“Noah,” Darren Aronofsky’s $130 million religious epic, has generated a flurry of controversy among Christians in the last couple of months due to its deviation from the Old Testament story, causing the film’s own distributor to issue a disclaimer for its “artistic license.” But the Russell Crowe film pales in comparison to the wrath experienced by other religious projects in recent memory.
The film never hit theaters, but its two 14-minute YouTube trailers were enough to instigate international riots, violence and lawsuits. Many Muslims were offended by the videos’ depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as a murderer, a pedophile and a womanizer. Violent protests, including the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, ultimately led to hundreds of injuries and over 50 deaths. A Pakistani minister even offered a bounty for anyone who killed the film’s writer-producer Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. A federal court ruled in late February that Google remove them completely from YouTube.
Although only 10 minutes long, Dutch director Theo Van Gogh and Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s collaboration did a lifetime of damage. Van Gogh was assassinated by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim fundamentalist on Nov. 2, 2004 forcing Hirsi Ali into hidings. Bombings of mosques and Muslin churches subsequently followed. The movie, which criticized the abuse of women under Islamic law, depicted an actress (who played four fictional characters) in the nude emblazoned with verses from the Koran.
Arguably the highest-grossing controversial pic of all time, Mel Gibson’s take on Jesus’ final days on earth was considered anti-Semitic in its implication that Jewish leaders were to blame for Jesus’ death. But controversy fueled interest as churches bought out entire theaters for their parishes. The film went on to gross nearly $612 million worldwide.
Following protests and theater attacks surrounding her previous film "Fire," Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta found herself in even hotter water for the final installment in her "Elements" trilogy. "Water," which focused on the plight of Indian widows under Hindu fundamentalism during the late 1930s, was almost scrapped altogether. Thousands of protestors destroyed and burned parts of the set the day before filming began in 2000. A local activist even spearheaded a suicide protest in an effort to halt production. Mehta left India and started the pic over from scratch in Sri Lanke three years later with a new cast and fake movie title. The drama went on to be nominated for a best foreign language Oscar in 2007.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel of the same name caused outage in the Christian community for its mortal characterizations of Jesus. This included a sex scene between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). The film is still banned in several countries, including Singapore, South Africa and the Philippines.
Even though it’s now considered one of the best horror films of all time, "The Exorcist" was a hotbed of controversy when it was released in 1973. Evangelist Rev. Billy Graham thought the movie was satanic (he said "an actual demon lived inside the celluloid reels of the film") following cast members' claims that the film was cursed. Overt sexual depictions like the infamous cross masturbation scene and alleged subliminal sexual imagery also upset religious groups. The movie has scared up over $441 million worldwide during its lifetime.
In another example of controversy translating into box office gold, "The Da Vinci Code" — based on Dan Brown's 2006 best-selling detective novel of the same name — hauled a whopping $758 million worldwide. Tom Hanks even reprised his leading role for the 2009 sequel "Angels & Demons," which made $486 million. Ron Howard was denied shooting permits for "The Da Vinci Code" in several holy sites when the Roman Catholic Church urged a boycott of the film due to its theological inconsistencies. The pic focused on the Church's fictional cover-up of the Holy Grail: Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a secret child. It was protested across the world (including the U.S. and Greece) and banned in Manila and India.
Before Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” sparked debate about Scientology, Roger Christian directed a contentious movie based on founder L. Ron Hubbard’s novel “Battlefield Earth.” Unable to secure studio backing due to its connection to the controversial religion’s obscure alien origin story, star John Travolta reportedly invested millions of his own fortune into the project. Critics considered the movie a recruitment tool for the Church of Scientology. But the costly project (north of $70 million) ultimately flopped at the box office, earning less than $30 million worldwide.
The 1979 religious satire was deemed blasphemous by the Christian community. The comedy from the Monty Python British comedy troupe was either banned or rated X by dozens of local authorities in the UK, Ireland and Norway. The filmmakers poked fun at the sticky situation in their marketing campaign in Sweden, advertising "Life of Brian" as “The film so funny that it was banned in Norway.” The movie even stirred up protests in in New York, where screenings were picketed by rabbis and nuns. One of the most contentious scenes, the titular character's crucifixion, was thought to be mocking Jesus’ suffering. "Life of Brian" was a box-office hit in the UK, where it earned $20 million.
The Catholic Church didn't see the humor in director Kevin Smith comedy about two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) banished to Earth. The duo returned to heaven thanks to a loophole in Catholic dogma. Protests around the world delayed the film's release and Smith received numerous death threats. Critics, for the most part, were intrigued by the indie pic, which grossed almost $31 million.
Catholic audiences thought that the horror pic treated the titular topic with too much deference. While stigmata are considered signs of holiness in the form of body marks or aches corresponding to Christ's crucifixion wounds, this film equated the blessing with demonic possession. Patricia Arquette played an atheist afflicted with stigmata. The movie, which roped in $89 million worldwide, also posed a Vatican conspiracy theory concerning the Gospel of Thomas.