I should probably preface this essay by saying that Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite contemporary American filmmakers and that I am a born-again Christian. I will try to analyze Noah (2014) from a biblical standpoint and as a work of art. In the first section I’ll discuss how accurate and faithful Aronofsky is to the Bible text (Genesis chapters 6-9). Whereas in the second part I’ll share my opinions on the film divorced from any specific spiritual context (if that’s even possible).
First I’ll try to discuss questions like: How many liberties did Aronofsky take in his adaptation of Noah’s story? Which make sense? How faithful is the film to the Bible story? And does the film ultimately reflect the biblical message? In a second part I will talk about the film in artistic terms. How does the film work as a work of art? How does one explain Noah in the context of Aronofksy? Who is this film for and is it recommended to non-Christian moviegoers?
The fact that I am both a fan of the director and a believer of God’s word is where a lot of my conflict with Noah comes from. Even though it’s not going to be easy I will try to separate the two and discuss how I viewed the film as a Christian first and then how I view it as someone who loves film. In the conclusions I will try to weigh the two and decide what my final stance on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is and what people can take away from the Hollywood adaptation.
2. Aronofsky’s Noah vs. Bible Noah
I was lucky enough to see Noah with my father who happens to be a pastor, so after the film was over I was able to discuss its themes and message in depth with him. This chapter is basically a summary of all the points we discussed and some others that I thought of, but I would like to thank my dad for watching this film with me and giving me so many great inputs. My two brothers also noticed a lot of details and I thank them for their reflections.
2.1 Thematic and Narrative Similarities
– Noah’s ark. According to Genesis 6:15 The ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high with three decks. Unlike most drawings and children book illustrations and previous visual adaptations of Noah, this is one of the few that actually portrays the ark in a very realistic way. Just like in the Bible story it’s a giant parallelepiped rectangle made of wood and covered by tar to make it water proof.
The only difference: The ark was build over the course of 100 years, by Noah and his three adult sons. Also, nobody managed to climb aboard the ark from the outside. That means no holes were made and nobody ate any of the animals thereby extinguishing an entire species. I’m just saying.
– The guardians. The were called “watchers” in the film. Yes, I’m referring to the supernatural creatures that looked a lot like Michael Bay’s transformers and even died in the same way, beaming yellow light into the sky, because every blockbuster needs that nowadays apparently (looking at you Avengers). Anyway, these creatures are called “sons of God” in Genesis 6. Their physical appearance is not described, so Aronosky’s interpretation is both valid and artistic, although a bit too reminiscent of our autobot friends.
The only difference: Their origin story. In the film God curses theses creatures because they want to help mankind after the fall. In the Bible it’s because they were taking human women as their wives. Also, it’s not specified that they helped Noah build the ark, while also serving as his own private bodyguards.
– The flood. First of all: Good CGI rain is though to pull off. The fact that I was never once distracted by how the water looked in Noah should speak to the quality of the visual effects. Just like in the Bible water is not only falling from the sky, but also subterranean water bursting from underneath the surface of the earth. So not only are those powerful visuals, but they’re also biblically accurate.
The only difference: When it started raining Noah was already safe inside the ark with his family. He probably wasn’t in a hurry or trying to fight people like some kind of action star, because people thought he was loco, building a giant ark in the middle of nowhere.
– The dreams. Often times in the Bible it is described how God spoke to man through visions. While it isn’t specified in the story of Noah, it is still entirely possible that he communicated this way with Noah as well. The entire story is only three chapters in the Bible, so a lot of details were left out. The film portrayed the visions are beautifully. Again: Very strong imagery, which is elegantly and almost poetically edited.
The only difference: In the Bible it also seems pretty clear that God speaks directly to Noah and that he can hear his voice. Now, certainly having a God voice-over character is though to pull off and kind of cheesy, but Noah could have just told his family what God told him.
– God’s punishment. Mankind was evil. They did whatever they wanted not caring about the consequences. It is specified that they were violent and didn’t believe in God. The film does an excellent job of portraying that. It also shows how they treated God’s creation and creatures poorly and without any respect for life. It’s also refreshing to see a genuinely evil and rotten characters with no redeeming qualities like Tubal-chain (Ray Winstone).
The only difference: While the film focuses more on the the ecological aspect of mankind’s misbehavior, there was also a lot of sexual misconduct going on which displeased God. Likely to avoid an R rating or turning off a conservative Christian audience, that part was conveniently left out.
2.2 Major Plot Differences
– Noah. In the film Noah almost saves humanity by chance and for the longest time he believes he disappointed God and made a mistake. He is convinced that God wants to destroy man from the face of the earth and that only the animals should survive. He almost seems like a mad killer at some point. Also, Noah seemed to be more peaceful, meek and laid-back from the brief description in the Bible. It’s debatable that he was a vegetarian, but there’s no question about the fact that he killed animals to offer them in sacrifice to God.
What was still good: In previous adaptation, Noah’s character was trivialized and boiled down to a weirdo weakling who nobody could take seriously, because he was “too” good, but unrealistically so. In Aronofsky’s film Noah is smart and thoughtful. He is resourceful, determined and strong willed. A lot of it has also to do with Russell Crowe’s splendid performance. I liked the scene where he gets drunk, because it shows his interior conflict and his sensibility, but also his humanity.
– Sacrifices. The importance of the sacrifices was underestimated in this film adaptation. Sacrificing animals to God to thank him or ask for forgiveness served as a substitute until God would eventually sacrifice his Son, Jesus, as the ultimate absolution of our sins. After Noah survives the flood he offers animals in sacrifice to God as a sign of thankfulness, that he was spared. To this purpose God instructed him to have seven pairs of certain animals (the once to be scarified) on board, but also seven pairs for each kind of bird.
What was still good: The animals went to the ark autonomously. God called them through the water. Noah then puts them to sleep, which makes sense, because they were in the ark for one year and it would have been a messy and rather unnerving cruise trip if all the animals were awake during the flood to say the least.
– Methuselah. The world’s oldest man. He lived 969 years. In the film he seems almost some sort of magician, an alchemist who knows a lot about herbs and drugs and how to cure infertility. He was also sort of portrayed as a loony and served mostly as comedic relief. According to the Bible he was already dead by the time of the flood, but if he was still alive: Why would they let him die? He was a good person obviously. And the way the film shows his death, played for laughs, like he’s in some kind of water park or something.
What was still good: Noah’s grandfather played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins is a great actor, so at least you have that. Also, even if he’s reduced to being kind of silly and funny, the films otherwise incessantly serious tone benefits from a few lighter moments.
– Shem, Ham and Japhet. They all had wives. They were adults. Their wives were not descendants of Cain, but of Seth, so that makes Ila, Emma Watson’s character is automatically invalid, sorry. Also, if they were all married the whole Ham (Logan Lerman) looking for a wife subplot is nonsense. Of course he didn’t want to kill his father. Although at the end of the story, when Noah gets drunk he disrespects him, which results in Noah cursing his descendants.
What was still good: Families fight and even in the most “functional” ones there’s a lot of drama. 8 people on an ark for one year can get pretty claustrophobic and even if nobody hated Noah or wanted to kill him like in the movie, I’m pretty sure they quarreled and had discussions like every normal family ever.
– Tubal-chain on the Ark. Out of the invented and added sub-plots that is probably the one that upsets me most, personally. It’s completely made up and offers no payoff. Just to be clear: People didn’t believe the flood was coming, so it didn’t make sense that they would be there in the first place. Nobody infiltrated the ark. God himself sealed the entrance, so it makes no sense that he wouldn’t protect the other sides of the ark as well.
What was still good: Nothing. I’m sorry, but I can’t find any upside to that character other than the fact that he perfectly embodied evil and everything that’s wrong with humanity. He was bloodthirsty, vengeful, full of hate, deceitful, materialistic and “anti-God”. He epitomized the green snake, Satan, in the Garden of Eden.
2.3 Spiritual Differences
– God’s Silence. Yes, that’s a Bergman reference, but nobody does Bergman like Bergman, so don’t try to be Bergman. Throughout the film it felt as if God was absent. Noah was left alone. He had do decipher God’s cryptic visions. His grandfather, Methuselah, almost served as a God substitute or Yoda type of character if you’re not Christian. I’m all for free-will and that, but it felt like God was very distant. He was shown more like an external force or entity, which is inaccessible and far away.
In the Bible Noah had direct access to God, through prayer of course, but also because God spoke to him, like literally. Faith is all about having a personal relationship with God and when that goes missing what’s left? Not much. In the film Noah takes matters into his own hands and does what he thinks is right. It’s a very humanistic approach. It’s difficult to balance free-will and divine intervention, but Noah never really seems to try.
– In the beginning there was nothing. Wrong. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1. If you’re an atheist, yes there was nothing in the beginning, because there’s no God. But since we’re dealing with a Christian story and film here: In the beginning there was God. The rest of the creation is shown beautifully with this almost stop-motion-like montage. It’s hard to say if by nothing Darren means, there was no earth, no animals, not humans etc. But of course there had to be God, because He’s the beginning and the end.
– The serpent skin ritual. At no point in the Bible there’s a mention of a ritual involving serpent glowing serpent skin that makes your finger glow like you’re some kind of E.T. Not only was this ritual made up, but it also seemed almost pagan or as my dad put it: Borderline occult. It’s not a major problem, but again: Totally unnecessary.
– Bonus: All the fancy technology. I’m clearly no expert of 2700 B.C. fashion, but some of the clothes and work gear did look a little too elaborate. I mean did you see those awesome boots Noah was wearing in one scene? Pretty stylish, sure, but they looked a too ahead of their time. And what about that chimney on the ark? That’s some Young Hercules stuff right there. Not to mention Tubal-chain’s rocket launcher. Come on, that’s not serious. I’m sure they did their research, but why try to turn this into an action film at all costs?
3. Noah as a Film
There are three aspects I want to discuss in terms of how the film works as a film and as a story, regardless of its source material: Screenplay, aesthetic (cinematography, music, editing etc.) and acting. I’ll also weigh-in on how the film was marketed, which influenced how it was constructed. In this case I’ll try to uncover how Hollywood influenced the final product and how bad marketing influenced the box office. Last but not least: Where does Noah fit in in Darren Aronofsky’s oeuvre and his work as an auteur?
3.1 Artistic Merits
Noah is a very beautiful film, shot by Academy Award nominee Black Swan cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Once again Aronofsky experiments with different filming techniques using something something that resembles stop-motion, where he accelerates the picture to show the evolution of the earth and the passing of time. It’s very artfully done and you don’t see this type of editing in Hollywood blockbusters, certainly not if they cost $125 million. Aside from that there Aronofsky trademark shots, where his heroes are filmed from behind (see Black Swan and The Wrestler for comparison).
Aside from looking pretty, Noah has also a very powerful and intense score courtesy of Clint Mansell, who scored all the director’s films. The music of Noah creates the atmosphere, explains the character and really gets you into Noah’s head. You feel his internal struggle, you feel how conflicted he feels and it gets very creepy and almost scary in certain scenes. Surely it’s a score that would fit a horror film as well. Actually, the music is the only aspect of the film that I can’t find flaw in. It is perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Sadly, the film ends with a rather depressing song playing over the end credits.
The film’s biggest problem, aside from the costume design, is the screenplay with Darren Aronofsky co-wrote with Ari Handel. Handel’s previously credited work is only the story for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Noah‘s screenplay is rather messy and full of unnecessary and distracting subplots. A simpler and more straightforward story would have been welcome and allowed a shorter, more effective film. There are a lot of sub-plots with little to no pay-off. Sometimes a character will say or allude to something and in the next scene that exact thing will happen. All in all the film is just trying to pack too much into its already bloated runtime.
3.2 Marketing and Production
It’s questionable how much freedom Aronofsky was allowed on a project like this. Noah is his biggest film to date in terms of budget. Before that his most expensive film was the mid-sized The Fountain which cost $35 million ($90 million less than Noah). Since that one turned out to be a box office flop, it’s not unrealistic to think that Aronofsky may have had a bunch of producers breathing down his neck on this one. Clearly, with a budget like this, Noah was designed to please both believers and non-believers. Unfortunately, that’s not the smartest approach.
A smarter approach would have been striving for biblical accuracy like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which pleased most Christians and was a box office hit, despite its R rating. In alternative to that: Why not go all out and let Darren do whatever he wanted? Give him complete freedom, maybe a smaller budget and let him pursue his vision, which may have had even less to do with the Bible story, but at least would have been more interesting and honest. As it is Noah is a middle of the road film, which won’t please most Christians and will leave non-Christians lukewarm.
In fact in trying to appeal to everyone the film appeals to fewer people. My advice, as a marketing student: Always make sure you have your core audience first (the Christian public in this case), then sure you can market it as the next 2012 or Percy Jackson whatever. As it is though the target audience for Noah is rather unclear. The box office numbers aren’t exactly bad, but I doubt that Christians will support the film on home video once the word gets out of how little it has to do with the actual story.
3.3. Noah as the Work of an Auteur
I already mentioned how you can see some Darren Aronofsky signature shots and how he teams up with some of his favorite collaborators (his cinematographer, his composer, but also his editor Andrew Weisblum). There’s also Jennifer Connelly, very talented actress, I’m always happy to see her in movies, she was in Aronofsky’s second film Requiem for a Dream and played Noah’s wife Nameeh. And she’s anything but meh. I really liked her performance.
It’s interesting she seemed to have the idea that she was in a Biblical epic, like old-time Hollywood style, whereas Russell Crowe, saw the movie more as an action/adventure blockbuster. He’s more the hero type here. I loved him as Noah, but it’s like he’s in a completely different film. Emma Watson, as I mentioned, completely superfluous, does her usual thing, I don’t think she’s a very talented actress. Douglas Booth is miscast as pretty-boy Shem. Logan Lerman is a solid actor, but his character makes no sense, so it’s difficult to separate the two.
Overall, I like the acting-style and casting and approach Aronosfsky took. In terms of Darren’s previous work you can see recurring themes. All of his character seem tormented by something. There’s something they have to figure out. They circle around it endlessly. They become obsessed with it and never let go until it usually consumes them. In Noah you have probably the first unambiguous and happy ending for Aronofsky. The film is however in keeping with his style, because all the characters are flawed and slightly depressed.
Noah is a fascinating film from a cinematic standpoint, but fails as a biblical adaptation. Still, some of the biblical aspects are interesting and interpreted in a sensible way, which sheds a different light on the biblical text. I found myself contemplating different aspects of the story or even noticing new perspectives. I especially liked how Noah questions the fact that he’s better than anyone else. He realizes that he is deserving of God’s judgment as a sinner, but God has mercy on him, because he feared Him and didn’t conform to the worldly lifestyle of the time.
The film is great if you are a Darren Aronofsky fan. I really liked it. If you are a Christian, I would highly recommend watching it and compare it to the Bible story. How are the two different? There’s much more than just plot differences. Those are the minor problems, although they can be quite bothersome (because they don’t make sense from a purely storytelling perspective). But it’s too shallow and surface level to stop at narrative differences. The film has a completely different view of spirituality and the characters. In the Bible God is the protagonist of the story and Noah is just a “tool”.
Aronosfky’s humanistic (and ecologist) interpretation of Noah is valid, but it has little to do with the original story. All in all I liked being challenged by a different point of view. I’m saddened that they felt the Bible story wasn’t interesting enough that they had to add drama and bogus story lines. Maybe one day we’ll get a low-budget indie version of Noah that gets it “right”. To me Genesis chapters 6-9 is deep and entertaining enough, I don’t need any fight sequences or added moral quandaries. As this essay proves though, the film is fun to watch and discuss regardless of what you believe in.
Post Scriptum: In editing this essay and reading more about the film I noticed even more differences between Bible Noah and Aronofsky’s Noah. Luckily, Gene of Let There Be Movies covers basically all the ones I missed in his wonderful review. So you can check that out, if this wasn’t already too long for you.