Faith and Fatness in The Whale

Darren Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter redefine the religious movie

Darren Aronofsky (l) with Brendan Fraser and co-star Ty Simpkins in rehearsals for The Whale (photo by Niko Tavernise)

Two themes run through the films of Darren Aronofsky: the fragility of faith and the robustness of the drive to self-destruction. Whether it's purposeful, as in The Wrestler, driven by madness in Black Swan, or under the thrall of addiction as depicted in Requiem for a Dream, his characters are often their own worst enemies. "I don't think I'm a very self-destructive person," he said, "so maybe I'm just fascinated by these characters."

Not that he initially felt that fascination with the characters in his latest film, The Whale. He recalled seeing it in its original form, as a stage play, and not being enamored of them, "but very quickly as the play progresses, you get to know them and understand them, and by the end they break your heart."

That empathy is embodied in Charlie, central figure in The Whale and played by Brendan Fraser. Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own 2012 off-Broadway success, The Whale takes place in Charlie's apartment. Devastated by lost love and a broken relationship with his own faith, he has become a shut-in and is nearing the end of a long process of eating himself to death. For the film, Aronofsky worked closely with the Obesity Action Coalition to understand obesity and hired dancer and trainer Beth Lewis to work with Fraser, teaching him how to live in Charlie's body, "how to use leverage, how to lean in certain ways, and the limitations that happen because of the physical restraints."

But Charlie's weight is only a symptom of his inner life. The script drew deeply on Hunter's experience growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household and contending with "the dawning realization that God was not answering my prayers to not be gay." The play was a way for him to represent "that slow negotiation of what I could take from that very dramatic religious background, and those themes show up in The Whale, things like grace and redemption and forgiveness, and a deep love of other people."

In the background of The Whale is a zealous missionary church of the kind that Hunter described as representing a "uniquely American" form of Christianity, one inextricably intertwined with westward expansion. "It feels like homesteading," he said. Those evangelicals are rooted in a rejection of an Anglicanism that they see as just Catholicism in a different robe. "They regard that stuff as highly institutionalized and away from the fundamentals of Christ and the word." The church became a way for Hunter to explore his interest in "the impossibility of faith in a modern context." Eight hundred years ago, people were told that their only possible connection to the ineffable and divine was through "guys in robes with a direct connection to God. And even if you questioned that – which you probably wouldn't because why would you – you'd see a comet and a solar eclipse and go, 'Never mind, I don't get it, magic is real.' But in a world where we all walk around with an encyclopedia in our pockets, that kind of faith is much more difficult."

“[Eight hundred years ago] you’d see a comet and a solar eclipse and go, ‘Never mind, I don’t get it, magic is real.’ But in a world where we all walk around with an encyclopedia in our pockets, that kind of faith is much more difficult.”   – Samuel D. Hunter

One key change is that in the play, the young missionary who arrives at Charlie's door was written as a Mormon, which Walker described as "a bit of an act of self-protection. 'Oh, no, it's not about me.'" In the film version, Charlie comes from a smaller evangelical community, much more like the one that Hunter grew up in, "so I felt like I personalized it a little more."

It was a change that Aronofsky welcomed, not least because in the interim The Book of Mormon had become a Broadway smash "and it felt like so much of that story was out there, and being teased, that it felt less interesting. I remember being, 'Can we figure out a different way of doing that,' and [Hunter] went, 'Actually, there's a way of doing that that's even closer to me.'"

Surprisingly for a country that is so riddled with religiosity, Hunter said he's found that the American entertainment industry is "tepid" about films about faith. He noted that he has been invited on multiple occasions to pitch for TV executives: "Invariably they're like, 'So what do you want to do?' and my answer is always, 'I would like to do a script about modern Christian evangelicals and the impossibility of modern faith,' and it's always a record-scratch moment."

Fortunately, there are rarely such rejections in the world of independent theatre, and when it came to filming The Whale Aronofsky is an established enough director, and the production so small, that they avoided such responses. Plus, Aronofsky added, "I made Noah at $125 million, and that definitely played around with people's perceptions of the Bible they were raised with."

Maybe it makes sense for cinema to be a place to discuss faith. After all, one of the great developments in opening up the written Bible to the illiterate masses was the invention of stained glass: For the first time, the congregation could look at windows and see stories illuminated by divine light in a communal setting. If there was a bigger challenge, it was in the decision to film The Whale in the boxlike Academy ratio, rather than the more standard 1.85:1 or widescreen. Aronofsky said, "I didn't want people to concentrate on the geography of the space, I wanted people to focus on the performance, and the best close-up you can get is from that ratio."

That choice became essential for telling the story of such an isolated figure as Charlie, and for Aronofsky that's part of the power of cinema. "It keeps reminding us that we're very, very connected."

The Whale is in cinemas now. Read our review.

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The Whale, Samuel D. Hunter, Darren Aronofsky, Brendan Fraser, A24, Obesity Action Coalition

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