Though not a Christian myself, I have a sneaking sympathy for my Christian friends who are baffled by and angry about the plot liberties taken by the Darren Aronofsky movie Noah
(in theaters as I write this, probably won’t be by the time you read it). Okay, it’s more than sneaking. I may not have a religious dog in the race, but there’s an identity problem inherent in this project. If you change the story enough, who is this “Noah” you’re talking about?
That said, there’s nothing wrong with playing around with stories from Christian tradition in order to make a point. There aren’t many Christians who mind the angle C.S. Lewis took on the story of the Passion in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
. Readers of all ages and denominations have loved this book for decades. I count myself a huge fan.
Of course, part of its success may stem from the fact that Lewis did his work a little too well. I know I wasn’t the only young reader who devoured his magical tale but didn’t have a clue what it was really about. And thanks to Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
, I know I wasn’t the only young reader who felt “tricked” when she learned the truth. It was a little like making a new friend, inviting her to your house, having a wonderful time with her, accepting an invitation to her
house, and then having her try to sell you something. (And then, when you complained to your other friends, having them laugh and ask what you expected from someone who drives a pink Mary Kay car.)
I’m getting to the point, I promise. Point being that if you want to retell a Christian story and have any shot at mass appeal, you have to hold on to whatever was emotionally compelling in the original. Wander too far from that and you’ll lose your audience.
Making Noah a badass is okay, at least in theory; making him a jerk isn’t. (I’m basing this assessment of the movie on a long, long New Yorker
article I read. I think it would have been quicker to just go see the movie. But I digress.)
So: If you’re going to retell the story of the Garden of Eden, you can take Milton’s approach: sexy up the bad guy, and lean heavily on “You had paradise
! How could you blow it like that?”
Or you can take Lemony Snicket’s approach and wonder out loud just how great it would really be to live in the Garden of Eden.
I felt really guilty wondering this myself as a tiny Catholic tot. I knew it was supposed to be wonderful and all, but seriously? A garden? A garden with no books
? Count me out.
Snicket may have had the same thoughts as a child, but he
grew up to write a bestseller about them. The End
is the last book chronicling the adventures of the Baudelaire orphans. It takes them to paradise: an island far from the treacheries of the outside world, ruled by a seemingly benevolent, bearded old man named Ishmael.
Even if the evil Count Olaf hadn’t followed them, it’s likely the Baudelaires wouldn’t have lasted long on this island. Ishmael seems kind, and he insists that he doesn’t really rule the island. Everyone is free to do as they please. Ishmael never orders anyone to do anything. “I’m not going to force you,” he’ll say gently to someone who disagrees with him. And yet his wishes always prevail.
What Ishmael wishes is for nothing to change, ever. The food on the island may be boring, as are the clothes and chores. There may not be any books, or much in the way of entertainment. But to Ishmael, any change in the way the islanders have always done things is a step towards the destructive evils of the outside world.
The outside world is not so easily shut out, though, even when you’re on an island. Soon the Baudelaires must make some difficult decisions about good, evil, and what constitutes a meaningful existence. Does safety really equal paradise?
Though this book is called The End
, it’s really the beginning. Not for us, but for the Baudelaire orphans. After almost 13 volumes spent being chased around, they end at last in a place where they have the freedom to make up their own minds and choose the sort of lives they wish to live.
To me, that’s a happy ending.