Noah First Impressions: You Should See It

I saw Noah a few nights ago, and my thoughts are still percolating. In a good way. I had a friend who said he’d seen it four days ago and was still angry; it’s been two days for me, and I’m still excited, and can’t get my thoughts straight enough for a full review. I don’t know where to begin for that, honestly, so I’ll begin by giving my first impressions and answer some of the issues and controversy.

1. The Medium of Film

I used to be a purist – that guy who always sees the movie version of his favourite novels, and then picks apart all of the “inaccuracies.” What I wanted was for someone to make the movie that plays in my head when I read; oddly enough, nobody ever seems to get it quite right! This happens for two reasons: first, because nobody can read my mind (and nobody makes a movie just for me), and second, because a movie just isn’t a book. I’ll give examples from Tolkien movies to help make my point.

First, purists (and I say this with fondness, as a former purist myself), often the biggest reason that the movie is wrong is YOU. We all read a story in a unique way, and imagine the characters and events slightly differently, and there’s no way that a filmmaker could make your version of the story even if they wanted to. This is bad for much-beloved modern classics like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but it’s much, much worse for a millennia-old religious text like the Bible. We form entire communities around certain readings of the text (and have schisms over them!), so when something doesn’t seem right with the text it might be insulting or appear to be an attack on our very group identity. I’ve seen and heard about many reviews of Noah that implied just that, including this one shared by my angry friend: “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” The only way I can see that making any sense is because certain expectations were not met; personally, I found it to be the most honest depiction of that text that I’ve ever seen, and would apply the quote above to all of the watered-down (no pun intended) flannel-graph versions I’ve been told all my life. The version of the text that Evangelical Christians were expecting to see couldn’t have been made by these people: the writers of Noah were both (from what I can tell) from Jewish backgrounds, and they read the story differently. They’re not inside our Evangelical heads, and they don’t have to be – they have more claim to this story than we do.

Second, the medium of film requires different things to stay interesting than a book does. For most book adaptations, the text of the book is simply far too long for a movie, which is why we end up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It’s also why purists tend to be upset about movie adaptations the most: things are missing in the movie, sometimes multiple characters are collapsed into one, sometimes they’re missing altogether. It took me years to admit it, but a Fellowship of the Ring movie with Tom Bombadil in it would have been at least an hour too long, and dead boring. Tom Bombadil worked in the book, but it was too much of an aside to waste screen time on it, and Peter Jackson was smart to cut it.

The problem with recent film adaptations is the opposite though: the book is much smaller than a full movie treatment would make it, so the filmmaker has space to flesh out the story with what some people think are inaccurate additions. In The Hobbit, for example, we see three films made out of a single, relatively short book, and full of additions. The additions, however, were taking from Tolkien’s appendices and other books set in Middle Earth. It may seem like a money-grab to have Legolas in a Hobbit movie (he wasn’t in that book), but it makes perfect sense given who his character is, and while Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and created Legolas for his later books, the film was made in hindsight and can incorporate him. Knowing what we know about who Legolas is, it would have been very odd for him not to be in the film! A very similar argument can be made forĀ Noah: many Christians appear to be upset about the additions, such as the Watchers (rock monsters) and a magic-wielding Methuselah, but we need to be aware that Genesis is not the only ancient text written about this story. Genesis is a very short and bare-bones description of events – the Bible equivalent of a montage – and needs to be fleshed out in order to make a good film; the best way to be true to the text is to flesh it out using the other ancient texts that were written to do exactly that.

All that to say that the writers of Noah did an incredible job of remaining true to the source material – they just used the supplemental material to make it a richer film. Purists will never be satisfied with a film version of their book, and Evangelical Christians are purists with the conviction of hundreds of years of doctrine behind them! Sorry folks, if you’re a purist on this film, you’re really missing out!

2. Themes

For a movie about a global flood, Noah was surprisingly deep…

Seriously though, the depth of this film was absolutely incredible. As I said above, the text in Genesis is pretty bare-bones, but the thematic depth of the Genesis text is incredibly deep. Genesis 1-11 is arguably the most theologically and thematically dense text in the Bible, which also means that it’s probably the most thematically dense text ever written. I found that the film not only faithfully presented the themes of the text, but it enriched them.

I had the privilege of watching Noah with Old Testament scholar Dr. Lissa Wray Beal, who noted afterward that she prefers to read the text because she’s able to read it on a very deep level, but it’s written in such a way that there are many levels that it can be read on; she felt like the film submerged the audience to a deeper level, but lacked the layers that are present in the text. Simply put, though, not everyone reads the text as well as Lissa! I’ve never read the Noah text at this level of depth before, but I certainly will now, and it’s because the film took me there. What would it be like to sit inside the ark and hear the screams of the last humans slowly drowning outside? Suddenly Noah’s drunkenness at the end of his narrative makes perfect sense, and the flannel-graph images of happy animals on a boat seems sacrilegious. I was so impressed with how they portrayed the themes that are in the text.

When I say that they enriched the themes that are in the text, I don’t mean to say that they somehow made the Bible better. The Bible doesn’t need to be “improved upon”, and that’s not what I mean. But the task of adapting an old text into a new film is not just to present the old text, but to do so in a way that makes that text speak to today’s audience. In my opinion, they nailed it.

a) Environmental Themes and Dominion

Genesis is about creation and re-creation, and the theme of environmentalism is definitely present in the original text, but their portrayal of the world Noah lives in makes that theme pop out at us and convict us. It’s wonderfully prophetic.

Adam & Eve weren’t just the first humans, they were the first gardeners. One of the core themes of this film is the different interpretations of what the word “dominion” means. Noah is a steward of the earth, a protector of “the innocent” (animals), and sees his role of stewardship and his exercise of dominion to be simply doing what God commands him and respecting everything that God has made. Tubal-Cain, Noah’s foil (and ours!), sees dominion as ownership and rights, and uses the notion to justify depleting the earth of all of its resources. Both Noah and Tubal-Cain take their theology from Genesis, and Tubal-Cain directly quotes Genesis at times (but then again, so did Satan when he tempted Jesus!). I don’t doubt that this makes a lot of conservative Christians uncomfortable, as it sounds quite similar to Calvin’s take: “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of men” (Commentary on Psalm 8, quoted in T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man, 23). We’ve used this kind of theology to justify things like the industrial revolution and nearly every environmental compromise since. We’ve come a long way from being gardeners.

So have the humans in Noah. The world Noah lives in is already post-apocalyptic: the human race developed an industrial society, exploited the earth’s resources until every tree is cut down and every mine is depleted, and have reverted to a pre-industrial society by necessity. There are ruins on the landscape: old metal pipes from industrial sites, mechanical parts, welder’s masks. It puts the entire destruction of the earth in a new perspective: God is not destroying a good world because of bad people, he’s finishing off the already dead world that those bad people have killed. This perspective is not only fascinating (and I don’t think it’s in any way untrue to the text), but it makes the story connect to us very closely by taking a theme that’s implied in a millennia-old text and pushing it in our faces. Absolutely brilliant.

b) Creation, and Growing Up

Another central theme of this film is coming of age. This is crucial, so watch for it. Dr. Wray Beal pointed this out at coffee afterward, and we all agreed that it was central. There are several scenes showing a coming-of-age ritual, and this forms the skeleton of the film, which is ultimately about the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. Have we grown up enough to handle the responsibility that God has granted us? What does it mean to “be a man” if not this?

The rest of creation is depicted as having come of age, of having developed to maturity. This may be one of the more controversial elements for some Christians: there’s a breathtakingly beautiful time-lapse depiction of the creation of the world, from nothingness to the universe to the earth to a single cell in the ocean to mammals on land. It’s a stop-motion view of evolution, and it is absolutely beautiful. Even if you’re a creationist, please enjoy the beauty of this scene, and note what it implies: all of the rest of creation has developed into a state of harmony, and harmony implies maturity. Humanity is created special (as beings of light, very similar to the depiction of the angels), but doesn’t find this harmony, and the film is about wrestling with the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. This lack of maturity is shown in how humanity has developed into an industrial society, and then regressed to a very brutish state of survival of the fittest, all within ten generations (though at 700-900 years per generation, it’s a long time!).

c) The Fall, Human Depravity, and the Silence of God

One of the things that struck me the most is how different Noah and Tubal-Cain are from each other, and yet how similar they are. They both quote Genesis (which of course wasn’t written, but the theology of both is on a level), they both acknowledge that they are made in God’s image (though I don’t know if Noah says it outright, but Tubal-Cain says it repeatedly), and they both acknowledge that they’re more or less the same. And they both cry out to God, and get no apparent answer. How realistic.

I can definitely relate, and I think we all can. For that reason, I was very impressed with the silence of God through most of the movie. I think that we Christians would love to see more theophany, especially us Evangelical Christians, for whom God’s nearness and personal interaction with us is a central tenet. But God having an audible voice, or the presence of more miracles, would have cheesed it up and made it more difficult to relate to the film, even if it would have made us feel better. We shouldn’t feel better: this is a dark film about human sinfulness and grim justice. God’s presence is felt, but not heard, and only seen out of the corner of Noah’s eye. When we see God, we see him in Noah, and in Methuselah: in their faith, in their obedience, and even in Noah’s grief and turmoil. I’ve heard that some Christians were upset with how God was portrayed, but I think anything more direct would have been almost blasphemous, and certainly would have ruined the tension, turmoil, and questioning tone that makes the film one that we can relate to.

3. Conclusion: see it.

I’ve already written 3x more than I intended tonight, and it’s late, and a full treatment of this film would take a book or course in itself, so I’ll simply say “Go see it.” See it with eyes of faith. See it as a learning experience (because unless you want to read the hundreds of chapters of the books of Enoch, you probably won’t see the other elements of this story anywhere else, and they’re worth seeing!). See it as a work of art from a master filmmaker, with great performances from a stellar cast. See it as a fun movie, with action scenes and rock monsters and depression and joy and everything in between. But please, don’t let your expectations or purist tendencies ruin it for you.