hours long, and much of that time consists of Jim Caviezel’s beatific Jesus Christ being beaten into a bloody pulp. It features no major stars. All of the film’s dialogue is in either Aramaic or Latin, and it was shortly before The Passion’s theatrical release that Gibson decided to include subtitles at all. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a studio in Hollywood that would touch Gibson’s crazy passion project with a ten-foot pole, and his own company, Icon Productions, footed the bill for the film’s entire $30 million production.
You probably know the rest of the story. The Passion of the Christ grossed over $600 million worldwide, and it’s still the top-grossing non-English language film ever released.
Hollywood is a business, and studios prefer to bet on sure things, so it’s not surprising that no one opted to take a risk on The Passion of the Christ. What is surprising is that no studio has since picked up the gauntlet that The Passion threw down.
Aronofsky’s Noah’s Ark adaptation would give studios a chance to do so. There’s an enormous, untapped market of Christian moviegoers, and most of the movies aimed at them are terrible. And there are intriguing similarities between Gibson’s film and Aronofsky’s project: a popular biblical story, a commitment to realism, and a skilled director with a passionate, idiosyncratic vision.
As always, Aronofsky is unpredictable, and it’s not yet clear just how “edgy” his retelling would be. It may―like the only outright flop on his resume, 2006’s The Fountain―end up being too dark, too strange, too Aronofsky for mass appeal.
Scott Meslow is a staff writer for Campus Progress. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.