EDITORIAL: Tinkering with the Bible

Hollywood’s telling of ‘Noah’ opens in challenging waters

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Most of the religious folk who have seen previews of Hollwood’s latest attempt to tell a familiar Bible story haven’t been impressed. “Noah” sails into town Friday, yet the tepid response to the big-budget epic shows again that Tinseltown is so wrapped up in a political agenda that it has difficulty telling a good story.

The crew tried to get the pope’s blessing. Russell Crowe, who plays Old Testament patriarch, bombarded Pope Francis with online supplications. “The message of the film is powerful, fascinating, resonant,” Mr. Crowe tweeted, begging the pope to watch the movie. He even took an entourage to Vatican City to seek a personal audience with the pope. The pope, who apparently isn’t much for collecting autographs or taking selfies with celebrities, did not answer. So the Hollywood pilgrims were relegated to a general papal audience in St. Peter’s Square with 80,000 other seekers.

As the ultimate slight, L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, hasn’t even mentioned “Noah,” Mr. Crowe or the controversy. Easily offended Muslims are much less subtle in their reviews. Censors in Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates told Paramount Pictures, the distributor, they wouldn’t approve the film for release. Egypt banned screening because it considers the movie as tantamount to idolatry. Fatwas condemn the movie even for depicting Noah, one of the patriarchs mentioned in the Koran.

Paramount feels the heat. Last week it added a new disclaimer. “The film is inspired by the story of Noah,” it says. “While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” In other words, they made up most of it, including a radical environmentalist subtext. But if Noah was worried about global warming, he never let on.

Conversations between the studio and the National Religious Broadcasters, a conservative Christian organization whose mission includes advancing biblical truth, won a kinder, gentler reproof. “Because of the quality of the production and acting,” said Jerry A. Johnson, the group’s president, “viewers will enjoy watching main themes from the Noah story depicted in a powerful way on the big screen. However, my intent in reaching out to Paramount with this request was to make sure everyone who sees this impactful film knows this is an imaginative interpretation of Scripture, and not literal.”

The usual Hollywood suspects haven’t had much success with Bible-based epics since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” and did a good NASCAR imitation in “Ben Hur.” Ten years ago, when Mel Gibson was shopping his idea of a movie that faithfully portrays the last 12 hours of the earthly life of Christ, studio executives told him he was nuts. Mr. Gibson made “The Passion of the Christ” with his own money, and his $45 million investment grossed $600 million worldwide. Leaders of many Christian congregations gave the film an enthusiastic thumbs up. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to grudgingly acknowledge the film’s quality with nominations for three technical Oscars, including best cinematography.

If a Bible epic is done right, it can make money. “Noah” doesn’t seem much interested in accuracy. “Noah is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps,” film producer Scott Franklin told Entertainment Weekly, “so we definitely had to take some creative expression in it.” He can definitely be sure that his movie won’t last as long as the book the story comes from.

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