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.