If you’ve read this blog for the past couple years, you know that I hate lame Christian movies. I hate getting tricked into seeing them (“This is Hollywood-quality, and we have to support Christians in Hollywood!”). I hate that we tell ourselves this is “evangelism” (ahem, has any American become a Christian after seeing a Christian movie?). And I hate that we lower our standards of storytelling when we are telling the greatest story ever.
So why did I go see Noah and Son of God?
These two “Christian movies” take two different approaches to storytelling. And that, of course, got me thinking.
They are based on the same book. They are attracting attention and criticism from the same group of people. One movie is quite literal (which to some people means “true”), and one is quite creative (which to some people means “full of lies”). The fact that they were released only a few weeks apart gives me a unique opportunity to compare them.
Creativity and truth
Yes, the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and we need to be careful whenever we represent it. We don’t want to distort its truth or change the meaning, so sometimes we feel safest when we take the words at face value.
But God is also creative! And He expects creativity from us too.
Son of God: not enough creativity
Son of God was a pretty literal depiction of the familiar Jesus stories, though there were a few notable departures—three magi showing up at the manger, and Jesus going into Lazarus’s tomb are the two that jarred me the most. My main complaint with these departures is that I couldn’t see a purpose for them. In fact, I think being more literal with the magi scene—having them show up at Jesus’ house when he was one or two years old—would have been more creative (because no one ever depicts the scene that way) and more effective (because a later visit helps show that Jesus was remarkable throughout His life, not just at birth and then at 30 years old). When you depart from convention, you should have a good reason.
For example, when Movie Jesus invites Peter to “change the world” instead of “follow Me,” I understand that the screenwriters are making a creative effort to contextualize a calling that may not have much meaning for people today who have not been raised as church-goers. I think it’s a somewhat cheesy choice, but I understand the creative reasoning behind it.
So my main complaint with Son of God is that it was literal without being creative. Or maybe it was literal to popular depictions of Jesus, but not to the Bible itself. In Son of God, Jesus looks like He always looks in movies (and in Renaissance paintings, and in Sunday School flannel graphs)—long hair, white robe, piercing eyes. Mary wears blue. People recite lines in typical British-sounding “Bible voices,” not like everyday Jews. As Matthew Paul Turner says in his review (which you totally should read):
Few things cause the story of Jesus to fall short of God’s glory like a factual cinematic portrayal acted out by pretty Caucasians with British accents and bed-head walking joyfully across barren landscapes to a dramatic symphony of flutes and strings. At times, I swear I was watching the cast of Downton Abbey on vacation in Morocco.
Noah: not enough truth?
Noah, on the other hand, was very creative, and I was completely gripped by the story! Russell Crowe‘s portrayal of Noah made it easy to see how righteousness in an evil world can feel both noble and wearisome. Ray Winstone gave depth to Tubal-Cain (a character mentioned only once in the Bible) and used him to speak truth about our position of dominion in the world, and to convey our capacity to abuse that position. And Anthony Hopkins was delightful as the grandfatherly, somewhat-mystic, berry-craving Methuselah.
All the characters were very human, very real. The costumes may not have been literally authentic to the Mediterranean Bronze Age, but they set the characters free from the bathrobe-clad stereotypes and let us see them as hard-working, rough-life nomads. The sets conveyed a landscape that was probably more barren than the world literally was at that time, but those images dramatically illustrated the effects of selfishness and rebellion; they set a mood that was appropriate for the story. This is what I mean when I say a creative choice can convey a literal truth.
Of course, there were also some creative choices that changed the literal meaning of the Bible story—for example, Tubal-Cain managing to stow away on the ark. The writers used this plot twist to contrast Noah’s calling with Tubal-Cain’s—and I did find it helpful to see Noah and Tubal-Cain as foils for each other. But I think putting Tubal-Cain on the ark compromises my understanding of the ark as both a literal and a symbolic sanctuary. Here again, I appreciate that the creative choice has a purpose, but I think a different choice could have accomplished the same goal.
The screenwriters also made a creative choice to have Noah arrive at the conclusion that the Creator’s plan was to cleanse the world of people, creating a new Eden of only plants and animals. This of course leads to high drama and conflict within the family on the ark. But I find it unlikely that either Movie Noah or Bible Noah would come to this conclusion; I think Noah understood humanity’s role as caretakers of the new world, in spite of our fallenness. Still, this creative choice did succeed in conveying the truth that God’s calling is not always clear, that we humans sometimes misinterpret His will or jump to misguided conclusions—and the result is conflict. So again, I understand the creative choice, but I can think of “truer” ways to accomplish the same purpose.
Truth and creativity
I find it really interesting that the Noah website posts a disclaimer of sorts about the artistic license they’ve taken with the story (see above). It’s a well-worded disclaimer. And it’s quite possible that reading it ahead of time did help adjust my expectations so that I could truly enjoy a very creative movie.
Overall, I found Noah to be more creative and more truthful than Son of God. And that’s the mark of a good story.