That “Barton Fink Feeling” and the Fiery Furnace: The Book of Daniel and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink

by Matt Stefon


1. All biblical quotations, except when otherwise noted, will be from the New Revised Standard Version, The HarperCollins Study Bible.

2. Quotations from Joel and Ethan Coen’s screenplay for Barton Fink are from the version available online at (Note: The “Daily Script” website misspells the Coens’ surname as “Cohen.”)

3. The screenplay uses a translation of the Bible different from the NRSV.

4. See James Mottram, The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind, Brassey’s, 2002.

5. Barry Laga, “Decapitated Spectators: Barton Fink, (Post)History, and Cinematic Pleasure,” Postmodernism in the Cinema, Ed. Cristina Degli-Espositi, New York: Berghahn Books, 1999, 201. Laga’s concern with the Coens’ skewering of historical references is irrelevant to my study of the Coens’ use of Daniel.

6. Michael Dunne, “Barton Fink, Intertextuality, and the (almost) Unbearable Richness of Viewing,” Originally published in Literature Film Quarterly (2000), available at: Dunne’s argument rests upon his application of Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” (Image, Music, Text 1957) as a lens for viewing the Coens’ constant referencing not only of movies but of novels. I do not have room here to approach this interpretation, but a buried contention of mine is that, rather than supporting Barthes’s thesis that the “transcendent” “Author” is dead and that there are “scriptors” who arrange language, tropes, and references that individual audience members interpret, this film in particular is a testament by the Coens that the “Author” is (or “Authors are”) very much alive. Their use of Daniel and their understanding of its function as an apocalyptic text demonstrates this.

7. The conflagration at the movie’s climax, which will be discussed below. For the story of the “fiery furnace,” see Daniel 3:19 ff.

8. I borrow the concept of an “apocalyptic cure” from John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, Second Edition. The term “apocalyptic cure,” however, comes from a graduate seminar I took in the fall 2006 semester at Boston University with James C. Walters in “Apocalyptic Literature.”

9. See Collins 110.

10. The respective Italian and German surnames of the bigoted police detectives, for example, or Barton’s own overtly “Jewish” last name.

11. See Ebert’s review at (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 23 August 1991. The Coens themselves remarked that such a grand apocalypse was the “only” way, given the “great apocalypse the world was heading toward,” to end the movie. See Mottram.

12. Aron Pinker, “A Dream of a Dream in Daniel 2,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, 33:4 (2005), 235. Pinker’s conjectures that Nebuchadnezzar’s reticence “perhaps indicate[s] that he is not in possession of the particulars of his own dream.” This is, I think, a moot point at best—and it is made in the service of providing a more rational approach to how wise Daniel could have pieced together and discerned rationally the content of the dream.

13. Jack N. Lawson, “’The God Who Reveals Secrets’: The Mesopotamian Background to Daniel 2:47,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 74 (1997), 64.

14. Collins 91-92.

15. Collins 91.

16. I introduce this as an aside: Lipnick lists the Bible as something that cannot contribute to Barton’s screenplay.

17. Jorn K. Bramann, review of Barton Fink. Originally printed in The Educating Rita Workboook (2004). Reprinted in The Philosophical Forum, available at:

18. Bramann.

19. Lawson 63. I must be fair and note that Lawson at first points out that these manuals were divinely inspired. But Daniel’s direct gift of a vision from God that interprets the dream and resolves the crisis clearly trumps their efficacy and solves the mystery of who clearly has God’s favor.

20. In a 1991 interview with Jim Emerson, the Coens note that Barton Fink is from the “Person Alone in the Room” genre of film. The Coen Brothers: Interviews, Ed. William Rodney Allen, Jackson: U. of Mississippi, 2006, 56.

21. R. Barton Palmer, Joel and Ethan Coen, 125.

22. Eddie Robson, Coen Brothers: Virgin Film, 107.

23. Quoted in John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, Second Edition, 10.

24. Collins 99.

25. I am assuming only for the sake of drawing a parallel between the two characters that a “historical” Daniel existed, let alone that the author of Daniel was the “historical” Daniel.

26. Screenplay; Laga 197.

27. Palmer 125.

28. Bramann provides a brief interpretation of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

29. See note 10 above.

30. Collins 106.

31. Collins 103.

32. Collins 280.

33. Collins 280.

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