In the beginning of their work on "Noah," director Darren Aronofsky made Russell Crowe a promise: "I'll never shoot you on a houseboat in a robe and sandals with two giraffes popping up behind you."

Decades after Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur," Aronofsky has renewed the tradition of the studio-made, mass-audience Bible epic, albeit as a distinctly darker parable about sin, justice and mercy. While much of his "Noah" is true to Scripture, it's nothing like the picture-book version many encounter as children.

"The first time I read it, I got scared," the director says. "I thought, 'What if I'm not good enough to get on the boat?'"

It's an unlikely project: a $130 million Bible-based studio film made by a respected filmmaker ("Black Swan") few would have pegged a modern-day DeMille. In the lead-up to its release, "Noah" has been flooded by controversy, with some religious conservatives claiming it isn't literal enough and that Noah has been inaccurately made, as Aronofsky has called him, "the first environmentalist."

What Mel wrought

"Noah" is a culmination of the shift brought on by Mel Gibson's independently produced "The Passion of the Christ," which awakened Hollywood with its unforeseen $612 million box office haul in 2004. In the time since, Hollywood has carefully developed closer ties to faith-based communities, (Sony and 20th Century Fox have set up faith-based studios targeting evangelicals).


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Yet the debate about "Noah" proves that it can be tricky to satisfy both believers and nonbelievers, and that finding the right intersection of art, commerce and religion is a task loaded with as much risk as potential reward.

A lot is at stake, and not just for "Noah" and distributor Paramount Pictures. In December, Fox will release Ridley Scott's "Exodus," starring Christian Bale as Moses.

On the heels of the recently released "Son of God," the religious drama "God's Not Dead" opened Friday, and Sony is releasing the less straightforwardly biblical "Heaven Is for Real" ahead of Easter next month. The studio is also developing a vampire twist on Cain and Abel with Will Smith. In Lionsgate's pipeline is a Mary Magdalene film, hyped as a prequel to "The Passion of the Christ" and co-produced by mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.

When Jonathan Boch started his company Grace Hill Media in 2000 to consult Hollywood studios on reaching the faith community, the two "really didn't know each other," he says. Since then, films like "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "The Blind Side" have benefited from outreach to churchgoers.

"Over the course of those 15 years, you've seen the faith community go from almost pariah status or fly-over status to now being seen as an important market," says Boch, who consulted on "Noah." "In my mind, what we're seeing is another renaissance where the greatest artists are telling the greatest stories every told."

Though Hollywood largely swore off the Bible epic when films like 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told" flopped, the revival dovetails recent trends. Figures like Noah are globally recognizable, and thus easier to market. They come with no licensing fee and, often, plenty of opportunity for flashy special effects. "Noah," which is being released in converted 3-D overseas, is perhaps the oldest apocalypse story.

The story fascinated Aronofsky as a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn. He recalls a poem he wrote about the tale as a 13-year-old -- and a teacher's subsequent encouragement -- as his birth as a storyteller. Whereas "The Passion of the Christ" was largely made by Christians and for Christians, Aronofsky says his "Noah" is "for everybody."

"It's wrong when you talk about the Noah story to talk about it in that type of believer-nonbeliever way, because I think it's one of humanity's oldest stories," he says. "It belongs not just in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Everyone on the planet knows the Noah story."

An accurate ark

The Genesis story is only a few pages, with more details on the dimensions of the ark (which Aronofsky held to) than who Noah was. He's instructed by God -- "grieved" in his heart by what mankind had become generations after creation -- to build an ark and fill it with two of every animal. After the flood, Noah is referred to as drunk and then banishes his son, Ham -- all clues for Aronofsky on the pain of Noah's burden.

Paramount sought the approval of religious leaders, consulting with biblical scholars in pre-production and doing extensive test screenings (during which Aronofsky and Paramount feuded over the final cut before an apparent truce).

But early criticism bubbled up online based on what Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says is an old, unused version of the script (which Aronofsky penned with Ari Handel).

"It has been a very interesting journey," says Moore. "It's been highly chronicled along the way, much of which was based upon either speculation or hearsay or old information."

After seeing the film, Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, urged Paramount to advertise the film with a disclaimer. Moore acquiesced, adding a warning that "artistic license has been taken."

"Darren, as an artist, had some sensitivity about what that meant in terms of what we were saying the movie was or wasn't ahead of time, versus letting people experience it for themselves," says Moore. "But there was such a group of people who had concern about it."

"For the vast majority of people, the controversy will go away," he says.