Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe stars alongside Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins in “Noah.” – Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Indonesia… and now China.

All of these countries have reportedly banned the film Noah on religious grounds in recent months. The first five Muslim-majority countries justified the ban by claiming that the film’s depiction of a prophet violates Islamic law. But China’s government and the majority of its population are irreligious. What gives?

A source told The Hollywood Reporter last week that censors derailed Noah’s China debut “for religious reasons, though it seems the whole issue was quite complicated.”

Complicated indeed. Commercial concerns could have played a role in the film being shelved, but the idea that religion was a deciding factor certainly seems plausible.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party, officially an atheist organization, hasn’t altogether banned religion, but it does heavily restrict religious expression in the world’s most populous state.

Only five religious groups — Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants — can register with the government and legally hold services. Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners face forced conversion, torture and imprisonment.

Why the heavy-handed restrictions? Because China’s government fears anything that could threaten its authority.

Repressive governments aren’t stupid. They know how powerful organized religion can be in motivating and mobilizing the masses. Just look at North Korea. The officially atheist state is one of the worst when it comes to religious freedom. Get caught with a Bible in the Kim necrocracy and you’re looking at imprisonment, torture or even death.

China’s no North Korea, but it’s motivations are much the same. Maintain harmony. Maintain control.

Censorship is an ultimate act of control, but it often backfires, especially in the digital age. Declaring something to be off-limits just makes people want it more. And as China’s 600 million Internet users grow increasingly web savvy, they’ll get better and better at accessing banned content.

Pirated DVDs may be more difficult to find in Beijing today than was the case several years ago, but as the government continues to arbitrarily censor online media, people will continue to find new ways to do whatever they please—including watching ‘Noah’ illegally in HD.

Before all these bans, Noah was nowhere near the top of my “must-watch” list for 2014. But censorship has a way of piquing my interest. I’ll give it a shot on my next long-haul flight. Maybe to China.


  1. The commercial concerns seem to be the most plausible.

    China keeps a strict quota on Hollywood films it imports. Noah’s box office was mediocre. Not a flop, but not a hit either. Given the choice between Noah and Godzilla, which would you want to import in order to make some money?

    • Well, knowing China and knowing that Godzilla is actually a cultural import from Japan, no matter what Hollywood does to it, it wouldn’t surprise me if Godzilla gets banned, too.

      • Who doesn’t like giant monsters?

        Given the kefluffle with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands (which is about one unkind word away from a naval engagement), I can definitely see some nationalistic basis for a ban.

        Considering China is a country which will shoot you or roll a tank over you if you consider free expression and democracy, somehow they still manage to get mass protests against Japan. Go figure.

  2. Brian Pellot

    Brian Pellot

    Post author

    Hi Larry,

    I also link to this LA Times piece above. The Hollywood Reporter piece says: “The movie was due to screen mid-May and was being imported on a flat-fee basis, which means that it did not come under the quota of 34 overseas movies allowed into China on a revenue-share basis.” I don’t know much about the quota system, but this is something to consider in light of your comment. Thanks!

    • Revenue sharing means the distributors would get a cut from the gross box office receipts. So naturally the tendency will be towards popular blockbusters.

      A bible based film in a country where the culture doesn’t have much of a baseline familiarity with, is a tough sell. Not so much an atheist thing as much as being a Buddhist/Confucianist/Taoist culture. Although it is being released in Japan, its doubtful it will be a major blockbuster there just due to lack of knowledge of the subject. Very few Biblical films work well with an audience which is new to the material.

        • My bad. I stand corrected.

          Buy my point of a Biblical film probably not finding an audience with a culture without a baseline familiarity with the subject still stands.

          Unless Noah was able to really work the disaster flick/fantasy elements, it is a tough sell in China. Its a tough sell in East Asia in general outside of Korea and Taiwan(which have significant Christian populations).

  3. Without spoilers (***OK, or maybe lightly a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film****) – There’s a line in the film said by the villain that suggests that human power – when men work together – is unstoppable (then they’re stopped by God’s flood). A theme of the film is man’s push for his own glory versus God’s intention with the imago dei.

    I wondered if this/these might appear subversive to the communist agenda separate from it simply being labeled as a “religious” film (or maybe that is the religious element that could offend a communist government). Certainly the Bible’s “Tower of Babel” story is focused on those very themes I mentioned, and I’ve even wondered if China’s state-sanctioned abridged Bible kept or modified that story (I’m only imagining – I don’t know how much or even whether they’ve abridged it).

    • One has to bear in mind you are talking about a culture which is not going to be overly familiar with Genesis at all beyond what would show up in their popular culture. Christians make up a miniscule section of the population. (less than 3%).

      In Asia it is largely reference Western Religious stuff if it looks cool on screen (the same way Eastern religions are treated by Hollywood)

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