The last time there was a whale in the Thames, in 2006, it was a seven-ton, female northern bottlenose. She had come from Scotland, ill-advisedly turned right somewhere in the North Sea, swum with (I assume) decreasing confidence up the ever-narrowing river, and found herself becalmed in the heart of Chelsea.
Crowds of expensively dressed locals flocked to the banks to watch. There was a lot of public sympathy for the creature. But then something in our collective unconscious seems to have an awestruck, quasi-religious reverence for the great mammals that spend their time, like Leviathan or the Kraken, in the abysmal sea.
Not the Potters Fields Park Management Trust, however. This august body was approached by the Bible Society, which planned to re-enact the story of Jonah and the Whale by beaching an inflatable 50ft whale in a park near Tower Bridge where children could run around inside it. The trust wasn’t keen. “Under the terms of our lease,” the chief executive sternly ruled, “we are not allowed to have events of a religious nature.”
You could argue that the chief executive is being a little over-cautious here. What was being planned on Potters Fields Park wasn’t a Mass, a christening, a prayer meeting, an evangelical gathering or a ritual beheading. It was a whale-shaped bouncy castle being used to dramatise a story from the Hebrew Bible about a hapless prophet saved from drowning by spending three days and nights in a whale’s tummy. It’s a story, not an affirmation of faith. It’s about as narrowly religious as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But something has clearly spooked the Potters Fields Park Management Trust, and persuaded it to steer clear of any project touched by religion, and I think I know what it is. It’s Noah.
As you can see on the billboards, Darren Aronofsky’s epic $130m film of Noah’s ark and the great flood is almost upon us. It opens on 4 April after five months of abuse, negotiation, lawyers, studio fights, focus groups, religious outrage, damage limitation and hysterical condemnation from all sides.
The trailer is fantastically dramatic, but you can see some things that are wrong with it. Like the casting. Ray Winstone plays Tubal-Cain, the roughneck leader of All the People Who Weren’t Invited on to the Ark. Winstone has been given a fabulous two-pronged beard and, for reasons that escape me, a slight lisp. As in, “You think you can thtand alone and defy me?” – although everything he says seems to be just a variant of “Noah! You thlaaaaaaaggg!” Anthony Hopkins plays Noah’s granddad, Methuselah, who famously lived to be 969, but here doesn’t look a day over 171. Russell Crowe, as Noah, sets out to build his ark because he suffers from terrible dreams of destruction and water penetration, rather than because he’s warned about the storm by God. God doesn’t get a mention in the trailer.
Does he get enough airtime in the movie? That’s the question that has caused trouble since the first test screenings in October. Some Christian groups complained that the film was blasphemous because it took liberties with the original story and introduced random female characters – which seems like criticising Walt Disney for what he did to the Grimm brothers’ Snow White. Other didn’t like the way the story alluded to Darwinian evolution rather than the Book of Genesis. Aronofsky didn’t help: he described Noah as “the least biblical biblical film ever made” and said that he saw the hero as “the first environmentalist”.
The film has now been banned in a dozen countries, including Pakistan, Qatar, Malaysia and in the Middle East and North Africa, because it contradicts the teachings of Islam. In Egypt, they complained that it “violates Islamic law”. (They don’t like prophets being portrayed by actors.)
Much of this was predictable, I suppose, but Paramount Studios’ next move wasn’t predictable at all. It challenged Aronofsky’s right to have the final cut on his movie and made several alternative versions to show audiences, to see which went down best. Can we take a second to think what that means? We have here a story about human wickedness, the destruction of nature, divine retribution, mercy and grace. And Paramount, rather than letting its director make his own vision of these things, tried to find out what would be acceptable to most audiences. How bizarre.
Did it change the story so that the ark finally accommodated Ray Winstone and a selection of his hairy troops? Was the flood made less violent, more along the lines of Hurricane Sandy? Did they try Rainbow and No-Rainbow alternatives for the ending? Did they bin the olive branch? Does Emma Watson marry Methuselah?
Actually, the only thing we know that they did was suck up to Christians: one version opened with a succession of religious images and closed with a Christian rock song. Now, after being tossed by the strong waves of fundamentalism and evangelism, the film is going ahead, but with a disclaimer on screen saying it’s “inspired by the story of Noah” and admitting that “artistic licence has been taken”.
I don’t remember this kind of fuss being brought to Noye’s Fludde, Benjamin Britten’s 1957 opera based on a 15th-century Mystery Play taken from the Bible story, even though it features Mrs Noah and her friends drinking alcohol and taking the mick out of God’s pronouncements. But that was half a century ago, a half-century in which the world learnt to take offence at everything, to politicise religious belief, to insist that no feelings must ever be hurt nor personal zealotry ever questioned.
Frankly, I feel a twinge of sympathy for the chap from the Potters Fields Park Management Trust who turned down the whale in the Thames. It could so easily have become a can of worms.