Flood, sweat and tears
Darren Aronofsky’s latest epic has divided Christians; yet it’s a spectacular film sure to provoke discussion. So, just as theologians and children’s workers have asked for generations: what are we supposed to do with Noah?
‘The animals went in two by two – hurrah, hurrah.’ The song echoes around my infant son’s nursery, a reminder of our culture’s traditional treatment of the Noah’s ark story. On his shelf, a little wooden boat, filled with little wooden creatures and a couple of grinning wooden people, underlines the point. It’s the picture on the front of his baby Bible; the opening gambit for engaging our pre-schoolers with the scriptural narrative. Noah: a lovely story about animals, a nice big boat, and a kindly old man who takes care of them both.
Or perhaps not. The Hollywood blockbuster version, released at the beginning of April, provides a much darker, grittier take of the tale. This is the story of a mass environmental disaster, through which God drowned all but a few of his creations. This is a story about sin, judgement, and the immense pressure put on one man to carry the flame for humanity in the face of overwhelming dampness.
The question is, which version is closer to the truth?
A DIFFICULT STORY
Noah’s ark is a profoundly difficult Bible story. It’s one of the handful of iconic tales – along with creation, David and Goliath and the nativity – which are familiar to even the most biblically illiterate. It’s used as a bizarre entry point to the faith, as described above, largely because it features copious numbers of animals. So the average person knows the story but, like many preachers, doesn’t really know what to do with it. It’s a cute story which isn’t really cute at all; the grinning animals are escaping mass extinction. So how do you solve a problem like Noah?
It was a problem which Paramount, the studio behind Noah, ran into as the film took shape. After worrying test screenings, and as they picked up what The Guardian called ‘rumblings of Christian discontent’, the producers took the artistically frowned upon step of recutting the film to lose some of its more controversial sequences. They’d ordered the cuddly toy version, and director Darren Aronofsky had delivered darkness and death. They’d wanted a film which would play well to audiences of all faiths and none; in the test screenings they got a lot of angry report cards from Christians who felt they’d been mis-sold a ‘faith film’. After much wrangling, the film-maker’s original cut made it into cinemas, but not before some radical new versions had been tested – including one that The New Yorker says featured a montage of religious images and ended with a Christian rock song.
NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN
Noah’s Ark is more commonly portrayed as a cuddly children’s story about cute animals in a boat.
Aronofsky makes a fascinating choice of director. His previous films are almost unanimously dark, complex and interested in the inner torment of their troubled protagonists. Had Transformers director Michael Bay taken on Noah, we might have been treated to an even bigger boat, but we’d also have watched two-dimensional characters re-enacting the traditional Sunday school tale.
Instead, the man behind the controversial Black Swan looks deep into the soul of the man at the centre of the crisis – played here by Russell Crowe – and finds him deeply conflicted by his high calling. Crowe’s Noah is obsessively obedient to God, but is also plagued by nightmares and buffeted by opposition. His performance gives an intriguing embellishment of the little that Genesis gives us to go on about the man.
Since its announcement, the project has been encircled by rumours, presumably started by concerned Christians of a certain persuasion. The chief among these – that God is not mentioned – proves to be totally unfounded. God, referred to throughout as ‘the creator’, is the driving force in the film, speaking to Noah through visions and judging humankind for its debauched and planet-wrecking behaviour. A second, linked rumour was that Aronofsky would replace the sin and judgement message of the story with an environmental tract, and while his pre-flood humanity’s mistreatment of creation is a pointed nod at modern climate change deniers, it doesn’t go further than that. This vision of Noah’s ark is profoundly concerned with the seriousness of sin in a way that is unprecedented on the big screen.
That’s not to say that the film is ‘Christian’ in a neat, comfortable, Authorised Version sense. The story takes up just four chapters of Genesis, and so in translating it to the big screen Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel have had a fair amount of ‘white space’ to fill in around the biblical account. As well as imagining the sinful behaviours that enraged God enough to inspire the flood, there are fantasy elements that might seem more at home in Tolkien, a slimming-down of Noah’s family and more aggressive opposition to the ark-building than the Children’s Bible might suggest. But do these elements – which may or may not fit with the truth – mean Christians should reject the film as a whole?
"THIS VISION OF NOAH’S ARK IS PROFOUNDLY CONCERNED WITH THE SERIOUSNESS OF SIN IN A WAY THAT IS UNPRECEDENTED ON THE BIG SCREEN"
OPPOSITION TO THE ARK
Christian responses to Noah have been mixed. Before the release of the film, Jerry Johnson, president of the US organisation National Religious Broadcasters expressed concern at the film’s ‘extremist environmental agenda’. He had been provoked somewhat by Aronofsky’s mischievous comments that Noah was ‘the first environmentalist’ and that he’d created ‘the least biblical film ever made’. Perhaps more significantly, the film offended Muslim groups – and entire nations. The story of Noah appears in the Koran, and since the portrayal of Islamic prophets is forbidden, the film was banned before release in countries including Egypt, Pakistan and Malaysia.
In February, pressure from faith groups led Paramount to add a disclaimer to their marketing materials: ‘The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.’ Clearly, the attempt to create a movie for all faiths and none had gone seriously awry.
Upon release however, the film found lots of advocates within the Christian community; some of them quite unlikely. Focus on the Family, known for its right-of-centre approach on moral issues, called the film a ‘great opportunity’ for Christians ‘to have conversations with friends and family about matters of eternal significance’. And influential magazine Relevant gave the film a glowing review, enthusing that Noah: ‘succeeds more than it stumbles. It has moments of profound beauty and resonance…the love and justice of God are ultimately communicated with a power that transcends the unsettling elements and sticks with you long after the story is over.’
“WE CAN OPEN UP THE OPPORTUNITY FOR OUR FRIENDS TO SEE THAT WE’RE UNAFRAID OF THE BIBLE’S APPARENT GREY AREAS”
BEYOND THE CROSS
The film certainly isn’t a straightforward gospel opportunity in the way that The Passion of the Christ arguably was; you can’t expect to take a non-believing friend along and leave with them weeping a flood of repentant tears. But of course, the same can be said of the Narnia films, and even of the recent The Bible TV series. What these things can do is start interesting, deep conversations about questions that have all but left the water-cooler agenda.
In fact, Noah is a rare thing, a ‘faith’ film which isn’t, in a direct sense at least, about Jesus. Dare I even say it: while the whole Bible points to the cross, there is more to the Bible than just the cross. There is more to people’s faith journeys than just a moment of ‘conversion’. Noah puts a different part of the Bible front and centre in our culture, and enables some of the classic apologetics questions to be aired via the silver screen.
None of this was Aronofsky’s intention, of course. A confirmed atheist, he certainly didn’t set out to make an evangelistic tool. Yet Noah has always fascinated the director; more than 30 years ago he won a United Nations writing contest aged 13 with a poem about the dove that reveals the end of the flood. And according to The Hollywood Reporter, he’s been brewing the idea of an epic film of the story since he first broke into the movie business more than 15 year ago. Noah has been the most significant story in the 44-year-old’s life; those of us who think in such ways might wryly wonder if God is ‘on his case’.
Unless it is an utter commercial disaster (a $15m opening weekend suggests not), Noah will not be the last Old Testament story to get the Hollywood treatment. Ridley Scott’s Moses movie Exodus: Gods and Kings is currently filming with a view to a Christmas 2014 release, while several scripts about King David are in various stages of the development machine.
There is a perception in Hollywood – fuelled by Mel Gibson’s record-breaking success with The Passion – that the Bible contains the secret of Hollywood alchemy: turning stories into literal gold. Yet for every Passion that made millions, there’s a Nativity! that didn’t, and the studios remain cautious as a result. Despite their reservations, Christians should probably be praying that Noah is a hit; that result will increase the likelihood of similar films being greenlit.
Whatever the future may hold, Noah is here – now – a key Bible story in the centre of our culture. If we engage with it, we open up the opportunity for our friends to see that we’re unafraid of the Bible’s apparent grey areas, and enable discussion around issues such as sin and suffering. If we ignore it, Noah remains the irrelevant animal story we all heard before we grew up. For that reason, it might just be time to climb aboard the ark.
The Bible continues to inspire Hollywood studios – here are four of the best.
Anthony Quinn plays the thief who literally incarnates substitutionary atonement. Haunted by visions of Jesus, the film imagines him ending up a follower of the man sentenced to death in his place.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Charlton Heston’s Moses is the high bar of Old Testament patriachs on film. Cecil B DeMille’s epic is extraordinarily ambitious – and dates surprisingly well.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
An agonising portrayal of Jesus’ final days, redeemed by a fleeting glimpse of Resurrection. Pope John Paul II pronounced: ‘it is as it was.’
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Beautifully animated; faithful to the text, and with a theme song by Mariah and Whitney! What's not to like about this retelling of Exodus?