From the Felt-Board to the Silver Screen: A Few Things to Remember Before Drowning Noah Movie in Criticism

16_gn07_11-12Darren Aronofsky’s Noah starring Russell Crowe in the title role debuts tomorrow. Call me skeptical but there are people who are ready to drown this movie in criticism. It would come as no surprise to see many, particularly Christians, walk out of the movie disappointed. There likely will be those who feel as though it has strayed too far from the narrative it seeks to depict in Genesis 6-9. There likely will be those who feel the writers and director have taken too much creative license. There will likely be those who in the anti-Christian sentiment think it’s ridiculous and absurd to suggest that this story is anything other than fairy tale nonsense that didn’t merit getting the silver screen treatment (then I certainly hope they haven’t seen God’s Not Dead).

I’m looking forward to going to see Noah. Having grown up in church the telling of Noah typically got the felt board treatment and the cute cuddly kids book treatment. It wasn’t until I taught Genesis to students as a youth pastor that I realized that the story of Noah is not for children. It is ultimately a story about human depravity and what can possibly be done to fix a world in which the caretakers are the problem. To this point I haven’t found anything that captures this better than the Lego produced depiction of the flood in The Brick Testament. Showing that to students helped them realize for the first time that there is nothing cute about the story of the deluge and Noah’s ark. In more ways than one it is messy.

I fully expect, even within the confines of a PG-13 rating, that Darren Aronofsky will not shy away from the implied violence in Genesis 6-9. I fully expect he will take some creative license, no different than and no more egregious than the license Cecil B. DeMille took in writing and directing the much celebrated by evangelicals The Ten Commandments. Aronofsky has a lot less text of scripture and details to work with than DeMille. Unlike Demille, to my knowledge Aronofsky has never professed to be a Christian. I’m curious to see how someone, in particular an artist, whom I presume is not a Christian tells the story. All that being the case, it’s a movie and if I’m going to pay in excess of $10 to see it I want a good story, a well told story, and certainly not least to be entertained. So if you are going to see the movie, try to go into with as few expectations as possible and try to enjoy. Be critical, but not for criticisms sake. Lastly here are a few things to keep in mind when you do critique it.

 

  1. Remember the Source—In this case I don’t mean the Bible. Darren Aronofsky is not a guy that is new to making movies. You might not be familiar with his name but there is a good chance that you are familiar with some of his work. He is the director of Black Swan starring Natalie Portman (for which she won the best actress Oscar), The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke, and Requiem for a Dream. All three of those movies garnered at least one acting Oscar nominee. All three movies didn’t shy away from showing the dredges of human depravity (in particular Requiem for a Dream which is a very well done film that I will never watch again because of how dark and depressing it was), and like I said at the beginning Noah is a story about human depravity. All of that to say if you aren’t a fan of his previous work then chances are you won’t like or appreciate his latest work. Personally I’m a little surprised he decided to keep it PG-13.
  2. And Remember the Source—In this case I am referring to the Bible. Genesis 6.5-6 gives us a brief description of what was happening in Noah’s day, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” The rest of Genesis 6, 7, 8, and 9 is a telling of God calling Noah to build the ark, instructions or a blueprint for building the ark, the deluge, it subsiding, God making a covenant with Noah, and Noah’s descendants (including the brief story of his son Canaan’s transgression against him while he was passed out drunk).
  3. It’s an Adapted Screenplay—Obvious by now you know this movie is adapted from another source, but often times those are the movies of which it is most often said, “Well, it just wasn’t like the book”. Which at this point in some ways is lazy criticism. Most books wouldn’t translate well on the silver screen if they played out exactly the way they are written. That is why they are “adapted”. Director Peter Jackson, often maligned for his adaptations of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, once said in response to detractors that if he actually included everything from the three LOTR books in the movies they would be 20 plus hours long all together instead of 12. Now of course he is getting criticized for doing just that with the one book, The Hobbit. It goes to show you you just can’t win when you adapt a well known book into a movie. At the end of the day regardless of what a director trims or adds the main question shouldn’t be “was it in the book?” The main question should be, “does what the writers and directors decided to trim or add help keep the movie moving?” The movie shouldn’t grind to a halt trying to include every detail. Nor should it pass over important information or scenes that help tell the story and or build characters. A good story requires a conflict that needs to be resolved and most conflicts involve an antagonist. In the Bible we are not given a specific antagonist other than the general ‘man’. Judging from the previews the writers have decided to create an antagonist who embodies everything that has gone wrong with mankind. They aren’t doing it to tick off those who treasure the Bible as God’s inerrant word, no more than Bill Cosby was when he did his Noah routine in stand up comedy. They are doing it for the sake of telling the story through the medium of film.

 

I hope to see Noah sometime this weekend in which case I’ll attempt to post a review.

Dark Night… Evil Rises Again Will it End?

With yet another tragic, senseless, act of evil, the Dark Knight massacre has us reeling again. Once again we are grappling for some sense of understanding how and why things like this happen. We wonder what the appropriate answer or response should be. Not surprisingly the 2nd Amendment debate will spike for a time as the national wound of this lays bare (the irony being that conservatives are capitalizing on building fear on a privilege not an inalienable right, and liberals will never change that privilege because they would lose one of their rallying cries).  We are amazed that someone with “obvious intellectual capacity” is capable of such deranged evil, as if only intellectual limited people are capable of such evil because they are “stupid” and uneducated. As if education is the antidote to evil. At the end of the day there is twelve graves being dug, each one representing a collection of family and friends for whom none of this discussion helps, because evil has struck a fatal blow. There are at least 38 other people for whom just going to the movie theatre again may never happen. Not because it’s likely to be repeated, but because the replay of that dark night on July 20th, 2012 is all to painful and accessible for them.

It’s not the movies. Any good story has conflict in it Good stories involve problems that need a resolution. The great stories, and therefore great movies, go beyond the basic good versus evil plot, but deal with more systemic evil. Evil that is systemic is so huge, so all encompassing, that no simple resolution is going to put an end to evil. Blowing up the Death Star only solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil all together. Casting the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil for good. Defeating Lord Voldemort and learning to be cordial with Draco Malfoy solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, especially the latest and last installment, takes an honest look at systemic evil. Its subtle brilliance is in the way it juxtaposes proposed answers to the problem of evil. Dark Knight Rises demonstrates that even those with good intentions can and do get sucked into the vortex, and the evil that lies dormant inside them stirs, and often is unleashed. All they need is a little push. The complete body of work of Nolan’s Batman movies show us how just when you solve one problem more, and often greater, problems arise. The new problems are often greater in scope and magnitude than the one just resolved, but it’s the same evil. Too often those who seek to solve the problems of evil become an instrument of evil or provide temporary solutions that are themselves riddled with problems. Problems are only symptoms of something much darker, the presence of evil. Peace is only evil catching its breath, unless of course evil dies once and for all. Humanity with all our achievements, politics, progress, enlightenment, technology, philosophy, organized religion, and compassion must face the facts that we are only capable of treating symptoms. We will never have the means to end evil once and for all.

The Christian Story is ultimately a story of evil meeting its end never to rise again. It claims that God has the means to end evil once and for all, has been and is in the process of ending it, and will eventually once and for all end evil. Pastors and preachers often don’t highlight this enough as they make the Christian Story more about personal relationship, personal salvation, personal happiness, and personal help (self-help/behavioral modification).  Jesus on the other hand tells his disciples to “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26)? One way or another humanity is destined for death, because ever since the fall evil resides in the heart of man (Romans 3.10-18), and evil must be dealt with. Though we may never, we are all capable of what this young man in Aurora, CO did, and deserve the exact same judgment from God as he (Romans 3.23). Because the only true way to end evil forever is to kill evil forever, every last drop. The Christian Story calls us to a point of decision, which has been communicated shorthand many ways. We can either die daily now, put on the new-self daily now, or we can die daily later. One kind of death leads to life, the other kind of death has no end. God has made a way for all to receive life by dying the first death, and desires that none experience the second kind.

Praying a prayer doesn’t end evil, avoiding bad behavior doesn’t end evil, adherence to a moral standard doesn’t evil, service projects, mission trips, church attendance, evangelism doesn’t end evil. All those things are good but they don’t end evil, only death does. But death is not end of the story, not for all. Those who choose to die with Christ now will rise again and enter a world where God’s reign is complete and evil can’t touch it (Revelation 21.1-8, 26-27)