Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and the Pending Deluge of Bible-Based Movies

You’ve probably heard by now that Darren Aronofsky — director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan — is now making a movie about Noah’s Ark.

Perhaps the news has reached you that Russell Crowe will play Noah. And Jennifer Connelly, of course, will offer comfort to Noah’s beautiful mind.

You may have even heard that Anthony Hopkins is playing Methusaleh.

But have you seen the first image of the ark under construction?

I suspect this means that we’ll see Aronofsky return to lavish scenes of digitally animated spectacle, something we haven’t seen him do since The Fountain. That might be exciting. The Fountain has some fantastic imagery in it.

But will the movie be a thought-provoking exploration of the Noah story that shows respect to its source material? Or will it treat the story of the Great Flood like a fairy tale ripe for reinvention, and an opportunity to unleash spectacular special effects?

Aronofsky’s shown a particular interest in stories about people who go to extremes, who live on a dangerous edge, who are perceived by some as mad and by others as visionaries. His movies often spark debates among reviewers: Are they made of substantial storytelling, or are they merely excuses for high-intensity spectacle? I suspect this film will depict characters teetering on the fine line between madness and divine inspiration (like Bess in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves). That’s a dramatic dichotomy that you’ll find at the center of some of the most beloved films ever made (Amadeus, Black Narcissus) and some of the most painfully overdone.

In my conversation with Aronofsky upon the release of The Fountain, I found him to be very interested in spiritual matters, in Biblical stories, in the book of Genesis and its correlation with the mythologies of other cultures. That’s encouraging.

But I was also intrigued by his view that death was part of the plan for humanity all along, and that we can find peace in accepting death as a sort of divine “recycling” plan. Every translation of the Bible I’ve ever read makes it clear: Death is the dismaying consequence of sin. And the turning point of the Scriptures’ story comes when Christ suffers death himself in order to overcome it, to show us that death has no power over him, and to show us that those who trust him have nothing to fear.

How then will Aronofsky portray the Deluge, an event clearly described as an act prompted by God’s anger with the world… an act of judgment?

My friend and colleague Craig Detweiler recently wrote, “The success of The Blind Side, Soul Surfer, Courageous, and a host of Tyler Perry movies has heightened Hollywood’s interest in faith-fueled entertainment. With the studios backing upcoming projects on Noah, Moses, and the entire Bible, it has never been a better time to be a person of faith in Hollywood.”

With respect to my accomplished friend, who works much more closely with people in Hollywood than I do, I’m skeptical.

First of all, let’s talk artistry. The movies that Detweiler mentions were certainly popular… but were they excellent? To be honest, I avoided most of them because the film reviewers I trust most for their discernment in image-making and storytelling warned me away from them. A film’s excellence should not be assessed by how “Biblical” it is — whatever that means — but by its crafstmanship, its vision, its beauty, its truthfulness, its excellence.

Second, let’s talk motivation. What does this sudden surge of Bible-related films really represent? Are studios developing these films because studio executives are, to use Detweiler’s words, “getting enlightened”? If so, what kind of enlightenment are we talking about? Has God given them a new passion to make films for God’s glory, their heads and hearts set on making something beautiful and true? Or have they become enlightened to the money they can make from Christian audiences, as Christians market Bible-based movies to their mega-church congregations? Are they entrusting these projects to visionary artists, or to formulaic filmmakers whose success is measured by profit? Will these films be designed to make headlines due to controversial interpretations?

I know quite a few Christians working in Hollywood, and they speak of many more besides themselves. I’ve been impressed to find most of them striving to tell meaningful stories with beauty and excellence. And they don’t seem to feel that making adaptations of Old Testament stories for the big screen would be any smarter than telling new stories. They don’t diminish their art by focusing on the “delivery” of “a Christian message.” (After all, art is not about teaching lessons, but about inviting us into experiences that will awaken our senses, intellects, and imaginations.) I doubt that they would testify that this time is better than any other time to be working in Hollywood.

When Jesus himself told stories, he showed reverence for the stories of the Old Testament, but rather than just “rebooting” them for a new generation, he told new stories. And as the theologian C.H. Dodd wrote,

A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearers by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application, to tease it into active thought.

That description often applies to the movies that make lasting impressions, that become the standard-setting works of cinematic art.

I’m not saying that Bible-based movies are necessarily a bad thing. I’m just saying that there’s no reason to get excited about a surge of Bible movies as if this represents some kind of spiritual revival, or some kind of “Christian-izing” of Hollywood. To many artists, the Bible is just a book of great myths and legends. Notice how many movies drawn from Greek mythology have come to theatres in the past decade? I’ve seen one or two movies inspired by comic books recently too. Plus, Christians are perceived as a market. A lot of Christians will support movies that they agree with, “voting” with their dollars for movies with subject matter that doesn’t offend them. Thus, we’re sure to see movies that “target” what salespeople perceive as the Christian “consumer.”

But I like what David Dark has to say about that:

C.S. Lewis once observed that while many people use art, only a very few receive it. The texts that get called scriptures by various religious traditions are often used by individuals (mostly quoted out of context) to pepper speeches, buttress bad arguments, and, on occasion, to avoid awareness of responsibility for our actions. We read and quote selectively to better justify what we’ve already decided to do. Where is the self-awareness in any of this, the sense that our scriptures can, and should, change the way we think and act? … Are we up for a redeeming word?

We only receive art when we let it call our own lives into question. If the words of Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, strike us as comfortable and perfectly in tune with our own confident common sense, our likes and dislikes, our budgets, and our actions toward strangers and foreigners, then receiving the words of Jesus is probably not what we’re doing. We may quote a verse, put it in a PowerPoint presentation, or even intone it loudly with an emotional, choked-up quiver, but if it doesn’t scandalize or bother us, challenging our already-made-up minds, we aren’t really receiving it.

Movies don’t have to focus on Bible stories to “call our lives into question” and reveal the glory of God. Whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise… that’s God’s territory. What is more, art that reveals the truth will make moviegoers… yes, even Christian audiences… uncomfortable. Because it will call us to change.

I don’t get excited about art that is fashioned to make others believe what I believe. I get excited about art that breaks me into pieces and asks me to start over. Rather than cheer at the prospect of movies that Christians can “use,” I think it would be better for us to learn how to receive the witness of the movies that are currently in front of us.

I won’t be at all surprised if my favorite films of the next five years have nothing to do with narratives that are familiar to churchgoers. I suspect they’ll be whatever films beckon to me with beauty, excellence, and revelation.

Keep in mind: When Christianity Today surveyed their Christian film critics at the end of 2004, and asked them which movies were most impressive, influential, and meaningful to them, The Passion of the Christ was not #1. In fact, it wasn’t even in the Top Ten. I was one of those voters, and I understand. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster Jesus movie, we must not pretend that a movie about Jesus, or about any Bible story, is automatically a great movie. Even “the greatest story ever told” can be told in a mediocre way, or even badly. We must respect the discipline of artmaking. We must create with the standards of the Creator in mind.

George Macdonald described God’s methods of creativity like so:

When we understand the outside of things, we think we have them. Yet the Lord puts his things in subdefined, suggestive shapes, yielding no satisfactory meaning to the mere intellect, but unfolding themselves to the conscience and heart.

And that, of course, reminds me of Roger Ebert’s law: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.”

So, Hollywood’s investing in a bunch of Bible-based movies? Whatever. What intrigues me is not what they are about. I’ve seen enough terrible Old Testament movies to make me want every one of those long evenings back. No, what I want to know is how will these films be about what they’re about.

We’ll see.

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  • http://www.1019ent.com Ralph

    Well done. I share your skepticism about Hollywood becoming more spiritual – it is a marketing opportunity. But with the multiplex of Christian communities that quarrel over every non-essential detail, i wonder if NOAH has a chance. And if NOAH fails to light the box office, for whatever reason, Hollywood will look in other directions. And when Christian bookstores give in to removing THE BLINDSIDE, Hollywood wonders if that audience can ever be satisfied or is worth pursuing.

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    I enjoyed this very much, Jeff. Great food for thought. As always! :)

    I like Aronofsky a great deal, and am looking forward to seeing what his Noah film will be like, even if it deviates from the Biblical tale. Frankly, sometimes it’s the deviations that prompt the best discussions, or challenge us to see things in new ways.

  • http://www.hollywoodjesus.com Greg Wright

    If we’re talking about Aronofsky here rather than Sherwood Pictures (and I think we are), I know I’d prefer that I’d much rather see $150M films about Noah, Moses, and Judah Maccabee by Aronofsky, Spielberg, and Gibson than I would yet another $150M film about Batman, Spider-man, or the planet Pandora. Now, I personally don’t think the odds of ANY $150M film turning into memorable art are very good… but biblical subject matter is probably likelier to get us close to, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur than the vast majority of fan-boy properties. I think the trend is one worth getting at least a wee bit excited about. And any student of film knows it’s a trend that will run its course anyway, like it or not. We might as will sit back and enjoy the ride!

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Greg, I certainly agree with you about being more interested in this than another comic book movie! You know what would really intrigue me? A Biblical epic led by John Sayles, who’s more of a thoughtful, patient storyteller than a provocateur or a crowdpleaser.

      • http://www.hollywoodjesus.com Greg Wright

        I’m wracking my brain trying to think who else might be as good a suggestion as Sayles. You need someone who’s got a signature style, but also has demonstrated the ability to manage epic-scope pictures… that are actually profitable.

        Andrew Dominick would be fantastic… but no box office. Tarsem would be a great fit for a story about Solomon or Esther, perhaps… but again, not much of a boxoffice track record. David Gordon Greene? No track record on big films. Carroll Ballard or Malick would never be commercial enough.

        Paul Thomas Anderson? The Coens? Joe Wright? Tom Tykwer?

  • Craig

    Highly justifiable skepticism, Jeffrey. Whenever films are reduced to a market driven formula, we all lose. But I am genuinely intrigued when directors of considerable depth like Aronofsky and Spielberg sign on to wade into ancient and enduring (and in this case, biblical) stories. While we can argue about the relative virtues or shortcomings of hits like The Blind Side and Soul Surfer, their craft also connected them with a sizable audience. And when the studios notice, it makes room for Aronofsky (and even a Spielberg) to pursue a project he has been passionate about for a long time.

    For so many faith-fueled writers and directors in Hollywood, this is a window when their particular expertise and background is a competitive advantage. And when you’ve had twenty years of being passed by for staff writing jobs and pitches because of your convictions, it is encouraging to get a shot to show your talent (and if the audience patronize these stories, then hopefully in an array of other genres as well).

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Thanks for replying, Craig.

      I’m certainly *intrigued* by the Aronofsky and Spielberg projects (especially the latter, since The Ten Commandments makes an appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). And you make a good point about opportunities for people who have a passion to make films that deal openly with faith.

      I tend to think that *all* films are faith-based in one sense or another. All art is a work of incarnation. All artists are making “words” “flesh,” and manifesting something of their own convictions even as they expose longings and expectations they may or may not know they have. Some of those artists are making a more conscious effort to craft films that will persuade the audience to consider Christianity. The more they make that intent evident in their films, the more likely they are to compromise their art and cause audiences to sense a “sales pitch” in their work.

      All of that to say: If “faith fueled writers and directors” find more opportunities in Hollywood, I have mixed feelings about what will probably result. Perhaps we’ll see some visionary work. Perhaps we’ll see a bunch of mediocre, preachy films. Perhaps… and probably… we’ll see a little of both.


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