In one week, I received two invitations to attend screenings of new movies, both with biblical themes. I had to miss the first of the films, but was available on the evening of the second film’s screening.
My Southern Born Woman agreed to go with me to watch a film called “Noah”, figuring it would be fun, knowing the theater served beer, and with the knowledge that if film were really bad, at least we’d be in cahoots in our criticism of it. Sometimes it’s fun to be quietly catty with the one you love.
The cast of “Noah” was somewhat promising, if not odd: Russell Crowe as Noah, Jennifer Connelly as Mrs Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah. Given how old Noah is said to have been, I think Anthony Hopkins might have been better cast in the title role, although ever since he played Hannibal Lechter, it’s hard for me to see him without wondering who he’ll take a bite out of.
The lights came down, and the theater hushed. I’ve never seen Hollywood move so quickly to make a story “Hollywood”. Within 5 minutes of the movie’s start, they had angels turning into odd, animated stone creatures with low voices; creatures who would eventually help Noah wage war against his foes, apparently the descendants of Cain. We knew right away that someone with a fantastic imagination had gotten a hold of the story.
The acting, to be fair, was great; all top-notch players, not a bad apple in the bunch.
Russell Crowe’s Noah had a very hip wardrobe, starting with skinny jeans and a parka type coat that I’d like to see Columbia Sportswear issue someday: The Noah Parka, waterproof and stylish- I can see it now.
He also goes through three very distinct haircuts, starting with an unkempt hippy, longhair theme, moving to a buzz cut, and finally to what looks like a razor cut / nee shag. I’ll have to ask my barber friend / guitarist Steve Mason for the details, but leave it to Hollywood to give us several versions of Noah to get into- Noah Mach I, Noah Mach 2, and Noah Mach 3, at your Christian hairdresser now.
My very biblically minded mother might have enjoyed one element of the adaptation. Being of Swedish descent, I think she would have found some pride in seeing what appeared to be Vikings in all the battle scenes, although she would have been disappointed that they were on the wrong side of right, and destined for drowning.
What I truly enjoyed was how all the animals were called by Creation to fill up the ark. Each grouping of life forms finds themselves wildly yet methodically called to fill the ark. I used to think that Noah spent about 100 years gathering them, but the film’s version felt like something C.S. Lewis would have come up with, and thus probably acceptable by Christians everywhere.
In this narrative, Jennifer Connelly burns a combination of herbs to put all the creatures to sleep. I've always thought of the ark as noisy and chaotic, but the sleeping herb notion gave weight to the idea of Mrs Noah being in touch with creation. In fact, a viable theme of the film is that what sets Noah apart from the sinful world that drowns away is an aversion to violence against creation, something we could use a dose of all these years after the Deluge.
The family conflict runs deep, and every story needs dysfunction. We've got high drama between Noah and his son Ham. No surprise there. Knowing how certain theologies have used the Ham narrative, I was thankful that Ham was played by an average looking white kid from suburbia.
Noah winds up as a lunatic, trying to kill his grandchildren, and generally upsetting everyone on the ark and in the theater. To be sure, I can see a little cabin fever wafting about the ark, but I need to remind the screenwriters that it was Abraham who tried to kill his progeny, not Noah.
The special effects are dazzling, of course, and I suppose a theological explanation of the fantastic abilities of the effects team is that before the flood, everything was better. People lived longer, and the movies were much longer. Or so this one seemed. All ends well, and the last Viking is vanquished, as the boat lands in what seems to be Ireland, verdant and as Celtic in appearance as most of the actors in the film.
It’s always kind of funny to me when a simple narrative gets turned on its head to make it more interesting or controversial. I call that kind of writing “fiction”, and have found that most fiction is a true story bent into a more interesting form.
When screenwriters get into the Bible it never ceases to amaze me how they’ll interfere with the narrative. Reflecting on all the biblical epics Hollywood has churned out, it gets a little predictable, doesn’t it?
Some version of Charlton Heston will always show up playing the hero, as if he’d just come from the set of a Western, and between soundstage walls, got rid of the gun, the hat, the spurs, pants, vest, etc, and grabbed a bathrobe for his biblical scene.
I have to admit liking Ben Hur, but I never read the book. Ben Hur was one of the first movies I ever saw. My parents were godly people who weren’t sure how they felt about going to see movies. Like every other evangelically raised person my age, Ben Hur was my gateway drug of movies. From “Ben Hur”, I went to “Old Yeller”, and from “Old Yeller”, I went to “Mary Poppins”, and eventually wound up in a theater watching “Silence Of The Lambs” with Methuselah / Anthony Hopkins starring as a cannibal.
Don’t even get me started on “Christian” movies, because I have too many friends involved in making them, just like “Christian” music, and I don’t know anyone in either of those worlds that is trying to produce crap. It’s just that there’s a certain audience that needs to be pampered and pandered to, hence feeding them vanilla ice cream and wonder bread.
Speaking of white, Jesus is always an unbelievably handsome Aryan guy, with the most piercing blue eyes anyone’s ever fallen for. He’s also usually quite sedated, even when he’s calmly beating the tar out of the moneychangers in the temple. He calmly gets the nails pounded into his hands and feet, groaning ever so slightly. I will interject here that Mel Gibson tried to get it right with the torture of Christ, and then took it overboard. But his Jesus was still a stud, what can you say? You can’t have Danny DeVito playing our Lord and Savior.
All this just goes to show you that when you open up the Bible, you’ll read it a bit differently than your neighbor. I know no other book which has so much valuable information for the redemption of humanity, and yet that information can be twisted into the basis for many people’s abhorrent behavior. Imagination must be balanced with reverence when it comes to reading or even re-writing our holy texts.
My Southern Born Woman’s take on the Old Testament, as Christians call it, is intriguing and creative, and worth consideration. It’s called “Jezebel’s Got The Blues and Other Works of Imagination”. Her version of Noah is succinct and funny, narrated by a rat, perhaps the lowest mammal form on the ark. I don’t mind selling that book here, because it’s a lot closer to the mark than Hollywood. It’s got more in common with Broadway; no special effects, and no beautiful stars, but funny as Hell.
What to do with these holy stories? Scripture gives us glimpses of human beings who connect with God in unlikely ways. I suppose just connecting with God is unlikely, when you think about it, but the models in scripture give me hope that God is trying to connect with us, whether we are screenwriters, boatbuilders, authors, warriors, midwives or even precocious children, God is always whispering to us, calling us to Mercyland.