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?
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“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.

The film is also a rich visual and auditory experience. Even though the angels of the Bible, the Nephilim, are clunkily renamed “the Watchers” and reinterpreted as awkward rock creatures, their gravely movements and sounds are weirdly captivating. At unexpected moments, the booming, dark soundtrack dims to tense silence. Earth’s creation is animated in deep oranges and purples and greens, and Noah walks on endless, barren landscapes of apocalyptic-looking ash. And when the flood comes, there’s death, eerie with sounds of screams and crying and the smack of bodies against rock as the waters swell. We hear what it might sound like for the entire earth to die—no matter what you believe, that’s not something you’re likely to forget soon.

Yet, for all its creativity, Noah feels generic and ahistorical in a way that Son of God does not. The movie could have used any animistic, apocalyptic otherworld to explore its themes: How should humans treat the earth and its creatures? Is there a greater duty than duty to one’s family? What does it mean to “be a man” and take responsibility for the fate of others? Because the plotline is a mash-up of the Book of Genesis, The Two Towers, and The Shining, it skims over the central tension in the story of Noah’s ark: What kind of God destroys life in order to remake it? When the movie does briefly address this, it seems like a sneer: The villain, Tubal-Cain, mocks the idea that Noah would save animals but let children die. But Noah never questions his euphemistic “Creator.” The movie’s hero struggles in his relationship with his wife, his children, and his enemies, but he rarely wrestles with God.

This leaves us with two very different kinds Biblical art, both pop-culture misfits in their own way. Son of God starts with the assumption that its story is true, and tries to convey that truth. Noah starts with the assumption that an old story can be repurposed to satisfy a cultural hunger for drama and adventure and stunningly beautiful, imaginary worlds.

All of this hints at the unique challenge of making good Biblical films. Whether directors accept the text on its own merits or add their own creative spice, the end product will never be wholly satisfying for any audience. Believers might quibble with the presentation of facts in Son of God, while non-believers might find it hard to identify with the movie at all. On the other side of the spectrum, non-believers might be weirded out by the hint of Bible in Noah, while evangelicals have already expressed their disdain for the liberties Aronofsky took with the story. 

It’s also an open question whether totally earnest art is art at all. Noah takes an old, familiar story and turns it into something else entirely, adding moral conflicts, gripping plotlines, and an attention to the craft of filmmaking. Son of God does none of those things—it exists for one purpose, persuasion. In this way, it’s much more like propaganda than art: There’s no room for ambiguity, no invitation for viewers to bring their own experiences and understanding to bear.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make satisfying or interesting religious art—just look the work of Michelangelo and Dante and Chagall. But especially for directors hoping to make a mass-market Biblical hit, it seems almost impossible to avoid the twin pitfalls of being too dogmatic or too cavalier. For those who seek enlightenment, artistic, spiritual, or otherwise, neither of these films is a perfect fit: One seeks only to save the viewer’s soul, while the other doesn’t seem to think it’s worth contemplating the nature of the soul at all.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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