by Kevin McLenithan
Every spring, on the night before Easter, an Anglican church in the Chicago suburbs holds a special service to observe the Easter Vigil. In keeping with liturgical tradition, the church presents a series of Scripture readings that trace the history of God’s promises to his people, from Creation to the Red Sea to the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming. This is a time when the church’s artists have free rein, accompanying these readings with original music, visual art, and reenactments. Some of these readings are somber, some joyous. Few are as raucous as the story of Noah and the Flood.
The staging typically injects a little humor into the service. Noah wears a tool belt. His harried family struggles to keep pace with the peacocks, cheetahs, and tortoises that crowd the altar area, beak to jowl. The animals are played mostly by children in costume, which is to say they’re played with a level of enthusiasm that blows your hair back. The whole production is not irreverent by any stretch of the imagination, but “reverent” doesn’t quite fit, either. It falls somewhere in between.
By now, the word is out about Darren Aronofsky’s own production of the same story, starring Russell Crowe as the antediluvian shipwright. It, too, seems to occupy a gray area of scriptural fidelity, though the consensus right now seems to be that it’s going to be terrible. Or perhaps that’s only in the internet circles I frequent. Certainly the promotional poster is not doing Noah any favors, with Crowe holding a spear for some reason and confronting the floodwaters in a “come at me, bro” stance. Exaggerated yet simultaneously generic, it looks like a Simpsons parody of itself.
The trailer is something else, though unpacking exactly what “something else” signifies in this context is difficult. On one hand, it has the standard hallmarks of modern epic filmmaking: grandiose soundtrack, flashy special effects, and anonymous hordes charging into battle. On the other hand, it has some truly intriguing moments—is that the serpent in the Garden of Eden?—that hint at a serious view of the source material and a nuanced vision of its place in Genesis. In the ongoing tug-of-war between art and commerce, it’s unclear on which side Noah will end up (though rumors of Aronofsky’s resistance to studio input regarding the project’s creative direction should be heartening for anyone familiar with the large-film-studio approach to filmmaking).
Ultimately, this is all pointless speculation anyway. One quickly reaches the limits of useful discussion when making predictions about a film’s quality based on its initial marketing. More interesting are the questions that underlie the criticisms of Aronofsky’s film—of any Bible film to come out in the last thirty years, really. We do not want films that cynically exploit Scripture, but what do we want instead?
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When I was a child, I was intrigued by how objects would look different when they were submerged. At bathtime, I plunged toys into the water and marveled at the change in their appearance. A plastic bunny seemed to swell cartoonishly, its loopy expression subtly distorting. It became slightly magnified, appearing to be closer than it actually was. When I lifted it back out, it instantly returned to its original shape and size. I would repeat this process over and over. It was like a magic trick.
Years later, I would learn about light waves and how water refracts them. At the time, all I knew was that there were more things in earth and bathwater than were dreamt of in my eight-year-old philosophy. That plastic bunny alerted me to mysteries just beneath the surface.
Good films do something similar. Art in general does not reflect reality so much as refract it, showing us the familiar world in unfamiliar ways. Done well, this wakes us up to aspects of life through which we have been sleepwalking. The stories of the Bible, especially for Christians, can become so familiar through their ubiquity that they achieve a frictionless quality—our minds simply slide over them because our imaginations can find no purchase. Judiciously chosen divergences from the beaten path can help the original story regain its traction on our overly comfortable minds and hearts.
Novelty, provocation, and heterodoxy are not virtues in themselves, of course, but when applied in good faith (so to speak) they can be potent tools. Whatever one may think of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, one cannot fairly accuse it of being merely a blasphemous exercise in button-pushing. Scorsese was famously confused and pained by the vitriolic condemnation of his film by Christian groups, and an objective viewing reveals its controversial elements to be in service of a noble goal. (I would argue that it is the only Gospel film to make a serious attempt at endowing its Jesus with a fully formed inner life, but that’s an entire essay by itself.) As theology it may be suspect, but as art it is as thoughtful an exploration of Christ’s mingled nature as you’re likely to find anywhere. My own life and faith were enriched far more by contending with the challenges of The Last Temptation of Christ than by sitting through 1965’s deadly The Greatest Story Ever Told, a Jesus movie so benumbingly polite that it’s offensive.
In the end, all of this boils down to the clichéd advice to keep an open mind about projects such as Noah. Maintaining a healthy wariness of mainstream Bible adaptations is a good idea, as anyone can attest who’s had the misfortune of seeing the Jon Voight–starring Noah TV miniseries from 1998. But there is a difference between a critical eye and a critical spirit. A film cannot replicate the effects of a book or a play, and it certainly can’t do the same things as Holy Scripture. If it makes no pretense to doctrinal orthodoxy, then why judge it by that standard? If we want to tell the story straight, the Bible is still here. It is not going anywhere (1 Peter 1:24, 25).
No, Noah wasn’t a beefy Australian like Russell Crowe, and he probably didn’t tote a spear around to ward off interlopers. He didn’t have the retractable tape measure and comically klutzy sons given him in the Easter Vigil service of a Chicago-area Anglican church. But how much does it matter as long as the God of these adaptations is still the God of the Bible, absolutely righteous in his judgment and abundantly loving in his mercy? As Martin Luther once wrote in a letter to a colleague, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” If Darren Aronofsky’s film helps even a few people to encounter the living God in a new way, then perhaps even its boldest sins can be forgiven.
Kevin McLenithan is a writer and editor living in the Chicago area. He got his start in film criticism writing for the Chicago International Film Festival, and he never looked back. His collection of books about Middle-earth is large enough that he can construct a decent-sized fort out of them. You can find his cinema-related musings and year-end top-10 lists at yourindolentfriend.blogspot.