Let’s start with a disclaimer. I mean Paramount Pictures’ disclaimer as found on Noah’s promotional 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.”
You may wonder, what artistic license?
Imagine Noah’s story set in a barren, rocky place that looks like Norway or Northeastern Canada. (I learned in the credits that it’s Iceland.) And imagine Noah as a young boy about to be blessed by his father, Lamech. Sounds biblical enough, right?
To give the blessing, Lamech wraps around his arm a serpent’s skin that has been passed down from Adam, who found it in the Garden of Eden. The snakeskin tightens magically around Lamech’s arm and glows golden. But before Lamech can bless Noah, Tubal-Cain arrives with a group of angry men, all dressed in costumes that might have been stolen from the set of The Hobbit. Tubal-Cain, a leader among the Children of Men, declares that he is taking over Lamech’s land to mine it. Not one for small talk, Tubal-Cain kills Lamech and steals the serpent’s skin.
The young Noah flees and later reappears as an older, brawny Noah (Russell Crowe), who lives as a nomad in an even rockier landscape. Noah tries to teach his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, to respect the plants and animals “the Creator” has made.
Back in his tent, with his winsome wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) at his side, he dreams about water, drowning, and a green mountain. To understand this dream, Noah realizes he must visit his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), the hermit dweller of yonder green mountain, who is also an awesome warrior with a fiery sword.
So the Noah family crosses an even rockier landscape inhabited by The Watchers—fallen angels who tried to help the Sons of Men with advanced technology. The Sons of Men, we learn, turned that help into evil, polluting the landscape and destroying the environment.
At this point, you should be getting the picture that this is not your Sunday school version of Noah, much less the story that can be found in Genesis.
Now you could decide to avoid the movie. But I suggest going to see it with friends or maybe your older children. Try to figure out what accomplished director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) is trying to do with the biblical account, as aided by a group of accomplished actors and millions of dollars’ worth of computer-generated animals.
To justify the film’s “artistic license,” Ari Handel, co-screenwriter with Aronofsky, has argued that their version of Noahreflects the Jewish tradition of midrash, the imaginative interpretation of Scripture used to retell, in this case, “a tale essentially about stewardship.”
For my own part, I was initially a bit bored by what is becoming a conventional 21st-century take on sin as environmental destruction (Avatar). When the camera panned a landscape of blackened stumps, I half expected Noah to cry out “I speak for the trees,” like Dr. Seuss’s Lorax.
Whatever the screenwriters say, that environmental focus soon gives way to a deeper drama about judgment and sacrifice, about good and evil. Once the Ark is shut and afloat, this blockbuster, filled with special effects and violence, distills itself into a stage play in which Noah must decide, even before Abraham, what obedience God requires when it comes to family.
Admittedly, this long film has some laughable moments, many due to the belief that historical-biblical dramas are best if acted out with British accents and King James vocabulary. “I am with child,” says one character in a pregnant moment. Also, the fallen angels, cursed by “the Creator” into creaky stone beings with hearts of gold, seem to hesitate between being either Transformers or the lumbering, loveable Ents in The Lord of the Rings.
That said, Noah is a very slick production. Despite the film’s narrative jumble, the biblical story is presented at times with a mix of visual flair and to the letter, textual accuracy. During a quiet moment on the ark, Noah tells his family the creation story in a way that made me wonder if the script was taken from a “Children and Worship” Sunday school lesson.
As my daughter pointed out to me, the film’s casting cleverly puts Russell Crowe up against rising young adult star Logan Lerman (Perks of Being a Wallflower, Percy Jackson) in the role of Ham. In a similar appeal to younger viewers, Emma Watson gets a post-Harry Potter role as Ila, Shem’s love interest. We should not forget that the movie is a carefully planned commercial enterprise and not a sermon.
If you are willing to suspend your disbelief, but not your belief, the movie does give substantial food for thought. Read about the controversy surrounding the film. Compare what various critics make of the movie. And look again at Genesis. What would your film version of Noah look like? Would every animal fit into your ark? How would you keep them all quiet? How do you imagine the first rainbow? (Paramount)
About the Author
Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.