One of the images that lingers from Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that of a huge rock protruding from the sea, with hundreds of screaming people climbing desperately to its top, being swept off like toys by mighty waves. In the background we see the massive wooden ark, peaceful and secure amidst the deadly raging sea. Inside, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family are safe, but they can hear the screams of the dying outside.
Among other things, this horrific scene underscores the darkness of the Noah story. Though many children reared in Sunday School remember Noah’s ark through a cheerfully colourful flannelgraph lens, the tale is actually quite sobering. Aronfosky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) — not exactly a flannelgraph sort of filmmaker — does the story justice by confronting its disturbing darkness head-on…
Does Noah take liberties with the biblical account? Does it embellish and expand upon what’s there in the text? Yes and yes. And it must. The Noah account in the Bible covers four chapters in Genesis for a grand total of about 2,500 words. Everything that happened is surely not recorded. Furthermore, the film’s setting — a mere ten generations removed from Eden — is so unknown to history and so charged with mystery and the miraculous; it’s difficult to tell any sort of story in this context without lots of educated guesses as to what it was like.
Noah’s filmmakers must fill in the gaps to fill out a coherent cinematic story, speculating as to things we don’t know about. What was the mindset of Noah (who, apart from Gen. 9:25-27, never actually speaks in the biblical narrative) during this crazy episode in his life? What did his family think? What were the interactions between Noah and the wicked population doomed for destruction? Did Noah have a relationship with his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins)? The film explores all of this in the spirit of midrashic interpretation, and takes the story far beyond the source material. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but (as far as I can tell) none of it directly contradicts anything in the biblical account. Most importantly I believe the film — which ends up being an epic somewhere between Tolkien’s The Two Towers and Shakespeare’s Hamlet — retains the theological themes of the Noah story, powerfully bringing to life a “second Eden” tale that highlights both the justice and mercy of the Creator, a God of grace and second chances.
Also, read this piece I wrote for TGC on the question of what Christians should think about biblical movies made by secular filmmakers.
If you’ve seen Noah, what were your thoughts?