Audiences no longer respect differences between media, or that one artist might interpret another’s in a different way; instead, they judge authenticity by fidelity to source material. If a book becomes popular enough in our cultural consciousness to earn a film adaptation, its admirers make sure that the resulting combination of sound and visuals faithfully follows its basis, even if the result isn’t worth its pixels. Think of Never Let Me Go, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Watchmen. Fans of The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies complained that those adaptations cut out too much, but of course that’s the nature of filmic language vs. the written word: they are intrinsically different, and the former succeeds only when it knows how to separate itself from the latter, not when it struggles to align according to audience expectations.
It was not always thus: uh, The Grapes of Wrath, for example, follows Steinbeck’s novel but also takes liberties with its structure, in part because how would you end a studio film from the 40s with an old man suckling a young woman’s breast? Great Disney cartoons, from Snow White to The Little Mermaid, played freely with their folktale sources and established their characters as more-definitive than the originals. The Less Than Zero movie hilariously includes almost not a single scene from the novel from which it takes its name.
But there’s always been one book that at least a certain segment of America wouldn’t allow any movie adaptation to diverge from: the Bible! Hollywood’s Jesus biopics have in recent times tended to be so reverent that they’re stilted, which is just how many Christians like ‘em: The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings, Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth… even Mel Gibson’s torture porn-y The Passion of the Christ falls in line with Christian (and particularly Catholic) values. Son of God, released in late February, has been selling blocks of tickets to churches across the country with its faithful, dogmatic telling of the Gospels. Any deviations from such displays of piety have been met with “controversy”: no self-respectin’ churchgoer owns The Last Temptation of Christ on DVD, or even Jesus Christ Superstar, with its toe-tapping Judas sympathies (even if those two films do more to enrich an outsider’s understanding of the Jesus story through complexity and shibboleth-challenging. But that’s not what the devout are looking for: they don’t need their faith challenged or enriched, thank you very much!).
But, actually, Biblical films that focused on less-essential figures than the Christ himself weren’t always held to such high standards of accuracy. Samson and Deliliah was the highest-grossing movie of 1950, and one of the highest-grossing Biblical films in history, and yet the Bible was only one of its many sources, including a treatment by history writer Harold Lamb, and a novel by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which took basic liberties with the story. How else would you make 128 minutes out of three chapters from the Book of Judges? Ben-Hur is a wholly fictional story that interweaves the story of Jesus, and no one protested it for its inauthenticity. Ditto other Biblical movies about Moses, Ruth, Esther and Abraham.
But (a small, vocal segment of) people are angry about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which takes many liberties with the source story (which occupies four chapters of Genesis, or a few pages). And though you may hear that their complaints are with Biblical authenticity, that’s not really the problem. Glenn Beck “said the movie was just ridiculous,” Gospel Herald reports, “and seemed more ‘comic’ than a correct telling of the sacred story.” (“Correct”!!) Beck was disappointed, essentially, that the conception of Noah he has wasn’t matched by that in the film, sounding like a fanboy gone to review The Watchmen, making sure that he sees everything he assumed that he would, because of course that’s the point of art: to validate our assumptions about the world and prove us correct in all matters emotional, psychological and spiritual.
In the 21st century, the language of religious adherents has been adopted by the fanboys, each side making sure that the folks in Hollywood cater to their obsessions and satisfy all their needs. Still, the religious are more dangerous, because they cloak their objections in the guise of the unimpeachable. “Much controversy [otherwise] centered on the director Darren Aronofsky’s environmental messaging—his Noah appears not to be a meat eater and reprimands his son for picking a flower—and on action sequences that involve Transformer-like exiled angels encased in rock,” the Times reports. I mean, rock angels is just… weird, but the thing about respect for natural life? If we consider environmentalism to belong to the left, and god to the right, then, sure, it’s really offensive that Noah would eat a plant-based diet, somehow. But otherwise it sounds like bullshit political polarization made semilegitimate because the critics have invoked their faith, and god forbid that art ever challenge something that someone already believes.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart