Christians 'need to see Hollywood as a mission field'

Noah MovieParamount Pictures

By Hollywood's commercial standards the fact that Darren Aronofsky's Noah made $44 million in its opening weekend means it is looking like a success.

That amount is more than a third of the movie's budget, and ticket sales show no signs of slowing down with its UK opening still to come this weekend.  All in all, profit is the most likely outcome.

But for religious audiences, how much money the film makes isn't the central question, and even before the film came out the production team and cast were having to defend it against suggestions that it was a disrespectful reinvention of the Old Testament story.

Brian Godawa has more than two decades behind him as a professional filmmaker, writer, and designer.  Handily, he's also a Noah expert, having researched and written a novel entitled 'Noah Primeval'.

He's among those with reservations about Aronofsky's vision of Noah but he also feels there are positives.

CT: Where did the pre-release backlash against the film come from and how did you fit into it?

Brian Godawa: I think it began when Paramount started to do test screenings with religious, specifically Jewish and Christian, audiences. They started having negative responses, and that's when word got out that the religious audience was less than positive about the film.

I think the news industry loves that kind of thing. It's a massive sensational 'uh-oh!' when a $120 million movie gets this kind of reaction. There's questions of whether it's a huge waste, and whether everyone will hate it. That was the heart of it.

Then the reporters scoured the internet to find responses from other Christian leaders with negative responses, and somehow they stumbled upon my blog post.

I had written it because I had stumbled upon the script to Noah, and because I had written a novel called 'Noah Primeval' and I have a website about all things Noah. So I figured I'd write a little critique, which I expected hardly anyone to actually read.

So when the media found what I'd written, I became one of the main sources of media quotes about the pre-emptive negative responses to the movie. Of course what they didn't mention was that I also had some very positive things to say about the film in that critique as well, but I did say that based on the script, I anticipated that a lot of religious people would not like the movie.

CT: So when you were looking at that screenplay, what was the single biggest problem you had with the film as it appeared to you in that moment?

BG: Well, my critique was about the script, and from script to screen a lot can change. I wasn't talking about the film because I hadn't seen it at the time, so I was very cautious to make that distinction.

In terms of the script, there were two main things that I thought would cause trouble for the religious community.

First, there was the environmentalist angle. Darren Aronofsky had said from the beginning that he thought Noah was the first environmentalist and I anticipated that would be a reading of him that lots of people would disagree with.

Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures

Second, there was the level of darkness put into the character of Noah in the telling of the story that I saw in the script. As a hero, Noah was made to look in the script as very dark and unsympathetic.

Not to give too much away here, but at one point in the script, Noah goes through a moral dilemma, and the choice he made makes him look unsympathetic and dark.

I just figured that those who have Noah as their sacred story, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, regard the essence of that story about how man is sinful and how God will judge them for that sin. Thus the story resonates with the need for man to change his ways and turn and follow God.

If that is the heart of the original story, and then the film changes that to a narrative where God is punishing man because he hasn't treated his environment well, I expected that would cause trouble.

In terms of making Noah unsympathetic, there is a rule that in general Hollywood tent pole films tend to make more money with sympathetic heroes than unsympathetic ones. I suspected therefore that there was a good chance the film would make less money overall, and that would be a problem.

There was also my thinking that many religious people would be offended to see Noah as something other than how the Bible describes him, which is a righteous man. I thought at the time that that Biblical description of Noah as a righteous man would mean that many people would not accept a vision of him as so dark and unsympathetic.

That doesn't mean heroes can't have flaws. Heroes aren't sinless. But I expected that most people would have had a higher view of Noah's goodness than the view which was depicted, so I figured that would cause some trouble as well.

CT: What were you most pleased about in the script? Like you said, it wasn't all negative.

BG: Well firstly there's just the fact of making a movie about Noah that is somewhat realistic. I thought this was a very positive thing because Noah and the Ark are something that most people in the secular world do not talk about. They will often scoff at you if you mention it. Their responses are generally either insults or indifference.

With the emergence of this movie, interest has been raised in a topic that's very important to a lot of religious believers. This brings us a great opportunity to talk about something that we've generally speaking been silent on for a long time.

The idea of a movie about a man of faith like Noah, trying to obey God in an evil and wicked world, and showing how God will judge the world with the flood, those are things that lots of religious people believe to be both true and important, so a film about those things is a really great thing.

The fact is whenever you are telling someone's sacred story, the audience will demand more fidelity to the source material. People accept this with other stories, like Lord of the Rings, everyone wanted Peter Jackson to be as faithful to the book as he could. There will always be people who take that to the extreme. There are going to be people who cannot tolerate any slightest deviation from the text. Those people will always be a factor, so we just have to accept that.

Russell Crowe, who plays Noah in the film, has been enthusiastic in his efforts to engage Christians with the film(Photo: Twitter/Russell Crowe)

But by and large, most people will have tolerance for this film's creative licence. Things like the way God calls the animals, or the way God provides wood for the ark, these things seem a little fantastical, a little magical. These things most religious people will be okay with.

What's more important to religious people is the message of the story. Are you toying with the meaning? Are you changing it? Are you making Noah look different to how he originally was?

The truth is though that the Bible doesn't really tell us a huge amount about Noah. There's a lot of room for creative licence and a lot of people realise that. Most religious people's responses have been understanding towards that.

One other thing I liked about the script was the powerful opportunity of seeing what the flood really would have looked like. The stories are often clichéd to us, but to see it visually depicted on the screen like never before, it makes the story come alive. That's something very positive.

CT: How do you think Christians can engage better with film culture? What are we doing now that we could do better?

BG: One of the most important things for Christians is to get educated about storytelling. That's one of the thoughts I had behind the writing of my book, 'Hollywood Worldviews'. I tried to write a book for religious believers which would teach something like art appreciation, but for movies.

I explain a little of the mechanics and craft of storytelling and how we embody our worldviews through narratives. I think if Christians could get more educated about storytelling so that they could appreciate it more, that would be a great thing for our mission.

Too many people are falling into two camps. The first people are those who say things like "well a lot of what Hollywood produces offends me, so I don't watch a lot of TV and I don't watch any movies".  Those are the people who are very reactionary.

Then you have the other camp who say "hey it's just entertainment, let's just relax, let's just enjoy it, sometimes it might go too far and maybe it offends us, but let's not make a big deal out of it", and I think what those people don't realise is that there's no such thing as just a story or just a movie.

If you can educate people on how all stories communicate a worldview or the values of the storyteller, then you are better able to discern for yourself what you like and don't like.

Secondly, Christians should be more engaging. I'm not in the school that thinks you should always boycott movies because they are bad. The Da Vinci Code for instance was very hostile to Christianity and Catholicism specifically, but I went to see it because I wanted to take the opportunity to engage with the culture around me.

That gives you the respect and the place to give your feelings and your thoughts and where you may have agreed or disagreed and why. I've found over the years that people would be very surprised by what I say, but also very thoughtful about it too. Actually watching these films and engaging with people about them enabled me to have good discussions with people that made them think.

British actress Emma Watson stars as Ila, Noah's daughterNiko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures

Of course there are limits to this, you don't want to go and see an X-rated movie, or something like that. But I think there's a real place in our world for engaging with culture, seeing these movies, and then being able to talk to people afterwards and saying "well here's what I liked about the movie, but then here's where I think the movie wasn't like the Bible" and then you get a chance to talk about the Bible and people will say "really?" and you can encourage them to read the original book. After all, the book is always better, right!

This kind of engagement gives us the opportunity to be respectfully listened to, in a way we wouldn't be if we just didn't watch the film and yet still passed judgement on it anyway.

Christians need to be careful about criticising movies they haven't seen. You tend to look foolish for doing that.

Instead of criticising Hollywood, Christians need to see it as mission field. They need to be going there and if they think it's wrong or bad, they should try and change it and to tell stories you agree with and like.

We need to curse the darkness less, and get in there and shine a light.

More News in Mission