Noah vs. Son of God: The Twin Pitfalls of Biblical Films

Can a story from scripture ever be satisfying as a mass-market Hollywood blockbuster?
Paramount

“The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional.” This line, tucked among Noah’s credits in tiny, swirling, Tolkien-esque script, captures something very important about the movie: It was intended as art, not evangelism.

Critics may have dubbed 2014 “the year of the Bible” in Hollywood, but it’s a mistake to group every Biblical flick into one trend: Not all movies that crib their plotlines from the two testaments are alike. In fact, the biggest Biblical hits so far this year, February’s Son of God and last week’s Noah, don’t have much in common at all, other than their roots in the good book. While Son of God is an earnest story of heaven, miracles, and the salvation of the soul, Noah is a human drama, crafting a fantasy-like world into a parable about how people should act.

On the surface, the films do have one thing in common: magic. Both take place in pre-modern, mystical eras; God makes his presence known as floods sweep the earth, water becomes wine, and barren women give birth. Science doesn’t reign here—miracles do.

Where the two films diverge is intention. Son of God was created by the producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, who starred in the series Touched by an Angel for a decade. The movie was adapted from a History Channel series called The Bible, which the couple created because they were “tired of cursing the darkness” and “wanted to shine a light.” In other words, their purpose was to proselytize.

In Noah, on the other hand, director Darren Aronofsky draws on the epic quality of the Book of Genesis much in the same way Peter Jackson did with Lord of Rings. Aronofsky didn’t set out to share a story about God; it’s just that a story about God happened to be good material for a movie.

Because Son of God was intended as an literal re-telling of one of the world’s most common stories, it comes off as straightforward and a little unsophisticated. The apostles are a bit caricatured—when one of them expresses skepticism about Jesus’s wishes, Mary Magdalene chastises him: “Thomas, quit doubting!” Judas always lurks toward the back of the pack, and Matthew the tax collector wears a slightly sinister-looking turban as if to remind us of his usurious days. Jesus himself wavers between expressions of benevolence, self-satisfaction, and open-mouthed outrage at God’s will—he wasn’t exactly likeable, but he did seem like he actually saw himself a prophet. And even though the movie is peppered with fantastical events—the unlikely proliferation of fishes and loaves, Jesus rising from the dead, etc.—there’s nothing fantastic about the setting or costumes or cinematography. The overall effect is compelling, but also alienating. If a viewer isn’t already convinced of the divinity of Christ and doesn’t want to be, it’s unclear how he or she is supposed to relate to this piece of art.

Noah, on the other hand, is clearly meant to challenge and entertain. The two most gripping plot points are actually invented for the film: First, the descendants of Cain attack Noah in an attempt to take over his ark, setting up a metaphorical battle between the men who chose to abuse the earth and the men who chose to treat it with care. Then, Noah intuits a message from the Creator that his family is not supposed to survive the flood—they are being punished for the sins of man. When Noah’s son, Shem, gets his common-law wife pregnant, Noah vows to kill the babies if they are girls, because then they could reproduce in defiance of the Creator’s will. Importantly, these are primarily human struggles, not divine ones: They’re about how people should seek to live on earth, not how their souls relate to the heavens.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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