First Reaction to Noah, the Movie

Caution:  My discussion below will some of the plot developments.

The first thing to say about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that it is a captivating movie.  When I first heard a Noah movie was coming several months ago I was surprised and did not think anyone could make a movie about Noah that would interest me.  The biblical story has little drama, but movie is surprisingly suspenseful. Two types of elements in the film make suspense possible.

First, Aronofsky adds elements to the story, often filling in gaps of the biblical story and expanding upon ideas at which the biblical text only hints.  The biblical story contains no other characters besides Noah and seven members of his family and the other family members never do anything.  The four female characters do not even have names.  Noah himself is a flat character in the Bible.  Before and during the flood Genesis tells us nothing other than God chose him and he followed God’s directions.  The movie develops the characters extensively, especially Noah, so that we know his thoughts, fears, an motivations.  Genesis 6:11 tells us that “the earth was filled with violence,” but does not portray that world.  The movie shows its audience that world in considerable detail and depicts the kind of people Noah and his family have to be to survive in it.

The second, and most controversial, kind of adaptation Aronofsky has made is to change elements of the story, so that they are different from the Genesis account.  The best defense for changing the story is the recognition that ancient Israel had at least two different flood stories, now woven together in Genesis 6-8 (anyone who has not read those three chapters straight through should try it now in order to recognize their incoherence),  and other ancient cultures around Israel had different versions of the story.  There is no single “correct” version, each raising different issues and ask ing different questions.  In the movie, only one of Noah’s sons, Shem, has a wife on the ark, and the whole family thinks she is incapable of having children.  Noah thus becomes convinced that God’s intention in the flood really is to destroy all of humanity, and that his only purpose is to insure the survival of the animals.

The changes in the story allow the movie to ask two questions that the biblical story does not, and the movie is helpful to me because they are exactly the kinds of question I want to explore.

1) How does the purpose of God combine with our own attempts to understand the world and figure out how to work in it?  Russell Crowe’s character struggles to understand and to do what he thinks God wants.  Sometimes he gets it right and sometimes he misunderstands.  Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he fails, but he is never just the simple divine mechanism of Genesis 6-8.

2) What would be the impact on a person of doing something like God commanded Noah to do, and what would be the impact on his family?  Powerful and influential people in our world often identify divine causes, and those causes shape their lives and the lives of many others.  Who gets to decide the divine purpose and who suffers or benefits from those decisions?

My intent is to write two more posts on the movie in the coming days, one on the imaginative developments that I liked and one on those that I did not like.

Likes:  The use of the “Watcher” characters, only mentioned briefly in the Bible in Genesis 6:1-2, the development of Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather who the Bible indicates, tantalizingly, died in the flood – do the arithmetic), the appearance of Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Noah in Genesis 4:22, who represents a different way of understanding God in the movie.

Dislikes: The cast-list indicated that Noah’s wife is Naameh, which would make her the sister of Tubal-Cain, but the movie never uses her name and never hints at the brother-sister relationship.  The one biblical scene that hints at Noah’s struggle and torment is his drunkenness after the flood that results in conflict with his son, Ham, but the movie handles this scene in an awkward and confusing way that dodges its difficulties.


2 thoughts on “First Reaction to Noah, the Movie

  1. cmatisse

    This reply has some spoilers.
    I like this. You, at least, know what you’re talking about. And, you know a lot more than I do about the Biblical account.
    All I remember of the Noah story from my childhood is that he built an ark to save the animals and all were in pairs, including Noah and his wife, his sons and their wives. Somehow I have a memory that the youngest son was too young to be married, but he still had a girl friend along, who he would partner with in later years. The other part of the story I remember is that, after the flood waters receded, the sons went off in different directions to re-populate the world – with Ham going north (the Caucasus mountain area?) to start the “white” race, Shem (staying in or) going east to start the Semite race, and Japheth heading south to start the Negro race. I grew up never questioning the hows and whys of this story, though, as an adult, I realized that Bible stories are stories and not actual events.
    It doesn’t bother me that the movie changed what we know of the story. I have seen movies that ruined a story from a book I’d read. I have also seen (at least one) movie remake that improved greatly on the first movie and even the story as originally written, by thoughtfully adding to the story as well as changing the storyline to make more sense while retaining the meaning of the original story. I think this retelling of the Noah story makes Noah more human, and also creates a vivid visual experience. I enjoy a storyline that pushes to the forefront a human reaction to a situation to make me think about something in a new way. It makes the well-known story much more interesting and entertaining. If this provokes a discussion like ours, so much the better.
    On the face of them, I like your two questions. But when I think about them and try to answer, I have problems.
    “How does the purpose of God combine with …” our understanding of the world and our actions in it.
    This presumes we know what the purpose of God is. Perhaps it is our purpose to question our own beliefs and, by talking and discussing with each other, grow to be better people. I think this is one of the points made by this movie.
    Within your question you mention the film Noah’s struggle. I don’t think he was struggling at all; he was just like the biblical Noah. Up until he tried to kill the baby – and failed. I think he accepted God’s plan straight off—when the flower magically bloomed. I disagree with you when you say that one of the changes to the original story – that being only Shem having a wife, and she not able to have children—is what convinces Noah that God’s intention is to destroy all humans and save only animals. I would say that the movie suggests that Noah became convinced after he “saw himself” while he was looking for Ham among the “men.” Further, I think that, while Noah makes it clear to the others at that point in the movie, I think that Noah believed this was God’s intention long before this point in the film, even before Shem took Ila as his wife. I think he already “knew” it when he agreed to rescue Ila. Perhaps even he didn’t know he knew it then, but that makes him even more human. This presumes that I knew he knew it then (!) but there is evidence in the film. Why else would Noah have hesitated to save Ila? And, though Naameh simply remarked on Ila’s tragic injury in that scene, it did seem to affect Noah’s decision to save her.
    Your second question about the impact on humans resulting from a person’s doing something that God commanded is intriguing. But isn’t this an age-old question? Either God commands us every moment of every day or he created us and then left us on our own. Though it is a good question, and provokes some good discussions.
    I look forward to your other posts about this movie. I hope you mention Ham, who I found to be just as interesting as Noah in this re-telling. I’ve got lots of musings on his actions. Did you notice that Naameh was digging with her hands at the beginning of the movie, but using a hoe at the end? Did Ham turn a sword into a ploughshare?

    1. Mark McEntire Post author

      Thanks for your responses. The one thing incorrect about your recollections is that Ham is the one connected with Africa. Among his “sons” in Genesis 10 are Egypt, Cush, and Put, regions associated with Africa. Of course the main thing those texts are trying to do is put ethnic distance between the Israelites and the Canaanites. My new post today addresses the questions about Ham, particulalry the insidious interpretations of the “cursing of Canaan.”


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