Creativity and truth: a review of Noah and Son of God

From “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.”

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 GodSon 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.

Son of GodFor 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.

Son of GodSo 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.

Hollywood JesusCasting Jesus differently would have been an immediate way to show some creativity and be more literal. Why not choose a guy who looks Jewish (Matthew 1)? And who’s somewhat ugly (Isaiah 53:2)?

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.Noah

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.Noah

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.

Your thoughts?

19 thoughts on “Creativity and truth: a review of <em>Noah</em> and <em>Son of God</em>”

  1. Thanks for the review. I have not yet seen these movies. I will be anxious to read your review of “God is Not Dead”, which I have seen.

  2. I love excellence in effort to proclaim His Story, and always appreciate creative and dramatic, for emphasis. Even when minor things are changed to do it. Hate cheesy, cheap…….
    But then I’m one who hears God’s voice in a love song, and portrayal of his truth in many well done “secular” movies as well. Had heard Noah’s ark was twisting God’s truth…. But now that I’ve read your interesting analysis, I’m in. Sounds like a well made film.

    • I hope you’ll go see it and share your opinion. I would liken many of the creative choices in “Noah” to the artistic choices you make in your paintings—are they “literal” depictions of God/Jesus/the church? Not always. But are they “true”? Absolutely.

  3. Well done! You said it more concisely and with more panache than I might have said it. I especially appreciate your balanced view of literal vs, creative. I haven’t seen either movie, but concerning “Noah”, I read somewhere that the movie story draws from midrash sources well as Bible . Midrash is fascinating for the creative way it fills in the gaps in Bible stories. I’m guessing that “Son of God” also drew from apocryphal Jesus stories (there are many).

    • Thank you, William! Your use of the word panache may just be my top positive for today! :) People who have grown up with the Bible (myself included) sometimes forget that we hear those stories through our own cultural filters—and our filters are often subject to European influences more than Middle Eastern ones. These influences aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but I think it can be helpful to separate them from the actual truth (or truths) the story is trying to convey.

  4. Another career op for you Mel…movie critic. You covered ever aspect of the film.
    I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was expecting that it would be “cheezy” along the lines of the Charlton Heston and the 10 Commandments and was pleasantly surprised that this movie was engaging and exciting…knowing the Biblical story I thought I would know what was going to happen from one scene to the next but it was a story after all loosely based on the Bible story and accepting that made it more enjoyable. the cinematography was great. the Watchers were fascinating…even the battle scene was quite exciting. I recommend it as an entertainment venture, nothing more.

    • I think the very fact that the movie has inspired thoughtful dialogue is a tribute to its success. I didn’t have these conversations after Son of God. I looked up verses I hadn’t read in a while; I asked questions; I disagreed with some people and agreed with others. Noah got me excited about the Bible story in a way that no other “Christian movie” has.

  5. I saw God is Not Dead and it is your typical cheesy, cliche’d, poorly written Christian movie. It is an entertaining hour and a half for the already churched – but for the non-believer – it’s embarrassing.

    • Wow, Meridee, how do you really feel? Seriously, thanks for joining the conversation. Could I ask if you are speaking as a non-believer or someone who’s already churched? One of the questions I have about that movie is which demographic it’s attracting. I’m also interested in what your opinion is of Noah, which seems quite different from God is Not Dead.

      • I’m speaking as a believer – for over 40 years. I have NOT seen Noah or the other one mentioned.

  6. I still saw Noah as being obedient to the Creator in this movie. For me the end of the movie was about love, and new life. I did not remember the Nephilites ever being mentioned until I read Genesis 6 again after seeing the movie. I don’t possess the imagination to see the Nephilites as rock type beings who were not happy with humans as well if that is who they were supposed to be.

    • My initial reaction to “the Watchers” (or Nephilim) was something like, “Oh boy, this is a little weird.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a creative depiction this was. The Nephilim are mentioned only twice in the Bible, and it’s not entirely clear whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys.” I thought Noah did a nice job of presenting a story about them that explains that ambiguity. I also was intrigued by how the movie made these fallen angels characters that we really could sympathize with—true, they disobeyed God, but they did so with good intentions, and couldn’t the same often be said of us?

      I’m actually working on another blog post just about the Nephilim in Noah because I found them so intriguing!

    • Genesis 6:4 says, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” That makes them sound powerful, and “heroes” implies they were good. But in the King James Bible, they are called “mighty men” rather than “heroes,” which could be good or bad.

      Numbers 13:33 says, “We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” So apparently they were very large, and this verse could be interpreted to mean they should be feared. The King James version of this verse uses the word “giants” instead of “Nephilim.”

      So I think Noah does a nice job of interpreting the Watchers to be large, powerful beings who had good intentions. And I find it believable that they became more fearsome after humans turned against them. No, the Bible doesn’t specifically say this, but I think that storyline is a creative way to share some truths about God, angels, people, sin, and righteousness.

  7. I truly believe that y’all have no idea of what you are talking about, surely y’all haven’t read the bible and want to change the truth to your own convenience NO-ONE can change the scriptures just to please viewers, advice for y’all get yourself informed first

    • Hi Carlos! Thanks for stopping by. Actually I am quite familiar with the Bible, and that’s one of the reasons I was so pleased with how the movie portrayed the Noah story. There were a couple choices I didn’t agree with, which I explained above. What was it, specifically, that you didn’t like?

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