Note: Spoilers ahead, if that matters.
So I screened Noah this last week. If you’re part of the crowd that’s upset and angry about the film, or if you’re one that’s haughtily laughing it off as you scoff that “I preferred the book,” then let me be quite frank and upfront and let you know right away that I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I think it’s an excellent piece of cinema. There, I said it; and I really don’t mind if that’s enough for you to skip the rest of this post and disregard it. If you’re interested in hearing why I liked it, that’s cool too.
For those that are still here, let’s talk about this film. And I mean really talk about it, as a bold artistic endeavor, as an adaptation of Holy Scripture and all that entails, as entertainment, all of it. Let’s not just reduce this film to a two-columned chart of biblical/unbiblical and fool ourselves into thinking that doing that somehow allows us to immediately make a sweeping judgment about its worth. I wouldn’t really be worried about that happening if I hadn’t already heard it being written off in just that way by some people.
First of all, let’s talk about what Noah is not. It is not the version of the story that was told to you in Sunday school when you were 7 years old and were told of the destruction of the world through pleasant, brightly-colored flannel graphs that depicted Noah as a kindly old man with a staff herding about 20 or so animals into a comically tiny sailboat while everyone smiled and talked about how we need to follow God’s instructions even when we don’t know what they mean. (For what it’s worth, I’d argue that what we were taught as children is a far cry even from what the Bible itself says about Noah, let alone what Darren Aronofsky says about him, but that’s another discussion – if you don’t believe me, just try and find the verse in Genesis that talks about how all of Noah’s friends mocked him for building an ark when there was no rain. If your Sunday school was anything like mine, you distinctly remember that as being a crucial part of the story).
Let’s talk about adaptation for a moment. For those who walked out of the theater fuming about how inaccurate Noah was, how unbiblical and unfaithful to the original text it was, or how you would have preferred it if it “at least tried to stick to the original storyline”… what is it you think you’re going to get when you watch adaptations? And I’m talking about any and all adaptations, not just of Scripture. Nobody films an adaptation of a literary work using the text as their script. What would be the point? That’s not a film, that’s just an audio book with images. Adaptation is about taking a written story as a starting point to tell a visual story. It’s about digging into the text to explore the characters and the themes and messages, and then putting those on the screen in a way that can open our eyes a little wider and make us think and feel and wonder.
Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” does this, and does it well. He’s not here to tell the 3rd-5th Grade Kidz Class version of Noah. He’s here to take us deeper than we’ve probably ever gone before into a story where humanity became so depraved and corrupted and evil that God decided to kill them all. He’s here to show us what it’s really like to be the man God has chosen to save a tiny remnant of Creation while watching thousands die right in front of him. And he’s not afraid to make some changes, even some pretty major ones, to the plot in order to get his points across. That’s going to step on some toes, but it can also be intellectually challenging and revealing if we’re willing to take the trouble to deal with it.
I want to really quickly summarize (because there’s already a ton of in-depth content out there that’s really solid) some of what I was originally going to flesh out in detail as a response to some of the criticisms of the film that I’ve heard:
1. Stop complaining about the Rock People. It’s a really interesting twist on the Nephilim that provided some pretty thought-provoking dialogue about disobedience and forgiveness when it comes to the relationship between God, his angels, and his creation.
2. Stop trying to tell me about how this film is so completely and fundamentally unbiblical that you were just disgusted by it. The story is there, the themes are there, and I honestly think that those who are dismissing the entire film as being a laughable distortion of Scripture are just looking for things to dislike because they’d already decided it wasn’t going to be any good before they even watched it (if they watched it at all; most of the extreme negative opinions I’ve personally heard have come from people who admitted they haven’t even seen it). Did Aronofsky change key elements? Of course he did. Are there potentially disturbing or problematic elements in the message of the film as a result of some of the artistic license? I’d say so; but again, I’m pleased with a film that actually made me think, and revisit the text when I was bothered by something.
Actually, I’ll go into a little more detail about this last point after all. Because this touches on what I would consider to be potentially the strongest mark against the film, which is its depiction of how and when God speaks, and what his purposes and desires were in choosing Noah as his servant to carry out the task of building the ark. I actually only discovered this through a conversation with a friend of mine who loathed the film (in his exact words, “the most blasphemous load of garbage I have seen in a while”). We stumbled across a fundamental disagreement in our interpretations of the film when he said he could never get behind a film that tries to claim that God wanted to wipe out all of humanity and start from scratch using only nature and the animals. He saw the Noah of this film as a man who tried to faithfully carry out God’s instructions, but failed when he didn’t have the courage to kill his grandchildren.
I disagree, and in fact I think that God in the film “Noah” is much closer to the God of Genesis than critics would argue. The biggest artistic license that I think Arnofsky took was in exploring and inserting a lot more human error, doubt, and confusion into Noah than we get from a plain reading of the biblical text. I didn’t see Noah’s decision to wipe out his own family as part of God’s plan – I saw that as Noah deviating from the path God had set him on and breaking down emotionally as he began to twist God’s commandments through the lens of his own doubts and human experience. God communicates clearly with Noah twice in the time leading up to the construction of the ark: first in a dream when he shows him the flood and Methuselah’s mountain, and the second time in a vision after Methuselah drugs him with the tea. The first dream tells Noah what God is going to do; the vision tells Noah what his role is in God’s plan, that he and his family are to survive and rebuild the world after the flood.
It’s not until Noah begins to have doubts and deviate from that plan (build an ark, save the animals, save your family) that the notion of annihilating all of humanity, including his family, begins to take shape. When Ham demands that Noah go out and get him a wife, Noah’s exhortations are initially that God has so far provided all that they needed, and that’s enough. But he starts to doubt it as his natural human desire to provide for his own children starts to overcome his faith in God’s provision. He ventures out into the city to look for wives after all, and that’s when he really starts to break down. He sees himself in the wicked men of the world (in what I would interpret as his own thoughts, not a new vision from God – Noah is already following his own intuition at this point, rather than God’s commands), scavenging viciously for meat instead of following God; and isn’t that kind of what he’s doing? When he returns to the ark, his mind is already set in a new and twisted interpretation of God’s will.
It’s notable that when Noah cries out to God from the ark, begging for a sign that he’s doing the right thing and that he really needs to kill his grandchildren, the skies are silent. Just as silent as they were in response to Tubalcain demanding that God speak to him as he once spoke to his ancestors. Are we really so surprised that God is silent when all we do is demand that he validate our own choices?
In fact, when is the next time that God clearly communicates with Noah? It’s not until he passes on his birthright to his two granddaughters, ensuring that the human race will continue, and sealing the reversal of his decision when he couldn’t bring himself to kill them on the ark. At that exact moment, the skies explode into pulsing rainbows, and in a scene that to me seemed clear as day, God confirms that this was his plan all along.
If I had to criticize a particular aspect of Noah, I’d say that it’s not as clear as it could have been that God chose Noah for his righteousness in order to begin the process of carrying out his plan of the redemption of the human race. It’s a tricky point to make either way, because, as I’ve just outlined above, I saw that theme come through in this film and I was pleased with it. But not everyone saw it the same way, and while I disagree with their interpretations, I can see where they’re coming from. Again though, isn’t this the point of good cinema? A great film doesn’t leave everyone with the self-satisfied feeling that all their opinions have been validated and that there’s no disagreement on any important point. A great film provokes discussion, introspection, and deep thought. And I think Noah accomplished that, and in a way that’s possibly even more biblical than some of the critics would have us believe.
I’m going to wrap this post up now. If it’s felt a little rambling and a little unorganized, that’s because it is. And I think I’m okay with that. I was going to go back and edit, summarize, rewrite, etc, until I was satisfied with it, but then I realized that I was never going to be satisfied with it and if I didn’t just post it as soon as possible, I might never post it at all. And I’d rather post something that might be incomplete and not as solidly thought out than not post anything at all.
I hope you got something out of this. I hope that if you came into this with a negative view of the film, that I at least showed it to you in a slightly different light. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind about the film, but I do hope to give you something to think about. And if you came into this with a positive view of the film, then I hope I challenged you as well in some way. Like I said earlier, good cinema, like good literature (and even like the Bible, if I may be so bold) is not meant to just validate our thoughts and make us feel better about ourselves. It’s meant to push us out of our comfort zones and make us think.
PS: Since writing the bulk of this post, I’ve come across two articles that were both quite eye-opening to me. It would take too much time (and again run the risk of me never publishing) to try and go back and incorporate the things I learned into my own post, so I’m just going to leave it as a record of my own uninfluenced thoughts about the film. But, I will go ahead and post links to the two articles in question. The first is a post highly critical of the film on the basis of it essentially being Gnostic propaganda, among other things. The second is a post that validates and supports many of the points of the first one, while also rebutting several points and offering a different view of some of the same interpretive concepts.
Dr. Brian Mattson, “Sympathy for the Devil”
Peter Chattaway, “No, Noah is not Gnostic. (Say that ten times fast!)”