If you want someone to tell a good story, then Tony Jordan is your man. Having left school with no qualifications, he has risen to become television’s number one screen writer through his work on Eastenders, Minder, Life on Mars and a host of other hits. He always had a faith of some sorts, but it was in 2010 when writing The Nativity for the BBC that something changed; he became convinced that Jesus who was born in this way is the Son of God and that the Nativity story is a ‘true story’ and a ‘thing of beauty’.
The programme was so well received that the BBC gave Jordan a blank cheque to do any other biblical story he wanted, and for some reason he chose Noah. Having waited for the response to Darren Aronofsky’s film of Noah to die down, he went to work and the result was shown last night on BBC 1.
As I watched, I had two immediate responses. The first was that it was very well done—the cinematography was very effective, and the characters portrayed with sympathy and humour. The opening scenes, where Noah’s sons are taking time off when caught by their father, and he switches from an autocratic tyrant to someone who wants to have fun with his children, was nicely done at several levels—catching the viewer off guard whilst also undermining preconceptions of what it means to be religious, and a refreshing contrast to Russell Crowe’s rather inhuman portrayal of Noah in the earlier film.
But the second response followed quickly on: this was not a historically accurate production. Noah and his wife Emmie have a post-1960s laissez faire attitude to raising their children, completely anachronistic for bronze-age culture. They are isolated from other communities in their nuclear family, which seems highly implausible. They wear trousers, and use iron implements to shape wood for the ark which looks suspiciously like it was just fetched from the local B and Q. And Noah’s youngest son Kenan (borrowed from the Quran’s version of the story) has a suspiciously modern hair cut.
Even more jarring (if that is the right word) is the nature of the discussion and debate. Noah’s argument with the sinful city-dwellers is cast as a conflict between faith and atheism—whether there is a god and whether we can know one way or another. In context of course, the story of Noah in Genesis 6–9 has a more interfaith dimension to it, in that it is the God of what becomes the Hebrew scriptures that people are ignoring, rather than denying the existence of any deity. At first, the repeated references to ‘science’ seem very strange—until you realise what Jordan is doing.
His interest was never going to be in unearthing the historical context of the story; what is most interesting to him is the human dynamic that is either there or lies behind the story, and is what the story is implicitly (or explicitly) about. As the Church Times preview highlighted:
Like the previous work, it’s a typically Jordan film: kitchen-sink modern in approach but traditional in setting. The characters use 2015 English but wear the swords-and-sandals garb of the standard biblical epic. There are dramatic embellishments – notably a son who threatens not to board the boat – yet the plot is broadly sympathetic to the account in Genesis.
I think in fact Jordan is being more than ‘broadly sympathetic’; he is drawing out an important perspective on the story. he was rather scornful of the Aronofsky epic, for just this reason:
I didn’t watch Aronofsky’s Noah, until we had finished shooting The Ark because I didn’t want to be influenced by it in any way, but as soon as we were locked I went to see it. If I’m honest, I was pretty relieved, it wasn’t great, but more importantly it had nothing to do with the story of Noah or certainly not the story of Noah that we were telling.
Instead, Jordan is focussing on the central issue of what it means to have faith in God when those around you don’t, or reject you because of it:
To Jordan’s mind, the real drama in the Noah story isn’t the spectacle, but the moral question that precedes it: what happens when an ordinary man receives a message no one wants to hear? He framed it in typically down-home terms. “I’m sure my wife and six kids love me, but if I started building a boat in the garden, and said God told me everyone was going to die, they’d get me committed.”
Or in his own words:
I decided to make it a story about faith. One man’s faith in his God, a wife’s faith in her husband and children’s faith in their Father. What leapt out at me, as a reason to revisit the story, is how a family would react if the Dad suddenly announced he was going to build a big boat in the desert. This was my starting point because it felt real and grounded and took the story back to what I thought it was, rather than what it had become, the whole Noah’s Ark brand, animals coming in two by two was more akin to Peppa Pig than a story of God cleansing the earth of sinful mankind.
In taking this approach, Jordan is not only rejecting the free adaptation of Aronofsky; he is also rejecting the literalism of much modern retelling of the story, including its use as a Sunday-school classic. Originally, Jordan wanted to omit both the animals and the flood itself, suggesting the programme ended with a shot of a single drop of rain on Noah’s hand. That, of course, would have disappointed those familiar with the story, and even the current form has provoked controversy. But focussing on the literal events of the story, as we often do, can actually mean missing its symbolic significance, and its relevance for contemporary readers. I have yet to encounter a Sunday-school wall display that includes the rotting corpses of the people who died alongside the happy animals tripping out of the ark as the sun shines and the rainbow glows.
What Jordan actually does in the film is make Noah an ‘everyman‘ of faith. The programme starts and ends with Noah contemplating the dust that falls through his fingers, echoing the creation of Adam from the earth and the word that it is to dust he shall return after eating the forbidden fruit. Like Abraham in Genesis 18, he questions the justice of destroying a people when there might be some righteous among them. And like Abraham, he offers hospitality to strangers who come to the ark, an interesting reworking of the story to make the ark an inclusive invitation rather than an exclusive shutting out. Noah preaches in the city after the manner of Jonah in Nineveh (though with a different result), and the location of sin in the city has echoes of the tower of Babel, which follows the story of Noah in Genesis. Like Elijah, he waits for the rain, and at first only sees a cloud ‘as big as a man’s hand’ (1 Kings 18.44). Noah’s son acts like the prodigal of Luke 15, and there was even a hint of those who turned away from Jesus in John 6 as Noah’s sons turn away from him one by one.
In retelling biblical stories, we always face this fundamental challenge. The social, historical and cultural context of the biblical narrative is often a long way from the context of the contemporary reader. So where do you pitch your retelling? Do you place it near the context of the original story? That might work well in terms of authenticity, but it means asking your viewers to travel a long way to a place with which they are unfamiliar, and that journey itself can be a massive distraction. Or do you, like Jordan, pull the ancient story more closely to present questions and concerns? In this approach, you ask the viewer to do less work and, hopefully, this means they are less distracted by the distance and can make connections with what they see.
It seems to me that this has been the right approach; can we complain too much about any retelling of a biblical story which actually makes it engaging? Tony Jordan, from his wide experience of telling stories, is helping us rediscover not just the power of story itself, but how enthralling the biblical stories are. I for one will be looking forward to his next retellings.
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