AFTER SEEING A FIRST NIGHT SHOWING of the Hollywood film Noah, my favorite Russell Crowe movie with a large boat in it is still Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). There is a biblically-named cast of characters in Noah, as well as a flood and an ark with a menagerie. But the actual biblical story of Noah and the flood, told in four chapters of the book of Genesis, is not so much the basis or even the sole inspiration for the film. Rather, the Bible served as a deposit for the script-writers, director Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, to mine for iconic themes and symbols. What they ended up with is not a re-telling of Scripture, but an attempt at an epic fantasy story.
Unlike some Christians, this doesn’t especially upset me—it’s Hollywood, what did you expect? But the movie Noah doesn’t even work as story-telling. The standard for weaving iconic themes and sagas into a satisfying tale of Good versus Evil is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is epic fantasy done right (at least in the books). But presenting Noah as an action hero and the world’s first radical environmentalist just comes across as anachronistic propaganda. And overwrought acting and some awkward special effects devices make for some unintentionally humorous moments. Then, like the ark itself, the film just drifts to a vague and unsatisfying conclusion, which again bears only a superficial resemblance to the biblical story of Noah and the aftermath of the flood.
I am always both perplexed and amused when Hollywood screenwriters think they can improve on the plot and narrative of key Bible stories. Any time you turn literature into film a certain amount of narrative compression or expansion, dramatic license, and addition of conjectured details are necessary. Even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which hewed pretty close to the Gospels, introduced fictionalized dramatic devices to bring out the back story of the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. But preserving the essence of any story is crucial, especially the stories in the Bible. The biblical stories are compelling in their original form not only because they are true (and truth is always either stranger or more wonderful than fiction), but also because they are so deeply revealing of human nature. They tell us who we really are. That is the real stuff of all compelling drama, factual or fictional. Popular film and popular culture in general seldom seem to realize this.
MEANWHILE IN THE WILDS OF KENTUCKY — actually just a ways off the interstate—a different sort of Noah-themed popular entertainment venue is starting to take shape, called “Ark Encounter”. While there will be no rides, the colorfully illustrated plans for this theme park picture a Disney-esque layout, featuring a full-size reconstruction of the ark in front of a large lagoon-like water feature. Alongside the ark will be a children’s petting zoo, and more “attractions” are scheduled to be added in later construction phases, including an “extensive interactive children’s area, live entertainment, and many themed restaurants, creative food outposts, and shopping.” According to their website (http://arkencounter.com/faq/), this theme park will present the story of Noah and the flood in an “entertaining, educational, and immersive way.” Yes. They said immersive. This likely unintended double-entendre in an otherwise boiler-plate piece of ad copy highlights the jarring dissonance that occurs when you try to mix the shallowness of an entertainment ethic with the profound depth of the flood story (double-entendre intended).
The project organizers exuberantly claim that their ark theme park “will be an immersive [again!], historically themed experience for the whole family focused on having fun while learning about history.” I have no doubt that the folks at Ark Encounter will get right many of the historical and narrative details from the biblical account of Noah and the flood that the Hollywood movie gets wrong. Nor would I question that they have sincere motives. But somehow “fun for the whole family” does not seem the appropriate approach to God’s judgment of tragic human evil that is at the center of the flood story. Try to imagine a theme park about Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Black Plague, or Hiroshima. Neither will landscaped grounds, petting zoos, creative food outposts, and gift shops adequately convey the transcendent grace that is the divine counterbalance to the terrible judgment that the human race experiences.
POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT IS OFTEN A POOR VESSEL for conveying the full-bodied meaning of biblical narratives, a fact amply demonstrated by both the movie Noah and the Ark Encounter theme park. Much art, even truly great art, has an element of entertainment. This is especially true of the story-telling arts, whether literature, painting, or film-making. But popular entertainment, in so far and as much as it lowers art to the lowest common denominator, with the singular drive to make events and ideas as entertaining—diverting, enjoyable, amusing—to as many people as possible, inevitably pushes out, glosses over, or misdirects us from the most uncomfortable aspects of biblical stories.
As cultural genre, neither a historical exhibit nor a film is necessarily shallow. A Hollywood movie could be made that conveys the real meaning of Noah and the flood, though it can never be mere entertainment. The current Noah is not that movie. A historical exhibit could be constructed that faithfully portrays the significance and central focus of the story of Noah and the flood. I do not believe the projected Ark Encounter theme park will be that exhibit.
The biblical story of Noah and the flood is not really about the boat, and it is certainly not about a valiant action hero/radical environmentalist saving the planet. What is it about, then? (Next post: Part 2 – God and Humanity)