Noah’s Arc

In an interview, Darren Aronofsky, director of the just-released Noahargues that the biblical story of Noah actually is more powerful when “you get away from the arguments about history and accuracy and literalism” and grasp its underlying message:

[W]hen you think about Icarus, you don’t talk about the feathers and the wax and how the wax attached to his body and how is that physically possible that he could fly with feathers on his arms. No. You’re talking about how he flew too high and was filled with hubris and it destroyed him. That’s the message and that’s the power. That’s power to have that idea.

But when you’re talking about a pre-diluvian world—a pre-flood world—where people are living for millennia and centuries, where there were no rainbows, where giants and angels walked on the planet, where the world was created in seven days, where people were naked and had no shame, you’re talking about a universe that is very, very different from what we understand. And to portray that as realistic is impossible. You have to enter the fantastical. The Leviathan in the sea. It’s a different understanding of the world, and that’s OK. That’s not dangerous.

What happens is that you get nonbelievers, then, saying “That’s impossible, because all the species of the world would never all fit on the ark.” But that’s the exact wrong argument, you know? And then you have other people saying, “Yeah, it’s possible by the grace and majesty of God.” If you look at it as poetry and myth and legend, then you can actually use it to understand your world and who you are.

Even so, after his own conversation with Aronofsky, Jonathan Merritt notes “the amount of biblical and historical research his team conducted for this movie nearly knocked me off my chair,” and hopes evangelical Christians will give it a chance:

“Noah” was never intended to be a heavy-handed evangelistic tool, but rather good art. And I’m sorry to say that few evangelicals today have an eye, ear, or stomach for such things. Not much has changed since the late Francis Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible, “I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.”

In order to engage with “Noah,” Christians must recognize that artistic liberties are inevitable whenever a story is transferred from one medium to another. What Aronofsky has done is similar to Rembrandt inserting himself into “The Raising of the Cross.” The Bible obviously doesn’t mention Rembrandt lifting the cross with the executioners more than a millennium earlier, but the artist was making a deeper point. Christians traveling to Munich could boycott the Alte Pinakothek museum where the painting is on display, but they would miss an opportunity for theological reflection.

Like other artistic endeavors drawing on biblical themes, “Noah” requires that audiences actually think about symbols and forms. Aronofsky adds elements to Noah’s story, for example, that reflect the grief God must have felt over having to destroy creation. The movie doesn’t get every detail right, but it captures the spirit of the scriptural narrative and the character of God displayed therein.

E. Stephen Burnett nods:

Noah could be a terrible adaptation of any number of elements: the person and story of God, the person and story of Noah, and the side characters and story-world of the Flood. I can likely live with filmmakers messing up those last two. Others would disagree. But I would suggest that all Christians enjoy the potential right to see or even appreciate a bad biblical fantasy film.

We can do this without adapting the few that some marketers and biblical-fidelity critics imply: that if a film is not “useful” for evangelism, then it’s not useful at all.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford defends Noah as more biblical than some will admit, claiming that “none of the film’s inventions are explicitly disallowed by Genesis or other biblical texts”:

If you’re going to make a movie of a Bible story, you’re going to need to fill in some major gaps. Genesis mentions Noah’s kids, but not his wife. How did that happen? We know that God had to flood the earth to punish humanity’s wickedness,but the mass graves are invisible. After Noah saves the world, the next thing he does is get drunk and naked, and curse his sons. What’s that about? The more interesting question is not “Did he add stuff?” but “What did he add, and why?” Impressively, Aronofsky’s interpretation manages to stay “true” both to the messiness of the Old Testament and to his own directorial sensibilities. …

In the story of Noah, Aronofsky has found the quintessential thought experiment: If God asked you to save the world, but lose your soul, would you do it? What kind of person is able to save the animal kingdom and his own family, but leave the rest of humanity to drown? The deal this time is with God, but that doesn’t mean Noah suffers less pain. When he sees that even his own sons are impure, which means that all humans contain both good and evil, which means that his agreement to leave thousands of people behind amounts to mass murder; the realization hits him like a stone to the gut.

But he knows he has to proceed with the Ark; this is the Old Testament after all, where God, is less concerned with redemption than with loyalty and obedience. So Noah makes a decision that turns him into the villain for a good bit of the film. There’s a moment with a knife and a baby that I won’t say any more about. Still, what makes Aronofsky’s moviemaking compelling is his unwillingness to judge the tortured souls that populate his films.

Andrew Romano comes to similar conclusions:

Most of the early press about Noah has focused on its fidelity to the Bible (or lack thereof). Having seen the finished product, I doubt that anyone but the most fanatical fundamentalists will object. Sure, the characters call their deity “The Creator” rather than “God.” And yes, not all of those characters appeared in Genesis. But go back and reread the Noah story sometime. It’s basically an outline—Noah is righteous; God tells Noah to build a boat; it rains; and so on. There’s no conflict, no villain, no characters, and very little dialogue.

A totally faithful movie wouldn’t have been a movie at all. It would have been an elementary-school film strip. To adapt Noah for the big screen—Aronofsky’s dream for more than a decade, apparently—the director had two choices: either invent or extrapolate. He chose the latter. And so almost everything in Noah, as nutty as it might seem, has its roots in the actual text of the Bible.

Recent Dish on Hollywood and religion here.